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'Padmavati', a trial by fire

Salil Desai, Nov 26 2017, 0:03 IST
Gandhinagar: Members of Sri Rajput Karni Sena shout slogans during a massive protest rally against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's movie Padmavati, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat on Sunday. PTI Photo by Santosh Hirlekar(PTI11_12_2017_000115B)

Gandhinagar: Members of Sri Rajput Karni Sena shout slogans during a massive protest rally against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's movie Padmavati, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat on Sunday. PTI Photo by Santosh Hirlekar(PTI11_12_2017_000115B)

The Padmavati controversy has taken a predictably unfortunate turn with the deferment of the release of the film, which was to hit the screens on December 1. This, despite the Supreme Court firmly rejecting a petition that sought to stay the film's release stating clearly that until the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) completed the statutory certification process, it would not interfere prematurely on arbitrary demands and considerations.

This means that despite the law supporting cinematic freedom, politics, the bogey of hurt sentiments and the open threat of violence have triumphed and succeeded in demonstrating that anarchy lies just below the surface of our democracy.

What is astonishing is how a furore has been created out of nothing. The debate first exploded when storm troopers of the Karni Sena, a group claiming to represent Rajput interests, vandalised the sets of Padmavati in January 2017 on location in Jaipur. Their grievance, based entirely on rumours, was that filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali had shot a dream sequence in which medieval Delhi sultan Alauddin Khilji fantasises romancing the legendary Rani Padmini (also Padmavati). This unconfirmed bit of hearsay was enough excuse for the Karni Sena to take offence and thrash Padmavati crew members and damage equipment.

Allegations were levelled against Bhansali of distorting history and besmirching Rani Padmini's honour, since the Chittor queen of yore has been deified over centuries because she committed 'jauhar' (a Rajput tradition where women immolate themselves when facing certain defeat in war), rather than falling into the invader's hands.

Instead of taking action against Karni Sena members for the violence, the Rajasthan government turned a blind eye and, worse, even justified the attack as an understandable emotional reaction to a grave provocation. Right to creative liberty and freedom of expression were brushed aside as typical "liberal" talk.

Over the months, it was pointed out that Rani Padmini's story was actually folklore, based on a ballad written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, a 16th-century Sufi poet, with no basis in proven historical facts. The poem was written two centuries after Khilji's invasion of Rajput states and historians have clearly stated that no contemporary accounts of the time mention any Rani Padmini of Chittor who consigned herself to flames to escape the 'sultan'.

Yet, so powerful was Jayasi's fictional creation that myth began passing for a fact, probably because it fits so wonderfully into the popular image of Rajputs being a brave, proud and unrelenting warrior race. Thus, the melodramatic rationale put forth by all those thundering against the movie is that whether fact or fiction, Rajputs believe the legend of Rani Padmini to be true and so Bhansali is guilty of offending the community and must pay a price for this "sacrilege" of wrongful portrayal.

But how come this allegation of objectionable depiction sticks when the filmmakers have pleaded that there is no romantic dream sequence between Khilji and Padmini and the movie has not yet been publicly screened?

Trouble erupted again as the countdown to the release began. This time around, the protestors targeted a song sequence Ghoomar, excerpts of which were released online, in which Deepika Padukone as Rani Padmini is shown dancing. Karni Sena declared this depiction, too, as unacceptable creative liberty and another slight to Rajput honour, on the ridiculous reasoning that women from Rajput royal families were unlikely to have danced in that era.

Which brings us to the all-important question of the treatment of historical and mythological themes and personalities on celluloid - where lays the thin line between creative liberty, distortion of facts and objectionable portrayal?

If the narrative of Bhansali's film depicts the allure of Rani Padmini as Khilji's central motivation in invading Chittor, what is wrong in using Khilji fantasising about the queen as a visual storytelling device? How does that demean Rani Padmini? These are certainly not her fantasies. Yet, undeniably, it has the potential to cause serious discomfiture, given the Indian tendency to consider any hint of even imagined intimacy of revered idols as defilement.

And yet, there is intrinsically nothing wrong if a filmmaker attempts to stretch the limits of cinematic freedom by dramatising, fictionalising, even twisting, myths and history in a manner that can be deemed shocking or objectionable. That is because, ultimately, the film has to pass through a statutory body, CBFC, whose mandate is to objectively flag concerns and suggest reasonable changes or cuts and strike a balance between a filmmaker's creative liberty and a society's maturity levels to digest the boldness of his artistic narrative.

It is this non-negotiable process of checks and balances, which has come under grave threat in the case of Padmavati. What the Karni Sena is doing is extra-constitutional censorship, through blatantly lawless means like violence, death threats and political impunity. Therefore, it is not Bhansali's creative liberty, but the Karni Sena's criminal intimidation under the garb of righteousness that has hurt the sentiment and honour that is a far bigger, immediate danger to democracy.

Creative freedom and protests are part of the same freedom of expression, permitted by the law in legitimate forms. Just as Bhansali cannot publicly screen his film illegally without certification, Karni Sena, too, cannot agitate as if it is above the law of the land. If Bhansali's creative freedom is subject to statutory scrutiny to avoid disharmony, Karni Sena is liable for stern action for provoking violence.

So yes, filmmakers ought to be sensible and sensitive, but is creative licence anywhere near as harmful as criminal intimidation? At least, the CBFC can restrain filmmakers from going too far, but who will keep a check on political bullies?

(The writer is a Pune-based crime novelist and filmmaker)

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