When a film with a multi crore budget is not released on the announced date, despite being cleared by the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC), a lot of eyebrows are definitely raised. There are various assumptions made with regards to the film’s content resulting in an indefinite delay in its release.
The film is based on the mythical character of Padmavati, a legendary Rajput Queen, mentioned in ‘Padmavat’, an epic written by Sufi Poet Mallik Muhammad Jayasi in the mid-16th Century. The antagonist of the , Alhahuddin Khilji, a Muslim ruler, is believed to be the leader of the invasion of the Rajputana, with an intention to capture Padmavati. He is an antagonist in the historical epic as well. It is also believed that Padmavati along with other Rajput women, committed Jauhar, an act of self-immolation, in order to protect their honour and prevent their capture by Khilji.
The present scenario regarding the release of Padmavati is a telling example of why India is a very , especially the business of art. Bhansali, is having to climb mountains just to try to get his film a lawful release. There have been several organizations conducting a plethora of surveys that claim that it has become easier to do business in India. One may feel the same when one looks at the reforms that have been brought about by the Central Government over the past few years. However, the ground realities tell a completely different story altogether. Practices like extortion and corruption in bureaucracy remain rampant to this very day. Therefore, one may conclude that these surveys do not represent an accurate version of the ease of doing business in India.
One self-proclaimed righteous group has moved the Supreme Court of India demanding a screening prior to the release where eminent historians will judge whether Bhansali’s film has deviated from historic facts. Cinema need not be an accurate representation of history. It is upto the writer’s creativity to choose whether to deviate from history or not. He should be free to deviate from history and create his own story as long as he does not claim his film to be a representation of historial events. All movies need not be historical documentaries. Celebrated filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Oliver Stone would further insist on many versions of history itself. History it has been said is written by the victor. Every participant in history may have his own side of the chain and events that took place and their causes. It is common practice by the groups dominant in society to vilify their historical adversaries and propagate this distorted version of history as the only possible and correct version of the same.
The coalition raged against the screening of Padmavati, is growing more violent and absurd with each passing day. The Uttar Pradesh government has joined the ranks of the Karni Sena, a self-styled Rajput organisation that uses vigilante methods to uphold its notion of caste honour. They have written to the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry requesting that the CBFC be alerted of the “hurting of public sentiment” about distortion of “facts” in the film. In its press release, the Uttar Pradesh government has said, that the release of the film could disrupt law and order situation in the State. Governments are expected to enforce law and order, not buckle down in the face of threats — whether perceived or real. As the Supreme Court of India observed in , a mere threat to public order cannot be a ground to suppress freedom of expression. By harping on the question of “historical facts” in connection with a film based on a work of fiction, the government is tacitly endorsing random groups and persons who are using Padmavati to delineate their notions of Rajput honour and Hindu-Muslim enmity. A Cabinet Minister of Rajasthan, Kiran Maheshwari, has intemperately railed against the film. The Karni Sena, which vandalised the sets on location in Rajasthan earlier this year and recently blocked entry into the Chittorgarh fort where the story is set, freely hands out threats to the life and well-being of those associated with Padmavati, especially Deepika Padukone, its lead actor. Even Congress politicians are counselling that “sentiments” must be heeded.
Given the violence and the threats, it is perhaps not surprising that the producers of Padmavati have decided to ‘voluntarily’ defer its release. The Supreme Court has rebuked such politicians by remarking “those holding public office should not comment on such issues.”
In February 1989, days after Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, he published an open letter to Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India. He reminded the Prime Minister that his book had already been banned in India in October 1988, under the Customs Act, and that while issuing the curb on its import the Finance Ministry of India clarified that the “ban did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”. “Thanks for the good review,” wrote Rushdie, adding that it appeared “as if your Government has become unable or unwilling to resist pressure from more or less any extremist religious grouping”. It is worth recalling that letter, as it provides a benchmark to map the race to the bottom in the current row over Padmavati.
Today, a number of Chief Ministers across North India rail against the film and threaten to disallow its screening without requisite cuts. There is no longer even that perfunctory clarification that their action has nothing to do with the artistic merit of the film. And it is no longer the case that the governments are unwilling to resist pressure from extremist groups such as the Karni Sena. Chief Ministers now are actually rallying opinion against the film to whip up caste and religious anxieties. Vasundhara Raje, Chief Minister of Rajasthan, in fact, has argued that the “censor board” must go beyond just certifying a film, and should be mindful of the possible consequences after its release. The fact that these open appeals against cinematic expression are going mostly unchallenged across the political spectrum carries dark forebodings to the freedom of expression (much discussed anxiety in the country).
The issue here is no longer Padmavati, its artistic merit or the factuality or otherwise of multiple retellings of the narrative. What is of real concern is the spectacle of state functionaries ignoring their constitutional responsibility in upholding free expression, and placing themselves alongside those who are polarizing the communities.
What is needed is for all governments and political parties to stop playing the power with films by kicking them around to influence some vote bank. Because if the tyranny of hurt sentiments continues to grow, cinema will diminish! In the heart of Mumbai it may have set filmmakers self-policing their dream sequences, killing them before they are born. India’s soft power would be grievously wounded.
- Rangarajan Etc vs P. Jagjivan Ram, 1989 SCC (2) 574.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Get all our posts, blogs and video content via e-mail.