With the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections just around the corner, senior Congress leader from the state P L Punia has pitted himself against Union minister Ambika Soni over the yet unreleased Bollywood film 'Arakshan' directed by Prakash Jha.
He has threatened to have the censor board chairperson Leela Samson arrested if she does not respond to his summons made in the context of the film.
Punia, who is also the chairman of the National Scheduled Caste Commission, wrote to Leela Samson asking that Arakshan should be screened before the commission and this should be done before the censor board clears it as there are apprehensions that the film is 'anti-Dalit.'
It is learnt that Information and Braodcasting Minister Ambika Soni called a high level meeting of ministry officials to discuss Punia's demand but later rejected it on the grounds that the censor board is also a quasi judicial body and if the ministry gives in to the demand of one commission, many others may line up, be it the minorities, the backwards, the jats, the gujjars, or what else.
It was felt it would open up a Pandora's box and set a bad precedent for the future.
Instead what Ambika Soni did was to set up a special panel to watch the film and take a decision on the film. The panel was headed by censor board member Pankaj Sharma, a former journalist who is now an active Congressman.
A special screening of the film was held in Mumbai last Monday in the presence of 9 members of which 5 were dalits.
They had been sourced from regional boards. Apart from them, Dalit expert from the Punjab and Haryana high court Dr Mukul Mudgal was called, apart from Rajni, a known dalit activist.
The film was cleared without any cuts and with a 'U/A' certificate. It was a unanimous decision and the members found nothing anti-dalit about the movie as they saw nothing legally or socially objectionable in the film. There was a dialogue , "Dalit Baba Sahib Ambedkar ne sanvidhan bana kar dikhaya", to which one member said the word 'Dalit' should be removed.
At this Prakash Jha volunteered to himself remove the word, saying that a cut was not necessary.
The story doesn't end here. After the panel cleared the film, an angry Punia issued summons to Samson saying she had cleared an anti-dalit film and this violated provisions of the constitution.
He asked her to appear on July 25 but she did not go and instead sent the censor board CEO Pankaja Thakur. But this irritated Punia even more and now he has sent fresh summons to the censor board chief asking her to appear on August 8, failing which he has now threatened to have her arrested.
Pankaj Sharma who headed the panel which cleared the film says, "how can Punia call the film anti-Dalit when he has not even seen it?"
Interestingly the film is set for a August 12 release. Prakash Jha is known to create controversies around his films as a routine pre-release exercise which gets him more mileage than any amount of ads can do. Remember "Rajneeti" where a controversy was sought to be created around Sonia gandhi and how she was depicted, which again led to the issue going to the censor board. The film had nothing to do with Sonia gandhi and was seen as a much hyped exercise to gain mileage.
What has added fat to the fire is the presence of Amitabh Bachchan in the film along with Saif Ali Khan. While bachchan is a congress bete noire and has been closely associated with the Samajwadi Party, Saif Ali Khan is the son of the former censor board chairperson Sharmila Tagore!
Is P.L.Punia over-reacting because of the UP elections and the fact that the Congress is pitted against a Dalit chief minister or is Punia trying to score brownie points in the eyes of Rahul Gandhi or has he become a victim of Prakash Jha's brand of politics to get maximum free publicity for his film before it is released? Difficult to say but yes the purpose of getting publicity for the movie before it is released seems to have begun!