The bogey of 'hurt sentiments'

Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali was last week attacked in Jaipur by Rajput Karni Sena, a fringe outfit, on the sets of his under-production film ‘Padmavati’, inspired by the legend of Rani Padmini of Chittorgadh. The group was apparently inflamed by rumours that the director was planning to shoot a sequence in which Allauddin Khilji is depicted as romancing Rani Padmini, a fact denied by the filmmaker.

This lamentable incident is the latest in a series of many, in which political parties, fringe outfits, obscure groups raise the bogey of ‘hurt public sentiments’ caused by some work of art, book, film etc and resort to vandalism and violence.

The question is why do they get away with it? Why has ‘hurt public sentiment’ become an easy camouflage for carrying out downright goondaism or legitimising coercion? Who appoints these groups as custodians of ‘public sentiment’ and authorises them to take direct action against the offending individual? How does a private act of violence gain the status of public outpouring?

Four factors seem to be involved:
Political backing: It is no secret that most such fringe groups have political backing of some kind. Numerous small outfits have been embedded into our society by politicians and parties like sleeper cells, meant to be activated for specific mischief like this. How otherwise do these unknown groups suddenly materialise, out of nowhere? How many of us had even heard about Rajput Karni Sena till now?

But since the police know about the underlying political connections, they rarely press serious charges against the hooligans involved. Meanwhile, politicians downplay the incidents or show classic double-speak.

Sample what Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria said even as he ordered a probe against the attack on Bhansali – ‘In such cases, anger is instinctive but it shouldn’t be done outside the purview of law.’ It almost sounds as if he is condoning the act.

Media Coverage: By the very nature of the scuffle and the creative people involved, media coverage is virtually guaranteed and therefore the incident is magnified greatly in public consciousness.

The oxygen of publicity is perhaps the most important element why such attacks are on the rise. Firstly, because of the violence involved, the attacks get perceived as a reaction to some grave provocation on account of creative licence taken.

Secondly, media hype ironically leads to enlisting more support against the alleged offence of the creative person, since large swathes of the public who didn’t even know about the provocation are now made aware of it in a distorted and disproportionate fashion. Although the public might not approve of the violent act, they tend to feel that there must be some justification. So whether Bhansali’s film really had such scenes or not, people probably now believe so.

Silence of the lambs: Despite the humiliation and intimidation, targeted artists, writers, filmmakers are not interested in continuing acrimony. Many times back-door settlements are struck with the assaulters or the matter is simply allowed to die down.

Given the compromised nature of law and order systems and the excruciatingly slow pace of justice, it seems almost logical to surrender or make a deal, instead of resisting such coercion. Witness the way Karan Johar caved in to threats from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena a few months ago before the release of his film Ae Dil Hain Mushkil, because it starred Pakistani actor Fawad Khan.

Similarly, there are already reports of a truce between Bhansali and the Karni Sena, after the filmmaker is said to have assured them that there is neither distortion of history nor love songs or amorous dream sequences between Allauddin Khilji and Rani Padmini in his film. Apparently, he has also agreed to show them scenes shot so far.

If even renowned and well-backed auteurs such as Johar and Bhansali can be quickly muzzled, then imagine the plight of most creators or artists who don’t have the resources or support to legally or ethically resist rogue outfits over a period of time.

But that is exactly what makes matters worse since these fringe groups are only encouraged to ambush others of the creative fraternity about anything in their creations that has the potential of being exploited as an insult to public sentiment.

Public: Apart from never being appalled by what is being done in their name, the public simply does not seem to have an understanding of the concept of creative freedom. Consequently, it never cares enough about it.

There seems a frightening consensus among people in India that personal and artistic liberty must always be subordinate to public sentiment, even if that sentiment is blatantly misused by dubious fringe organisations for their own interests, and not by ordinary, decent folk.

It is this indignity that we as a society are prepared to heap on individuals which is at the root of our tolerance of uncultured acts committed in our name. Sure there are limits to creative freedom like everything else, but no self-respecting nation allows hooligans to set or enforce those limits.

(The writer is a Pune-based author and filmmaker)

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