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Column: Censorship, Udta Punjab and the $*&@#@ state of Indian cinema

udta1.jpgThe masterful Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi once used a fine analogy to describe the shapeshifting state of censorship in his country. “The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather: one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”

In India, things are considerably worse. We cannot remember the last genuinely sunny day, and all filmmakers are handed umbrellas with holes in them.

This week, for example, appears less overcast. The fascistic Pahlaj Nihalani, much-lampooned head of India’s archaic Central Board of Film Certification — a department straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil — has been rightly humiliated and shamed by the Bombay High Court who have struck down nearly a hundred cuts (in 13 separate categories) the CBFC sought for this Friday’s release, Udta Punjab. The film will hit theatres on time and, thanks to the CBFC’s infantile attempts to strangle its release, will be seen by far more people than anyone could have imagined. Bravo.

However, the High Court itself, while proclaiming that the CBFC is indeed a body for certification and that their job does not include censorship, has upheld one of the CBFC’s cuts. Now, for Indian filmmakers used to the arbitrary whims and inconsistencies of Indian censorship — where entire movies and documentaries are routinely denied certification, and where directors are often dismissively told to reduce scenes of action and intimacy “by 40%” — one cut doesn’t seem like a big deal. The film’s producers have, understandably, taken the diktat about this one excised scene rather gracefully, and surely couldn’t be arsed to fight any more.

(Plus, there is only that much genuine fraternity within the so-called film fraternity, and while it was super to see Karan Johar writing rousing columns and the industry rallying around producers Anurag Kashyap and Ekta Kapoor in unprecedented fashion, nobody expected an actual impasse or other producers to go on strike around the Udta Punjab issue. The show must… and all that jazz, no matter how truncated the show itself gets.)

Yet a big deal that cut is. It shows that — much as we’d like it to — all hasn’t changed. In our country, the revolution must be polite and careful not to offend.

Over the last two years, the current government has placed many a peculiar person in charge of our cinema. The massively unqualified and stubborn Gajendra Chauhan presides over the Film and Television Institute of India, following an appointment that led to a 139-day strike. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister for State for Information and Broadcasting, impressively won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, but his only connection with cinema is the tenuous semantic one that points out that they both involve shooting. And then there is Mr Nihalani, described colourfully by Anurag Kashyap as a North Korean dictator but, in reality, a brown-nosing egomaniac who fails to notice the irony in making tacky videos about erections back in the day and making tacky videos about elections today.

Yet there is hope. The legendary Shyam Benegal, now 81 and passionate and eminently beyond reproach, was recently given the task to spearhead a committee to look into CBFC reform. He came away with the strident recommendation — one most level-headed people in cinema and, indeed, within the CBFC have been demanding for ages — that the board should merely classify cinema and not, in any circumstances, be allowed to hack away at the filmmaker’s work. Since films with a U rating have bigger chances at the box office and command a fairer price on television, this would certainly lead to some self-censorship but that happens all over the world and is the filmmaker’s internal debate. At least there will be no scissors attacking our films.

Or so we can dream, since Minister for Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley has promised radical upheaval in the CBFC based on Mr Benegal’s recommendations. Fingers remain tightly crossed.

However, Mr Benegal has since said, rather controversially, that there should be an ‘Adult (With Caution)’ category introduced for films that should not be given a wide-release — based on excessively adult content — and should instead be shown in red-light areas and non-residential areas. Congenial as the image is of the characters in Mr Benegal’s own Mandi queueing up to watch the next Human Centipede, this is another tricky boundary. What is excessively adult? Who defines it? And who should be given the power to choose, more than the ticket-buyer?

Despite the High Court ruling (mostly) in favour of Udta Punjab,  the issues around censorship in India remain incredibly thorny. Will filmmakers like Kamal Swaroop be able to take the CBFC to court for documentaries like The Battle For Benares? Will Indian television be able to say ‘breast cancer’ without, absurdly enough, cutting out the breast? Will the rules indeed change now? And if they do, will filmmakers whose films have been savaged beyond recognition by censors in the past apply for fresh certificates in order to bring their original vision to the viewers? Should we all finally dare to watch Dev Anand’s Censor and see how much he got right?

