The IIM-A graduate-turned-scriptwriter of Udta Punjab talks about the landmark battle that brought Bollywood together against the Censor Board cuts demanded in the film and the chant for a new law on certification. Condemning the online leak of Udta Punjab, Sharma tells SANGEETA YADAV about his research on the drug menace in Punjab before scripting the dark subject
- Survived the battle between Udta Punjab and the CBFC over the cuts?
It’s been a loss of innocence and an eye-opener for me. This is the second time I’m facing a censor issue, first was with NH10 which was the first films that faced censorship under the new chairman, Pahlaj Nihalani, though not on the same scale. Both the films were written three-and-a-half years back with honesty which should have been appreciated instead of being censored. It’s not a good feeling and has left me bitter. A filmmaker’s struggle is all about pondering on whether your character works, whether the story is good and whether the film has shaped up the way you wanted. But now it has become more procedural and bureaucratic and there is a senseless approach to cinema. This film has been a terrible battle which no filmmaker would like to fight. I hope this battle, which is not only about us but other filmmakers too, can bring a change in the ways of the CBFC.
- Are you satisfied with the court’s decision?
As a writer, every cut hurts because if it wasn’t important, why would we write it? But the ruling has been a booster and has restored some faith in me. I didn’t even know if I could be doing the kind of work that I really want to do if this ruling had not come.
- Just three days before the release, it got leaked…
It is the worst thing that one can do to a filmmaker. The cybercrime cell is trying to help us in pulling down the websites. But once the print is out on the internet, it spreads like wildfire. It is actually a larger issue which has not only affected Bollywood but cinema and music industries the world over. Every person who watches the leaked version of the film is actually settling for much lesser cinematic experience. It hurts to see people going for the pirated version and free downloads because you make a film that can be viewed best in a theatre and wish to give your audience a wholesome experience. What’s worst hit is the business and finance of a film as producers put in a lot of money in its making.
- What’s the best way to deal with cybercrime?
Cyber piracy has gained a lot of social acceptance. People don’t see it as a crime. If it is available online for free, ‘why not’ is the logic. This mindset needs to change and it can only happen through right education and by making laws tougher. We need to set an example by catching the culprit and penalising him. Leaking films is an act of vindictiveness. The audience should stand up against it. Udta Punjab is an important film made for the theatres.
- The main problem with the CBFC…
The idea of censoring a film means you are depending on a dictator. We as Indians love to fix the person rather than the system. I don’t think it’s about the person at all. It’s about the larger system. Tomorrow you’ll appoint somebody who is more liberal and things would be fine for a year or so and then it changes and brings you back to square one. It’s not really the fault of a particular bunch of people but if you give these powers to anyone and ask him to ensure that ‘the moral fabric of the country’ remains intact, he acts with impunity. The CBFC is not operating out of love for cinema even when it is mandated to do so.
- What changes would you like to see in the law?
The mandate needs to be changed and also the way we look at cinema. Instead of censoring, we should certify films, creating an environment where writers and filmmakers don’t require to fight for or be afraid of telling stories. In the age of digitisation, the Cinematograph Act of 1952 requires a revamp. Censoring started during Emergency and is a legacy of the British Raj. It’s about time we let go of that and create a system that can thrive in a liberal and democratic space.
- Research work on the script…
Research took us to ground-level realities about the drug crisis in Punjab. We went to many rehabilitation centres and got to know the stories from doctors, addicts, cops and the administration dealing with the menace. We met smugglers and peddlers to understand the narcotics network and what keeps them out of the legal loop.
- Some anecdotes…
There was one drug addict I met in Punjab and he talked about his struggles at length with us. I forged a bond with him. I returned to Mumbai and wanted Abhishek to meet him. But when we went, he was dead. That moment shook me to my core. We got to know so many stories like his, so it became important to tell the story in a responsible way.
- Where does the drug menace lie?
One is the heroin battle which is going on with the drug coming from the other side of the border. Crack heroin is mixed with a lot of chemicals to be sold within the State. Second is the illegal trade of pharmaceutical drugs to the youth. There are unlicenced chemists who sell these drugs.
- Is there any real life person to the four main characters of this film?
The character of Dr Preet Sahani, which Kareena Kapoor plays, is based on a doctor who we met during our research work. He was doing phenomenal work in Amritsar’s Tarn Taran belt. There are other minor characters and cops we met and picked up their characteristics.
- What were the challenges?
When you make a film on a sensitive subject like drugs, it becomes important to do justice to it by dealing with a dark subject in an engaging and entertaining way and not being preachy about it. Given that the youth is getting hit, it was important that we send across the right signal. Our film is an anti-drug film but that’s not the message we overtly see in the film as we did not want to force it down throats. To script an unbiased story and not get swayed by emotions was a real challenge.
- Your favourite line from the film?
There is one line which the cop says: ‘yeh baat meri aapki nahi hai, yeh baat Punjab ki hai.’ That line sums up the entire film.
(The article also got published in the Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/backpack/for-scriptwriters-every-cut-hurts.html).