Udta Punjab: the dilemma of a film reviewer

It’s a film that a lot of us want to love, given how the CBFC has tried to yank its chains. But should you be kinder to a film because it was harder to get it released? Or should you just see a film for what is on screen? I ponder on this here

For those too lazy to click, read on. (But come on, you can click, right? If not for the article, then for a photo of Shahid Kapoor as Tommy Singh?)

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Yesterday evening, there was a press show organised by the publicity team of Udta Punjab. Usually, this is an unremarkable occurrence, but this pretence that Udta Punjab was like any other film about to be released was the final act of resistance by its director and producers. It isn’t. This is a film that has been victimised by the Central Board of Film Certification to the extent that Bombay High Court rapped the CBFC’s knuckles for demanding unreasonable cuts.

Days after that judgment, a print of the film mysteriously appeared on torrent sites. It had the words “For Censor” on the left hand corner and a ticking time stamp at the centre of the frame. Rumours started floating that “someone” in the CBFC had leaked it out of spite. (On yesterday’s super prime time on Times Now, filmmaker Ashoke Pandit made it amply clear that the film could not have been leaked from anyone other than the CBFC.) If that’s true, then the CBFC really doesn’t care much about the tender sensibilities of Indian audiences because the version that’s floating online is without the cuts that the CBFC had prescribed. Also, if the CBFC really is behind this move, then Pahlaj Nihalani evidently knows more about illegal downloading than he does about the films he censors and certifies without seeing.

It’s a shame he didn’t discuss this classy move with the Department of Telecom — perhaps then the DoT would have instructed internet service providers to unblock access to torrent sites.

However, even for the technologically challenged, the DoT barricades are barely an obstruction. And so, by Thursday night, a day before the official press show, a significant number of people had seen Udta Punjab for free online. Not just that, they’d seen the version that director Abhishek Chaubey had intended for the audience — with all abusive language in place and Tommy Singh peeing on a crowd. They know that Udta Punjab is a fun, gory and dissatisfying film that is far from being Chaubey’s best work. It doesn’t offer much beyond the obvious, in terms of insight into Punjab’s drug problem. Those who have seen it also know that the script lacks the cleverness that characterised Chaubey’s previous films. They know Kareena Kapoor is the film’s bimbo, successfully flattening a good role to seem like an extension of a cosmetics commercial. They’ve seen Alia Bhatt prove yet again what a magnificent talent she is with her portrayal of a nameless migrant worker. Shanatics have had their chance to ogle at Shahid Kapoor’s bare torso as he worked hard and struggled at delivering a credible performance as the unpredictable Tommy Singh. However, if there is a moment when their hormones don’t swamp their judgement, they’ll have to accept Bhatt and Diljit Dosanjh are the real stars of Udta Punjab.

With the leaked version freely available, the press show organised on Thursday was irrelevant. Only those feeling particularly loyal to Chaubey and Kashyap (while turning a blind eye to the films and television shows they have queued up in their downloads) or with terrible internet connections would have not seen the film. And yet Udta Punjab had a press show. More than a publicity effort, it was a plea. It was a reminder to the press of how difficult it is to release a film that isn’t formulaic, and how badly the film needs the support of the press.

This places the average film reviewer in a quandary. They’re not just watching and writing about any old film in case of Udta Punjab. They’re commenting upon censorship in Indian cinema.

Most of us forget that censorship isn’t limited to the CBFC. For Indian cinema, it’s a tortuous process that begins from the moment a script is brought out to find producers and stars who will act in it. At every stage, the film will have to be modified because if it has any element of provocation or reality in it, everyone gets cold feet. Anything that’s unformulaic scares the commercial film industry. As a result producers, script consultants and general know-it-all advisors who listen to a ‘narration’ — because god forbid these people actually read the script themselves — shake their heads at the parts that seem adventurous and say “audience won’t accept”. Sometimes, they’ll attempt logic by pointing to other films based on real incidents, most of which haven’t “worked” at the box office and need more “mass” or “commercial” elements.

And so, scene by scene, detail by detail, song by song, the script changes. Then, in the process of being shot, the story changes again. A star refuses to say a line, a scene can’t be shot because of technical problems, local political party workers disrupt a shoot and it’s too expensive to redo the scene, the weather isn’t cooperating — the problems that a film crew face range from banal to bizarre.

The net result, though, is that the story of the film changes, yet again.

Consequently, by the time a film reaches the CBFC, it’s already been censored by the producer, whose priority is usually just to make sure the film releases and is box office-friendly, and circumstances. Despite the game face that directors put on while being asked about their films, very rarely is it the film they wanted to make, especially when it’s about a topic as complex as Udta Punjab.

So what is the responsibility of a reviewer? Do you applaud the decision to make a film that’s bold, that has its ear to the ground and challenges the hackneyed rubbish that Bollywood usually feeds us? Or do you just see the film as a film, ignoring the herculean effort that’s gone into bringing it to life?

 

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