For now, despite the fact that we shouldn’t discard raincoats just yet, let us look to the future. Udta Punjab will be out this Friday. Director Abhishek Chaubey must be relieved, and in case that one cut is bugging him a lot — which it will, and should — he would do well to acknowledge that pretty much everyone now knows that Shahid Kapoor’s Tommy pees on the audience — the knowledge of that shot, even to those who haven’t watched the film yet, might well prove more impactful than the shot itself.

For those up in arms about vulgarity, do remember that there can be no sight as obscene as you not being allowed to see, and never forget what Frank Zappa said: “There is no such thing as a dirty word.”


First published Rediff, June 15, 2016

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Review: Vivek Agnihotri’s Buddha In A Traffic Jam

Dear Indian Right Wingers,

You have my sincerest condolences. Propaganda films can be dangerous, influential, misleading — and that is what they intend to be. The one true requirement of a propaganda film is that it be effective. Emphatic instruments of (mis)information and awareness, instruments geared to trigger a change in mindset, to squelch a way of thinking and to encourage another. It is frequently unsubtle filmmaking that belabours its point, but its work can also be subversive and sly and admittedly clever.

Buddha In A Traffic Jam is none of those things. Which is why my heart bleeds for the Indian Right-Wingers misled into believing this is the film they need to put their weight behind. Throughout history we have had propaganda films that, while putting forward lethal ideology, have also been cinematic milestones. However, where the Nazis had DW Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl, you guys have Vivek Agnihotri. It’s enough to put the ‘git’ in ‘agitprop.’

buddha2Not that Agnihotri thinks of himself as any less exalted, of course, of course. A director who has experimented catastrophically with different genres every single time — poorly plagiarised thriller (Chocolate), sports film (Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal), erotic thriller (Hate Story) — he kicks off this politically posturing film with foolhardy loftiness. The film opens in 2000 BC, with a tribal villager chopping wood, before it cuts to 2014, with the villager still hacking away at it. This is Bastar as Agnihotri sees it, unchanged even as the director, with appalling audacity, bastardises Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opening from 2001: A Space Odyssey. No, really.

The stolen ambition pours into the scene immediately after, as an outsider comes to the tribals and asks for a glass of their famed milk, which he drinks before, well, doing violent things. The Agnihotri Odyssey has artlessly veered into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film it steals from again a couple of minutes later when a girl — whose casting call must have said ‘must look drunk at all times’ — plunges her cigarette rather brutally into her boyfriend’s pastry before launching into a loony song proclaiming herself “a born again b**ch.”

Oh, what pandemonium this is. Set around the story of a business school student being led astray by his red-saluting professor, the film’s mechanics and motivations are laughable. The cast doesn’t help. Arunoday Singh, God’s gift to actors with self-esteem issues, is the curiously accented student. The professor, meanwhile, is played by Anupam Kher, a man it is now admittedly hard to look at without immediately picturing that blonde Patanjali meme, the actor pitching his performance wildly differently from scene to scene.


Arunoday’s character, Vikram Pandit, is a guy who decries Facebook for its pointlessness before, a scene later, embarking on a giant Facebook campaign. He’s a clueless youth who immediately nods along with anyone who has a point of view. Bizarrely, he seems to be rather aroused by information, at one point inexplicably shown to be touching himself, one hand down the front of his boxers, while reading left-wing material written by his professor. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up. Later in the film, in case you missed the earlier scene, he pictures said professor while making love to some girl. Orgasming to his master’s voice may not be the traditional way to show commitment, but Vikram — who smokes almost as much as he speaks — is all about being a contrarian.

The problem is that we are supposed to like Vikram and his gang, which include the drunk girl, and yet Agnihotri, in his quest to make them cool and hip, makes them utterly obnoxious and loathsome. Yet in a film this feeble, this kind of criticism feels, ironically enough, like nitpicking. I could dedicate this review to the politics of Buddha In A Traffic Jam but that would be doing it too much credit; here there isn’t competence enough for this film to be discussed as a genuine statement of political cinema. This is a senseless product made with bewildering ineptitude, a film that thinks it deserves a soapbox while being utterly hollow. Even Jayant Kripalani, who appears in half a scene, stifles a yawn.

