By Mayank Saxena, Batch of 2021
27th January 2017 is inked in history but how will it be remembered? As a day when an artist was not permitted to have his creative liberties and was rendered defenseless, subjected to barbarity or as a day when a man was averted from doctoring history itself?
Karni Sena, the self-proclaimed sentinel of the Rajput culture, gather that their actions were of high moral ground, professing that Padmavati is an immensely revered personage in the Rajput history and any rendition, fiction or not, that doesn’t depict her in good light needs to be rectified. While paying heed to cultural sensitivity and enunciating concerns about one’s ethnic history is validated, unbridled vandalism and hooliganism should not be condoned. On the other hand, the ostensible victims of this hodgepodge, Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the Director of the film, Padmavati and his crew, have been subjected to public scrutiny for transgressions that they didn’t perpetrate.
There are, however, several conundrums that demand to be confronted in the light of this controversy, which transcend this exclusive affair and question the very democratic nature of the Indian Republic. Is an artist in India free to exert his creative and artistic freedom and portray his work as he wishes or is he required to discern to the traditional, cultural and conventional description of his inspiration? Is India not intellectually or culturally mature to welcome criticism of its historical figures? Is the government more concerned about upholding constitutional directives or ensuring law and order in the country, even at the expense of something as pivotal and focal as the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression? Such dilemmas raise a vital question as to where the country is heading in terms of tolerance, artistic liberties, freedom of expression and government’s moral duty and obligations as a guardian of the Constitution and as a representative of the public.
The Head of the Karni Sena trumpeted that he was the descendant of Rani Padmini herself. But, upon examining several historical records, it has been corroborated that no such person even existed. Padmavati is a literary figure that stems from a Sufi poem, ‘Padmavat’ penned down by Malak Muhammad Jayasi in the Persian script. However, when a segment of the society have mythologized an entity to an extent, where myth and fact have intermingled and are indistinguishable from each other, it is imperative that should any form of its delineation be made, the consequences and sentiments of people should be kept in mind. Though this philosophy may seem to be in the favour of such social societal collectives, however, their demand for the screening of this cinematic portrayal remains unjustified. They have no constitutional jurisdiction to stop or ban any such artistic work on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. India has the Central Board of Film Certification often known as the Censor Board which is responsible for addressing such concerns. Astonishing as it is, the government, both at the state and the central level, has decided not to take any concrete action to safeguard the interests of such artists. Is it because of some ulterior motive, maybe a state election or do they simply feel that it is easier to succumb to violent protests, rather than being the change that India so desperately needs? Is it why the government seem to err on the latter? Do they fear the riots such an action may inflame or has the lust for power blinded them?
Interestingly enough, cinema history is littered with retellings of the Padmini story. A Tamil Film Chittoor Rani Padmini (1963), Sony TV’s Chittod Ki Rani, Padmini Ka Johur (2009) and an opera by Albert Rousell are a few of the prominent ones. They were no outcries to these portrayals so the question arises, why now? What did Sanjay Leela Bhansali do differently that incited these groups to indulge in rabid protests? Or is this film in question, just an easy target for fringe groups and right-wing elements to force their beliefs on one man’s freedom of expression?
On a closer appraisal of this controversy, Karni Sena might not be the only malefactor here. Could this whole incident just be a PR stunt gone wild? It would seem that Sanjay Leela Bhansali and crew have enjoyed the fruits of unimpeded and ubiquitous publicity for several months and allowed it to perpetuate for their own benefit as well. Mr Bhansali and his team chose to remain silent for several months, without any statement while the newspapers printed an endless number of articles discussing their work and its implications on the Indian society. Only when death threats were issued, did Mr. Bhansali adorn the moral character of a victimised artist. Why did Deepika Padukone, the lead actress playing the role of Rani Padmini, choose to make a public statement that India had regressed, only when Karni Sena threatened to cut-off her nose? Why was there utter silence on her behalf when the entire nation was involved in debates and heated arguments about the limits of artistic freedom?
This whole incident in crux boils down to just these two questions. Firstly, when and how will India become mature enough to accept that everything may not be in accordance with the traditional and conventional view? And secondly, in such scenarios, what role should the government play – the custodian of the Constitution or the servant of the public?