Indian court frees Bollywood drug thriller from censor's clutches

A man rides his bicycle past a poster of the movie Udta Punjab in Mumbai, India, on June 13, 2016.
A man rides his bicycle past a poster of the movie Udta Punjab in Mumbai, India, on June 13, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

MUMBAI (Reuters) - An Indian court has cleared the way for a Bollywood thriller about drug trafficking to open in cinemas after government censors attempted to thwart the movie's release ahead of crucial elections in a northern state where the film is set.

Monday's (June 13) judgment by the Bombay High Court brings the curtain down on a week of bickering between the film's producers and the head of India's censor panel over suggested cuts to Udta Punjab, which the film's makers said removed its essence.

In a rare display of unity, Bollywood had rallied behind Udta Punjab  co-producer Anurag Kashyap and the film's cast to protest attempts by censor chief Pahlaj Nihalani to sanitise art and popular culture in India.

"I'm deeply stressed as a filmmaker, and I know I'm not alone. The censorship crisis, the moral policing, the politics of it has most of us on edge," producer Karan Johar wrote in a column for news channel NDTV's web site.

India has a history of censoring sexually explicit and politically sensitive content, and Bollywood is increasingly finding itself at the receiving end.

Nihalani, who produced films in the 1990s, made a campaign video that backed Narendra Modi's successful bid in 2014 to become prime minister. He was later named chairman of India's censor board after several members quit citing interference by the government.

The 13 cuts suggested for  Udta Punjab  included removing the word "Punjab" throughout the film, deleting expletives or words like "election" and "parliament", and bleeping out the name of a dog called Jackie Chan.

Kashyap has said the cuts are unacceptable. In a series of tweets last week, he called Nihalani an "oligarch" and compared India to reclusive North Korea.

Nihalani has said the film defamed Punjab and challenged its claim that 70 per cent of the northern state's population was involved in substance abuse.

Punjab goes to the polls next year and is a crucial province for Modi, whose nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is junior partner to the regional party that runs the state.

Opposition parties such as the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party have accused the Modi government of obstructing the film to take the focus away from what Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called Punjab's "crippling drug problem".