My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins," goes the old saying; obviously, the self-appointed guardians of community honour like the Rajput Karni Sena have no such qualms. They not only threaten to swing their fists further but also to chop off the nose itself! All in the name of a queen, whose existence has no historical evidence. The boycott calls and protests, war cries and threats are about a film no one has seen and is yet to be cleared by the censor board, which itself seems to be caught between the law and political exigency.
Such norms and propriety have become inconsequential in our post-truth times, when myth is more potent than history, fiction more real than reality. The legendary mirror in the Padmavati myth, in which Alauddin Khilji saw her reflection, which triggered tragic events, seems to have now transformed into the silver screen, foreboding a tragedy of a different kind.
Look at the time and spatial spread of the whole myth: according to historical records, Alauddin Khilji, the 'villain' of the piece, defeated the Rana of Chittor in 1303 and himself died in 1316. There is no mention of Padmini or Padvamati in the historical records of the time. It was two centuries later, in 1540, that the poetic narrative Padmavat, which triggered several local myths and beliefs about Padmini/Padmavati, was written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. This literary genre in Sufi tradition is known for its metaphorical flights of fantasy about the love of man for god, overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of the divine.
Spatially, while Khilji/Padmini episode is supposed to have happened in Chittor in Mewar, Jayasi spun his narrative in Awadh, which later spread across North India. This story about the amorous love of a Muslim king for a Hindu queen, the defeat of the Hindu king in the battle, leading to the queen committing suicide, caught the imagination of the people, especially with the Mughals rising on the political horizon.
The Padmavati story blossomed in various languages, regions and communities, mutating into several forms, ideals, images and icons. The cinematic version of the legend several centuries later, by a filmmaker known for his love-spectacles, is only the latest in the series. Ramya Sreenivasan, in her book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen, traces the wide circulation and transformations of the story from the 16th to the 20th century across North India, spanning from Rajasthan to Bengal.
So, who 'owns' this narrative? Do organisations like the Karni Sena have a proprietary right over it? True, every community has its legends and myths, beliefs and rituals, to express, convey and assert its identity. But can one version of the story that a group approves be considered the only genuine one? And can the narratives of other groups be banned or banished at the cost of their rights and freedom of expression ?
Padmavati is the latest in the series of 'hurt sentiment' dramas that have been unfolding in the country, where one social group or community raises protests about certain works of art as offending their beliefs, or dishonouring their land, culture or tradition, and demanding their ban or withdrawal. Many a time, filmmakers have to beg and plead with the community leaders or political figures for a preview of their film for approval. The censor board, itself redundant and obsolete, turns into a scarecrow here. In some recent cases, like S Durga and Nude, even after the board's approval, the Information and Broadcasting ministry unilaterally intervened to prevent their screening at a film festival.
Here we have some self-appointed guardians of community honour taking upon themselves the authority to allow or disallow public screening. In such cases, the State, instead of performing its bounden duty to ensure safe theatre release of the film and protect the rights of the filmmaker and that of the viewers to watch it, sides with the protesters.
The consistent pattern that has emerged in this 'hurt sentiment' drama series is the State prevaricating on the issue, sidelining legal procedures and pandering to the unruly demands of the community. Who all should the filmmaker now satisfy before his film is released - political parties and leaders, the I&B ministry, fringe groups who claim to represent community interests, apart from an unpredictable censor board?
While it is a violation of the freedom of the artistes, it also denies the viewers the opportunity to view and judge for themselves. If colonial legacies like censorship infantilise the people, who are considered gullible and in need of protection from bad influences, these extra-constitutional interventions by the communities further erode democratic ethos, affecting not only the vertical relationship between the State and people, but also the horizontal power equations between communities.
In this instance, two subtexts that fuel the protests further follow certain stereotypical patterns, both of which concern the female body and male honour: on the one side is the figure of the Muslim tyrant attempting to violate the modesty of a Hindu queen; the second, the ultimate sacrifice of the female body to protect the honour of the man and the land. So, it is a malaise that runs deeper. When such threats become the norm, and the rights of the artists and citizens are constantly trampled, the nation is reduced to a chaotic conglomeration of communities, each relentlessly pursuing its own interests, rather than a civil society where co-existence and sharing is the rule.
(The writer is a film critic and curator based in Thiruvananthapuram)