The protests against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's big-budget movie Padmavati are another sign of the rising intolerance and bigotry in the country, and the refusal of governments, parties and leaders to defend the movie is a sign of their abdication of responsibility to society and to our constitutional democracy. The film is yet to be released, and hardly anyone has seen it, but it has already been decided that it has distorted history, insulted an icon of Rajput pride and hurt the sentiments of a section of people. The film is based on a story told in a 16th-century poem Padmavat about the attack by Delhi sultan Alauddin Khilji on the Rajput kingdom Chittor, after he had heard about the beauty of queen Padmavati. There is no historical record of the existence of Padmavati and of the events in her life. In fact, there are many versions of the story in different parts of north India. Yet, the film is said to have misrepresented history.
A self-styled Rajput organisation, Karni Sena, which had vandalised the sets of the film earlier this year, is leading the protests. Those associated with the film, including the lead actor Deepika Padukone, have been threatened with physical harm, even beheading. The BJP governments in Rajasthan and other states are sympathetic to the protesters, because they want to stoke an unhealthy and negative Hindu-Muslim politics with the protests. What is being staged is social and cultural terrorism and the authorities are shielding it. A work of art, whether it is a film or a novel, need not be faithful to history. Many great works have interpreted and reinterpreted history in many ways. In the case of Padmavati, it is not even history but a myth that is being retold. Ironically, it is the BJP, which has tried to falsify history to teach schoolchildren in Rajasthan that Rana Pratap, and not Akbar, won the battle of Haldighati, that is complaining about the distortion of history in a work of fiction now.
What is at stake is freedom of expression and the artist's right to create his work using elements from history, folklore or any other source. Any curbs on that is unacceptable in a democracy. It is always likely that the sentiments of some sections will be offended by a work of art. But popular sentiments, governments' views or political or other prejudices cannot be grounds for banning or forcing changes in it. In the case of a film the judgement is the prerogative of the CBFC, which should uphold constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms, and ultimately of the people who have the right not to watch it if they don't like it or want it.