Buddha may well turn out to be a cult film, though not for reasons Agnihotri will like. Few films are this unaware of their own goofiness, and a lot of the absurdity is impossible to sit through with a straight face: the way Pallavi Joshi launches into the history of pottery when asked about her charitable organisation. The way Mahie Gill breaks into a shouty lecture in a library and hurls around the F-word as if wielding a machine-gun. The way Arunoday starts squeaking about Naxals as some alien race who have infiltrated humans and live among us. The way Kher is first reluctant, but then immediately eager, to sing along to an Elvis song.

The plot is preposterous, and by the end of the film, all us critics were laughing in exhausted disbelief. Is this a real movie? Did someone fund this? Is this actually releasing in theatres? In the name of Comrade Jesus, how about a solitary drop of sanity?

Most importantly, who in the world is Anupam Kher’s unseen Papa, constantly calling him on the phone and asking him to turn on the radio?

(Perhaps, given another propaganda ‘movie’ not too long ago, his Papa is MSG. Now that’s a twist I could live with.)

Rating: No stars


First published Rediff, May 13, 2016


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Bobby’s Jindals: The family back in Malerkotla

As Bobby Jindal announces his bid for the US Presidential elections, here’s a story from back in 2007 about how his village in Punjab felt about their oddest export.


If a town is judged on its stomach, then meat-loving gourmands would have a blast in the tiny hamlet of Malerkotla in North Punjab. The town, one of the only Punjab areas with a Muslim majority – and, historically, one of the only Punjab areas to steer completely clear of communal disharmony during the 1947 partition —  has dhabas scattered tantalizingly all over the landscape, pure vegetarian dal-roti joints rubbing shoulders with hardcore bakra-ya-murgi eateries, which surprisingly happen to be significantly cheaper. Red meat is all well and good, but where is the Governor’s family?

Bobby Jindal, the newly elected Republican to take over gubernatorial duties in Louisiana this January, hails from Malerkotla, and in search of his extended family – none of whom have yet migrated to the US – one hits the small town hoping a mere mention of the name Jindal would be enough. It isn’t. Several eyebrows are raised, the role of a governor in the US is explained, and even grocery stores sharing the last name don’t have a clue.

Thankfully, it is one of the aforementioned dhabas that helps out. A friendly Sikh gentleman picking up tandoori rotis to go scratches his immaculately trimmed beard, whips out a cellphone. He listens to his blessed informant for a couple of seconds, then pauses and asks me, “This is the same guy who’s become a Chief Minister in America, right?” Indeed, and thus the difference in the two nations’ political hierarchy is summarized with extreme, instant clarity. In Punjabi spoken far too fast for the casual grabber-of-gist to understand, directions are given to Subhash Medicals, a chemist’s store owned by Bobby’s cousin.

Rajinder Kumar, 26, sits behind the counter and smiles knowingly at ‘yet another journalist.’ Bobby’s father Amar Jindal is Rajinder’s father’s uncle, “making Bobby my chacha,” he grins, bringing out a stack of newspaper clippings about Bobby and the local extended family. “We knew he’d win a month ago,” he says about Bobby’s governorship, before raving about the convoys of cameras and television vans swooping onto the sleepy town. “And all the politicians and the top Police chiefs, the MPs and MLAs, everyone came to say congratulations.”

Rajinder’s father – and Bobby’s cousin – Subhash Jindal is a genial man, with quite an intimate knowledge of the differences in the voting systems and counting processes between the US and India. “We knew it a while back, and spent the last two days before the results were announced in a great state of anxiety. We had to plan a double celebration, you see, Dussehra along with this great news about our Bobby.” Subhash, who takes great pride in showing visiting cards from journalists as far flung as Associated Press-men from China, is rather close to Bobby’s father, Amar Jindal and says he can’t wait for him to visit Malerkotla.

On the outskirts of Malerkotla, en route to a town named Khanna — yes, this indeed is the single point of origin for the common last name, its citizens boasting that family ties for every Khanna in the world can be traced back to this Punjab settlement – is a grain cellar owned by Narinder Jindal, Subhash’s brother. Narinder, 42, speaks in strict Punjabi and, asked to record a congratulatory video message for his cousin on Rediff, gets most self-conscious. A pair of proud, gushing friends, never missing an opportunity to complete Narinder’s sentences, now hold forth and dictate him an appropriate congratulatory paragraph. “It’s important to get things right,” Narinder explains after before diligently reciting heartfelt yet twice-rehearsed felicitations for the camera, “Bobby’s in politics now and something I say might be taken in the wrong sense. I don’t want to make trouble for him.”

