It is a fact that most of those who raged and fulminated and fatwa-ed against Salman Rushdie had never ploughed through The Satanic Verses. Geoffrey Robertson who defended Rushdie in the blasphemy case writes "As with the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, his fatwa was a case of sentence first and trial later." And so it is with Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati, a film that has not yet been released but has already become target practice for the likes of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena, issuing threats of violence and bodily injury.
Mahipal Singh Makrana, the president of the Sena has threatened to do to Deepika Padukone, the lead actor in the film what "Lord Ram's brother did to Surpanakha." Her latest "provocation" was to say that nothing can stop the release of Padmavati. The film's sets have already been vandalised, not once, but twice. Bhansali himself was attacked while shooting in Jaipur. Thakur Abhishek Som, national president of the Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Yuva Mahasabha demanded that Padukone leave the country or face beheading. He announced a Rs 5 crore reward to anyone beheading Bhansali or Padukone though he offered no proof the Yuva Mahasabha has Rs 5 crore to spare. He has finally been booked but remains defiant. The Bajrang Dal has already protested against even showing the trailer of Padmavati in Meerut. The Karni Sena vandalised shops in a mall in Kota in Rajasthan where a theatre was screening the trailer. To add more drama the Shri Rajput Karni Sena has vowed to write letters of protest in their own blood. At least it's their own blood.
It is time, yet again, for the lumpen fringe to relish their fifteen minutes of fame.
Bollywood films often do not even pretend to pay lip service to logical accuracy. It's ludicrous that they are being held to demands of historical accuracy.
At one level, one could ignore them, deny them the media oxygen they desperately crave as they posture before news cameras. But when the Uttar Pradesh government says they are concerned that the release of Padmavati could be provoke "serious law and order problems" it means the fringe has very much entered the mainstream. "The release of the film of December 1 is not in the interest of peace and order," the Uttar Pradesh Home Department has told the Union Information and Broadcasting ministry. The Sarv Samaj Samiti blocked the gates of Chittorgarh shouting "Jai Jai Rani Padmini." The CBFC has returned Padmavati's application for certification citing "technical difficulties" which will probably delay its release.
But at least the Karni Sena and its cohorts are unequivocal about their demands, bloodthirsty as some of those demands are – heads and noses.
The government is playing a far more duplicitous game – talking pieties about law and order on one hand, yet indulging and coddling those threatening to disrupt law and order.
Haryana minister Vipul Goel has said "glamourising Alauddin Khilji's character" was "like praising those who carry out acid attacks on girls."And it does not really help matters when highway minister Nitin Gadkari says "People have a right to be offended... filmmakers should not distort historical facts." And he's added that freedom of expression is not absolute.
Of course, people have a right to be offended. It's probably the right exercised with most gusto in India these days. But to be offended means to not read a book, to not watch a film, to not listen to a song. To be offended can even mean a call to boycott a film. To be offended cannot mean to vandalise theatres, kill writers, ransack movie sets, and threaten to maim and behead people. And every time the government does not put that squarely front and centre, every time it says the law must be followed and then qualifies it with a "but filmmakers should show sensitivity" the vandals, the so-called fringe see it as a green signal, a wink and nudge. It is grotesque that Sanjay Leela Bhansali needs to show sensitivity in his film but the Karni Sena can threaten to cut off someone's nose in real life.
The Kerala High Court has rightly asked if "we are going backwards" and whether the 1973 national award-winning film Nirmalyam could even be made today.
Bollywood films often do not even pretend to pay lip service to logical accuracy. It's ludicrous that they are being held to demands of historical accuracy. A member of Chhattisgarh's former royal family has said Rajput maharanis never danced in front of anyone and the filmmakers "cannot play with history." It's as if Shah Rukh Khan's Ashoka was historically accurate. Or Mughal-e-Azam or Mohenjo Daro for that matter. Bollywood exists to tell stories, usually love stories preferably with song and dance, and mint money. It's not just Bollywood. Even Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning Gandhi was attacked for sidelining Subhas Bose and Pakistanis objected to its portrayal of Jinnah proving that history will always be a contested place and no film whether it's Padmavati or Jodhaa Akbar or Bajirao Mastani will please everybody. But at least no one threatened to decapitate Ben Kingsley or Hrithik Roshan.
That Rajputs might be upset about how their heroes are portrayed on screen is perfectly understandable. But it's strange to think that Rajput honour is made of such flimsy tinsel that a Sanjay Leela Bhansali costume drama can bring it to such hysteria, that too sight unseen.
But it's not difficult to see how we have come to such a pass. Even when his sets came under attack, a flagrantly illegal act, Sanjay Leela Bhansali bent over backwards to appease those incensed not by his film but what was rumoured to be in his film. He and the film's stars denied the film has a dream sequence showing a romance between Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji. Bhansali put up a video on Facebook saying "The rumour is that in this film, there is a dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji. I have denied this before and provided written proof of the same then, and today, through this video, I am reiterating that in our film, there is no scene between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji that will hurt any sentiments." But what if there had been a dream sequence? It's a dream, it's not reality. Shall we police dreams sequences for historical accuracy now? The Kerala High Court has rightly asked if "we are going backwards" and whether the 1973 national award-winning film Nirmalyam could even be made today. In that film a temple oracle pushed to poverty spits on the idol. It just goes to show that appeasing bullies only emboldens them especially when they feel the government has their back.
In the Rushdie case the Ayatollah Khomeini waited till the book came out before issuing the fatwa. But now we do not need to bother with such niceties. Today we do not even have to wait to see the film before deciding it's offensive.