The coalition ranged against the screening of Padmavati , a big-budget period drama, is growing more violent and absurd by the day. The Uttar Pradesh government has joined the ranks of the Karni Sena, a self-styled Rajput organisation that uses vigilante methods to uphold its notion of caste honour, to raise anxiety about the film’s scheduled release on December 1. Lucknow has written to the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry requesting that the Central Board of Film Certification be alerted of the “public sentiment” about distortion of “facts” in the film. Its release, the U.P. government has said, could disrupt law and order in the State, especially with the administration’s energies focussed on the municipal elections in end-November. Governments are expected to enforce law and order, not buckle down in the face of threats — whether perceived or real. As the Supreme Court observed in S. Rangarajan vs. Jagjivan Ram , a mere threat to public order cannot be a ground to suppress freedom of expression. By harping on the question of “historical facts” in connection with a film based on a work of fiction, the government is tacitly endorsing random groups and persons using Padmavati to delineate their notions of Rajput honour and Hindu-Muslim enmity. Over in Rajasthan, a Minister, Kiran Maheshwari, has intemperately railed against the film. And the Karni Sena, which vandalised the sets on location in Rajasthan earlier this year and on Friday blocked entry into the Chittorgarh fort where the story is set, freely hands out threats to the life and well-being of those associated with Padmavati , especially Deepika Padukone, its lead actor. Even Congress politicians are counselling that “sentiments” must be heeded.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the film’s director who is known for his lush sets and high emotion, has been at pains to give an assurance that he has not distorted history. Leave aside the fact that the story draws from a 16th century Sufi poem, ‘Padmavat’, and has over the centuries been retold across north India, and that there is no historical record of Padmavati’s existence, the insistence on demanding accuracy in period dramas is anyway an infringement on creativity. Fictionalising the past is a longstanding way of understanding it, from K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam to Oliver Stone’s JFK . But the anxieties that are driving the Karni Sena and members of the Sangh Parivar are evident. That Alauddin Khilji, the Delhi Sultan who wages war in the story to try to win the beautiful Padmavati, could be humanised obviously disturbs the Hindutva narrative about ‘evil invaders’. The visuals of the heroine singing and dancing evidently militate against the latter-day patriarchal telling of Padmavati’s story, in which she is shorn of agency and is dutifully circumscribed by notions of purity and honour. In this, it is not just that the film is fuelling such worries: the film is being used to heighten such anxieties and consolidate a regressive and intolerant world view.