Bollywood fighting 'irrational' censorship in India

Udta Punjab is currently the eighth highest-grossing Bollywood film of the year.

But a month ago, the makers of the film worried if it would ever release, due to censorship issues. BBC Asian Network's Haroon Rashid speaks to Bollywood actors and writers about creative freedom and censorship in India.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had asked the Udta Punjab filmmakers to make 94 cuts, including removal of expletives, references to cities in Punjab and any shots of drugs being consumed, ironically in a film about drug abuse.

But Anurag Kashyup and other producers decided to challenge the CBFC's order in a Mumbai court, which eventually allowed the film's release with just one cut - a shot of lead actor Shahid Kapoor's character urinating in a crowd.

"I must confess that I was aware that it was not going to be easy to get [the film] out there. But I didn't anticipate the amount of conflict we would have to go through," Kapoor told the BBC.

But he added that "the controversy helped the film" because many Indians used social media outlets to show their support for creative freedom in India.

"The film got leaked two days before it was set for release but we still had people going into the theatres, which is amazing," he said.

The dispute has even gripped university professors in India.

Some business schools are now using Udta Punjab as an example of how a public row can help drive interest in a film and raise awareness about a social issue.

But will one film's victory be enough to prevent heavy-handed censorship in the future? Actress Alia Bhatt said more steps were needed to ensure complete creative freedom.

She added that the "interpretation of the 1952 cinematography law" creates problems because "it's a bit vague and can be interpreted in any way".

She argued that the law has to be changed.

'Erratic censorship'

Many have concerns even about the single cut ordered by the Bombay high court.

Bhatt, who is one of the most promising actresses in the latest generation of Bollywood stars, wants to see censorship disappear completely.

"As an adult, you're allowed to vote, you're allowed to drink, you're allowed to get married, then how can you not be allowed to view cuss words, or abusive words, or a kissing scene, or bloodshed or any of that on screen?" she asked.

Javed Akhtar, co-writer of cult films like Sholay, said we shouldn't view Udta Punjab "as a one off case".

"Censorship in India has always been quite erratic and quite irrational and ad hoc," he said.

Last year, the CBFC asked the producers of Hindi thriller NH10 to shorten the duration of a violent scene that showed honour killing, had the word "lesbian" muted in romantic comedy Dum Laga Ke Haisha and banned erotic romance Fifty Shades of Grey despite the producers offering to make cuts.

The board also shortened the duration of two kissing scenes in Daniel Craig's Spectre before giving it an adult certification.

Akhtar argued that the board needs better people to avoid these incidents.

"People who are from the arts, people who are from the theatre, people who are familiar with literature and drama should be on the panel," he said.

Internet freedom

Udta Punjab's successful court battle has encouraged others to fight for their creative freedom.

Actor and producer Anil Kapoor has bought the rights to adapt American TV sitcom Modern Family for India. Some consider it a risky move because a gay couple play a central part in the series and homosexuality is currently illegal in the country.

Anil Kapoor told the BBC that he was not going to compromise the characters.

"Things are changing. I'm under no pressure, I'm going to have the track as it is," he said.

The actor added that he had faith in India's legal system.

"Today, we have the biggest advantage of social media and the public opinion is the most important thing anywhere in the world. So I'm ready to fight if there's anything like [censorship]," he said.

Anil Kapoor's confidence comes partly from the growth of the internet and streaming services like Netflix in South Asia.

"We have the digital format platform now, so there is a possibility that I might make it [the series] for the digital platform," he said.

But "moral policing" has been noticeable online in India too. In February 2015, viral stand-up comedy group AIB took down a "comedy roast show" from YouTube, featuring Bollywood stars, after complaints of vulgar language.

Nonetheless, there have been fewer cases compared with films. Instead, several top Bollywood stars, including Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan and Bhatt, have been involved in creating original content for the internet which has been received positively.

But is going online the best way of tackling the CBFC or is it just avoiding the issue all together?

With Bollywood film makers becoming braver and bolder with their subject matter, the battle between certification and censorship is not going away anytime soon.

(Shahid Kapoor (left), Alia Bhatt (centre) and Kareena Kapoor Khan acted in Udta Punjab – picture source: BBC)