Padmaavat tests our commitment to freedom and law

Smita Barooah | 20 Jan 2018 06:33 PM
Last month I attended a music concert by a local artiste in Jaipur. He entered the stage by singing a medley of songs, which included Ghoomar, a popular song from the controversial movie Padmavaat. His powerful voice blew the roof off, and mesmerised the audience. At the end of the performance we asked for an encore, and requested him to sing the full version of Ghoomar. The artiste declined saying that the song was controversial, and he didn’t want to invite trouble. His fear was real, and I understood, for the first time, the impact of Karni Sena’s threats on the ground.

For those who came in late, here is a brief recap of the controversy. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bansali made a movie loosely based on an epic poem by Jayasi. It described the siege of Chittor by Alauddin Khilji who coveted the beautiful wife of king Ratan Singh. The king was eventually defeated in battle. All the males fought to the last man, and queen Padmavati led all the women in the fort to Jauhar, to protect their honour. While the poem is said to be fictional , the siege of Chittor, and the last stand by its Rajput defenders, is well documented.

The movie invited the ire of a fringe Rajput group named the Karni Sena, who took upon themselves the role of “defending Rajput pride”. They opposed the movie, which they claimed distorted history, and dishonored Rajputs and their revered queen Padmavati. Their aggressive opposition was based on hearsay as none of their leaders had actually watched the movie or knew the script.

Moreover, they seemed to have no concrete points of objection, other than vague notions such as the queen could not be depicted dancing the ghoomar, or showing her midriff, etc. Thus, a group of people essentially created disruption based on half-baked ideas and rumours. As the debate gained traction, the erstwhile royal families of Rajasthan got into the fray and demanded that their views be considered before releasing the movie.

Then, as usual, political parties of all hues got involved, the goal posts were shifted and the debate turned nasty. As the controversy escalated, it led to instances of vandalism and threats of physical harm to the actors.

Amidst the drama, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) cleared the movie after careful scrutiny. The filmmaker was required to make a few modifications, which included changing the name from Padmavati to Padmavaat. He complied, and the movie was cleared for release on 25 January with an U/A rating.

Despite the CBFC clearance, four states, including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, decided not to allow the movie to be released. The filmmakers appealed to the Supreme Court, which struck down the ban, ruling that once a film was cleared by the CBFC, the states had no jurisdiction to interfere. It further said that artistic and creative expressions must be protected.

The Karni Sena goons then decided to defy the Supre Court order and run amok. According to some reports, they barged into a school in Madhya Pradesh and disrupted a performance of children dancing to the ghoomar song. More recently, they allegedly set fire to a movie theatre in Haryana. Such bullying and hooliganism has no place in our country, and the perpetrators must face the full wrath of the law.

While the administration deals with the rowdy elements, I believe it is time for civil society to sit back and reflect on our own stand. Do we, as a people, really honour the concepts of freedom and diversity, which we so proudly proclaim, or are they conditional?

We know that in a country like India, it is virtually impossible to please every group, or carry every section on board on a given issue. When differences of opinion arise, do we dig in our heels and become parochial, or do we go back to first principles?

Let’s test this using the example of Padmavaat. Here, the first principles are clear: One, freedom of speech and expression, as enshrined in the Constitution; and, two, upholding the rule of law

The filmmakers have the constitutional right to make a movie, while we have a right to not watch it if it offends our sensibilities. The Left Wing rabble-rousers have a right to pontificate and diminish the horrendous circumstances that led to jauhar. Or question the very existence of Rani Padmini, or even use the controversy to try and whitewash the atrocities of the Islamic rulers. They have done all of this and more. We have a right to rebut, and use every legal and intellectual means to set the record straight. But we need to do this within the framework of law, without which there will be, anarchy.

Some have argued that if Padmavaat is allowed, why were movies like DaVinci Code and Innocence of Muslims banned? On what grounds did Kerala censor board recently block 21 Months of Hell, a movie on the Emergency? How about books like The Satanic Verses?

I would argue that rather than ban Pdmavat, we should lobby for all bans to be lifted. The only exception to Freedom of Expression should be a direct call to violence, and none of the above mentioned qualify.

In the end we must be clear about what we are fighting for. This is not a race to the bottom. Nor is it a competition to see who can be more intolerant. The objective is to have more open, and less hypocritical and discriminatory society. In this endeavor, there can be no justification for threats of violence against people, or vandalism of any kind. We must know that there is a line, which a civilised society cannot cross.

Smita Barooah is a columnist and blogger who comments on current affairs. She tweets at @smitabarooah )

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