Of brinkmanship and ‘expressive mind’!

padmavati-release

“Any film or drama or novel is a creation of art. An artist has his own freedom to express himself in a manner which is not prohibited in law and such prohibition (like those specified under Article 19(2) of the Constitution) are not read by implication to crucify the rights of expressive mind”.

These landmark observations by the Supreme Court’s three-member bench deserve wider appreciation by all sections of Indian society which is, once again, caught in a siege mentality over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati. The film supposedly takes us to the legendary Mewar royalty of an era gone by.

I do not wish to get into certain facets of the story woven around Rani Padmavati. A historical fact or part of folk lore, one fact must be gracefully acknowledged that over the centuries Rani Padmavati’s tales of Jauhar and related events have become part of the sentiments of the Rajput community. A matter of intense human sensitivity can hardly be fully captured on the silver screen.

To begin with, Sufi poet Malik Mohammad Tayabi, resident of Jayas in Awadh, had his own poetic format of the Padmini story. Ramaya Sreenivasan has traced varied facets of this fascinating story from Rajasthan, North Indian regions to Bengal from the 16th to the 20th century in her fabulous book The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen. With such a wide time span, it is but natural for facts and fiction to get intermingled. Interestingly, Jawaharlal Nehru University’s medievial historian Harbans Mukhia states, “it was in Bengal in the 19th century that Padmini acquired the persona of a heroic queen committing jauhar.

Be that as it may. What is disquieting is the way Bhansali’s film has got politicized even before its screening, with overtones of violent communal rhetoric. Karni Sena chief Mahipal Singh Makrana and Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Yuva Mahasabha chief Thakur Abhishek Som have publicly offered Rs 5 crore each for “beheading” Deepika Padukone’s and Leena Bhansali’s heads. Suraj Pal Amu, the BJP’s media coordinator in Haryana, has offered a prize of Rs 10 crore for this job. This is shocking, to say the least. Are we living in a medieval barbaric society? How could the authorities at the helm look at the other way in Rajasthan, Haryana and at the Centre in the face of   open threats and intimidation against the director and the actor?

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has said that “filmmakers should not distort historical facts”. Right. But the moot point is: how and where do we draw the line between democracy and uncivilized public conduct?

The Yogi Adityanath government’s wants the film to be delayed (now “voluntarily deferred”) on the plea of law and order. What is disturbing is that the BJP-ruled-states show authoritarian tendencies to curb the freedom of expression on the plea of maintaining law and order, which is their job and responsibility. Even the Chief Minister of Congress-ruled states are a divided lot in this matter. This shows our political culture in poor light.

Ironically, the Rajput netas are out in the streets protesting against the film without having watched it! Perhaps their protests are promoted by the film’s certain selective promotional scenes flashed on TV screens. This is a poor commentary on the mindset of the agitators. In the first place, Rajput leaders could have asked the director for screening of the film before its release. Even Bhansali could have taken such initiative. He has to take care of the community’s sentiments.

Every controversial issue in the public realm must be subjected to a dialogue and discussions for possible cuts or changes in what is seen as hurting the Rajput sentiments. This is a civilized way of dealing with a controversial matter in a democracy. Politicians and leaders have, of course, minds of their own. They could go to any absurd extent for the sake of votes and other petty considerations, courtesy television channels!

True, India is neither traditional nor modern, neither fully conservative, nor adequately progressive; neither wholly feudal nor fully egalitarian. It still gives the impression of being a makeshift nation, caught in currents and cross-currents of the times, past and present.

As it is, the country is vulnerable. It is volatile socially. And our political and social leaders either do not know how to contain the fire smouldering within or they deliberately play their vote bank card. This is what we have been seeing in the film Padmavati row. Obviously, the burden of the past weighs heavily over the present!

Here I wish to recall V S Naipaul’s observation that ours is a “wounded civilization” He says: “India absorbs and outclasses its conquerors, Indians say. But… I wonder whether intellectually for a thousand of years, India had not always retreated before the conquerors and whether in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn’t only been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable”.

I wonder where do the Apex Court’s sane comments – “Right to freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct and should not be ordinarily interfered with…”fit in the prevailing atmosphere of intolerance and brinkmanship?

The Honourable judges – Chief Justice Dipal Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud – apparently rebut violent elements protesting against the release of Bhansali’s film Padmavati. At the same time, it states, “a thought-provoking film does not mean it should be expressive to provoke the conscious and subconscious mind of a viewer”.

I am not sure what sort of “mind” the protesters nurse. But in the midst of the turmoil, what we see on the streets is a parallel India, wrapped up in legendary tales but exhibiting in avoidable prejudices and protests.

India’s tragedy today is that social reformers and rational voices are few and far between. The new “breed” consists of highly politicized and sectarian persons. Some good ones are still there, but most of them are “operators” or manipulators who put the self and the party before the good of the nation!

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