A day after Jaipur's cultural police slapped filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, vandalised the set of his latest film, Padmavati, forcing him to pack up and return to Mumbai, the film's lead female lead, Deepika Padukone, tweeted: 'As Padmavati I can assure you that there is absolutely no distortion of history. #Padmavati." She followed with the second part: "Our only endeavour is & has always been to share with the world the story of this courageous & powerful woman in the purest form there is."
The same day SLB clarified that there are no "objectionable scenes" in the film. His official statement claimed that "there is no dream sequence or any objectionable scene between Rani Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji". Both defences are weak and miss the point. They do not confront the protestors who took law into their hands and infringed on constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression of others. More than any other group, artists and writers of all forms are practitioners of expression — they express ideas, interpret events, histories and people, and much more. They only have to stay within constitutional norms and ensure not to violate the restrictions placed on them, and on every citizen, under Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. Mobs and vigilante groups have no right to prevent a film shooting, theatre performance, art exhibition and destroy books — the power remains vested under existing laws, with government.
If SLB and Padukone had any commitment to the art they profess to practise, they would not have sought to compromise with the disruptors. Bhansali's line of argument is wrong. So what if a dream sequence was being indeed planned in the film? How would that have violated constitutional restrictions placed on freedom of expression? Similarly, Padukone pledges no "distortion of history" without understanding if the story on which the film is supposedly based is actually history or folklore. And pray, what is "powerful woman in the purest form"? Is this not amplifying stereotypes?
Like many yarns spurn around historical events, there is no evidence if a Rajput queen named Padmavati ever lived in Chittorgarh. The story was developed and became popular almost 250 years later after the events, when Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi composed a poem titled Padmavat about Chittor and its fall. Fiction became fact when medieval historians included the story as an actual event and the legend around Padmavati grew. The tale was embedded in people's consciousness sufficiently and consequently, at some point, someone installed glass mirrors at the place from where Alauddin Khilji supposedly saw the reflected image of Padmavati or Padmini in the small artificial lake encircling her private palace. The legend of Padmavati thereafter became truth. Visitors to Chittor dare dispute versions at the risk of being shouted down.
The story of how Padmavati came to be believed as a historical character raises the question that if almost five hundred years ago, Jayasi was not challenged and his work not attacked for "distorting" history, why are people protesting Bhansali's right to make a film on the story? Because the filmmaker directed a production for the French opera house, Theatre Du Chatelet, in 2008, basing it on the assumption that Padmavati indeed was a historical character, it is evident that the film does not question the queen's historicity and this alone should not have warranted the protest.
The Shri Rajput Karni Sena, established in 2006, first grabbed national attention by taking to the streets against Ashutosh Gowariker's Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Ekta Kapoor's television series on the same story a few years later, on the grounds that both works distorted history. Historians remain divided if Jodha Bai, like Padmavati, ever existed, but back then, the Karni Sena's problem stemmed from the commercial presentation of Akbar's secular nationalism and his depiction as religiously tolerant and pluralistic. In Padmavati, Khilji's infatuation with the Rajput queen and his remorse after the war when everyone including the woman he longed for dies, as depicted in an earlier film, Maharani Padmini, made in 1964, negates the Hindu nationalistic representation of the character as bloodthirsty and immoral despot and this is what troubles the vigilante group. Khilji can be anything else but human, not to speak of being humane, which I don't think Bhansali will have the gumption to portray.
The response of Bhansali while defending his film has correctly drawn flak for its opportunistic posture. Critic Nilanjana Roy contended in a series of tweets that by reasoning that there is nothing objectionable in the film, Bhansali, for all practical purposes, agreed that violence against filmmakers — and practicians of other art forms — would be understandable if anything against popular imagination is depicted. He does now frame his response that what may be disagreeable to one person or group may be acceptable to another. Whose writ shall run then? Someone who has muscle or rule of law?
Moreover, Bhansali is not the first filmmaker or artist who has been targeted by vigilante groups. He, in fact, has not come under fire for the first time — remember, Bajirao Mastani too attracted criticism from sectarian forces? While looking for support from others in similar professions, popular cinema directors and actors must also bat for those who are targeted for more political reasons. It is more than a quarter of a century since MF Husain was viciously attacked and trapped in a nationwide legal web which ultimately forced him to leave India. In recent times, the list of people being attacked for their ideological standpoint has grown and the likes of Bhansali must break their silence. It would be foolhardy to expect government to intervene meaningfully and uphold constitutional rights because the ruling power stands to benefit from such protests that are aimed at promoting insecurity among the demographic majority. Groups like Karni Sena are not just protesting what they ostensibly claim but their canvas is much wider.
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