And what of young Piyush Jindal’s heading to Catholicism, of his watching The Brady Bunch on TV and rechristening himself Bobby? “It’s a different atmosphere out there, and he must have felt the need to adjust,” feels Rajinder. Narinder smiles and asks what difference it makes these days, mentioning the fact that his name is still officially Piyush, “which means he is still a Hindu at heart.” It isn’t the kind of sentiment the Republican might endorse himself, but Subhash has the most pragmatic view: ‘Sonia Gandhi also calls herself a Hindu when it comes to vote-collecting, so Piyush has become Bobby because it will help people in a foreign country accept him.”

There is no resentment towards Jindal and his conversion from his traditional elders, they say, but that could be due to their life in the super-secular Malerkotla, a community largely believed to be founded by mystic and seer Baba Sadruddin over 400 years ago. The Sufi leader, also known as Baba Haidar Shaikh, has a shrine in the town and residents living alongside it gush gladly about the complete lack of communal disharmony in the area, where Urdu and Punjabi are taught side by side in local schools.

bobby1Right now, the tranquil Malerkotla is planning a formal celebratory bash for Bobby on the 2nd of November, one where politicians and prominent citizens will honour the Governor, father Amar Jindal emailing in a list of invitees he’d like to see there. “It’s all great right now,” explains Subhash, “but the real madness will begin when Bobby actually comes to Malerkotla. The city will go crazy.”

“Bobby’s had a tremendous rise to the top,” details Subhash. “He became a Senator, and then became Secretary for Health. And at this young age, he’s already a Governor. It’s a very big deal, and while he has already made us all very proud, all we can hope from this ambitious boy is that he continue at this rate and eventually be President.”

The Jindal Family

While settled in Malerkotla for a considerable while now, the Jindal clan actually hails from Khanpur, a small village eight kilometers away. Shamlal, Amar, Bachanlal and Dharampal JiIndal were all sons of a provision store owner who came to the city, driven by ambition. While Malerkotla might not seem a big city to most – the town’s biggest landmark is the nondescript bus station – it was enough to allow these village boys more room to grow. “They used to all live in one very big house, the whole family,” informs Rajinder, who has obviously grown up on the stories. And while eldest brother Shamlal – father to Subhash and Narinder – continued in the provisions business, going on to enter the grain market and start rice cellars, and Bachanlal and Dharampal started up chemist stores, Amar had other plans.

“He did his Matriculation Examinations from the biggest school in Malerkotla,” says Rajinder proudly, adding that Amar topped the examinations, with his record results still remaining unbeated in the city. “He then went to the Guru Nanak Dev College in Ludhiana, and here also he topped college.” It was around then that Amar met bride-to-be Raj, a Vice Chancellor in Chandigarh University. The two got married in 1970, and migrated to the US in 1971, a few months before Bobby’s birth.

Curiously, none of the remaining family chose to follow their cousin to foreign shores. “Well, we have talked about it,” Rajinder admits, “but nothing has happened yet.” Subhash mentions the time difference, and the fact that uncle Amar is very busy, saying, “We all thought about it, but he would call from the US rarely, and keep telling us that life in America is too rushed and he doesn’t have time to settle properly. We thought about it, not for ourselves but for our children, but never got around to doing anything about it.” Narinder, who has never spoken to Bobby on the phone because the latter can’t speak Hindi or Punjabi, smiles and says there is work to be done here, and one would rather take care of the home, family and businesses here instead of venturing out.

There is, however, a new generation possibly more inspired by Jindal. Narinder’s garrulous buddies –– convinced that the Governor of Lousiana will help immigrants get into America more easily — urge him to talk about his aunt’s son Navratan, a life insurance agent who actually went to the US briefly, for a conference. Then there are mentions of Narinder’s brother Krishanlal, who has the brightest kids. “His daughter has done an MSc, and his son is doing an MBA. These are intelligent kids, they want to do more than we have done,” smiles Narinder. “They might follow Bobby.”


First published IndiaAbroad, October 2007

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