There is no provision for banning a film in the certification rules
For all we know, Padmini or Padmavati is a fictional character, created by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in the 16th century. While Alauddin Khilji’s siege of Chittor in 1303 is a historical event, the legend of Padmini has little historical evidence and most modern historians have rejected its authenticity.
Compare the present furore over Padmavati to Indu Sarkar , a film that shows Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in poor light. Personally, I felt bad about the film. Indira Gandhi is part of our living memory. She had done much for this country, had seen India as one and influenced its history deeply. In the film, she is depicted as a villainous character, but nobody from her family spoke against the film or sought a ban on its screening.
Threat to freedom
In Padmavati ’s case, her existence itself is conjectural. But some people are imagining that the film has been made to vilify her. They have barged onto the sets of the film and vandalised them. What worse attack could there be on cinematic art? Nobody except its maker or the scriptwriter is privy to what the film is about. How can passers-by decide that it should not be shown to the people?
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are under threat in India. How can some people threaten to kill or maim persons associated with films they don’t like and haven’t even seen? The film got made despite all the violence, but it has not been censored. Allegations are being raised now against the film to influence Censor Board members. Censorship is nothing but a dictatorial weapon used by people who do not want the public to know what is really happening in the country.
A committee headed by Shivaram Karanth was formed in 1979 to advise the government on the film industry and how quality of films could be ensured. I was a member of that committee along with Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal and industry bigwigs like B.R. Chopra and Ramanand Sagar, among others. We went around the country holding hearings. In the end, Sen, Benegal and I arrived at a consensus that censorship is a shame and should be done away with. Of course, we need to ensure that films do not spread ideas that sow the seeds of treason or divisiveness among people. But there are sufficient safeguards against such possibilities in the Constitution.
We had almost finalised our recommendations when Chopra and Sagar pleaded with us not to recommend scrapping of censorship as the censor certificate was what saved them whenever someone went to court against their big-budget films. They said the certification was a sign of approval of their films from the government. We accepted their plea, but we should not forget that there is no provision for banning a film in the certification rules. The rules are only meant to classify films into various categories. We are now witnessing a furore over a film that has not been censored or seen by the people. This is a dangerous trend and cannot be permitted if we value the core principles of democracy.
Adoor Gopalakrishan has several critically acclaimed films to his credit
As told to C. Gouridasan Nair
We ignore at our own peril the profound impact that traditions have on people
Shiv Shakti Nath Bakshi
The controversy surrounding Padmavati has generated heat but shed little light on questions of history and freedom of expression. The question of the movie’s release is related to how we make sense of these two issues.
The contending sides are locked in a heated exchange of words, making it an issue rife with competing claims of myth versus history. It is quite disturbing to note that ‘left-liberals’ are presuming a marked separation between myth and history in their arguments. In any culture, the role of myth cannot be denied in shaping cultural selves while conceptions of professional history are themselves not infallible and are open to different interpretations. Even Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged the dynamic relationship between history and myth, saying, “Facts and fiction are so interwoven together as to be inseparable, and this amalgam becomes an imagined history, which may not tell us exactly what happened but does tell us something equally important — what people believed had taken place, what they thought their heroic ancestors were capable of, and what ideals inspired them... Thus, this imagined history, mixture of fact and fiction, or sometimes only fiction, becomes symbolically true and tells us of the minds and hearts and purposes of the people...” (Nehru, The Discovery of India, pp. 101-02).
The question, therefore, is how the story of Padmini has survived in literature and folklore, and how it has been received by people over centuries as a saga of courage. Socially speaking, such inspirations are beacons for society as it marches onwards. Historically speaking, rather than a positivist fixation with recorded evidence, we need to read the social histories of myths and see how they impact common people. Seen administratively, it is important to ponder over the complex relationship between the freedom to speak and the social impact of the exercise of that freedom.
Debate on freedom
There is a central contradiction in the arguments of ‘left-liberal’ voices when they want freedom of expression to be unfettered. Do they allow the same unfettered freedom against themselves or fight for it consistently? We have examples of denial of freedom of expression to Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, who have been hounded for long for their views. How is it that Rushdie’s freedom is no freedom for these people while Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s is? A larger debate must address the question whether freedom of expression with reasonable restrictions, as mandated by the Constitution, has been a consistent value or convenient posturing for voices that are today up in arms in favour of the release of Padmavati.
The attempt to judge the issue of Padmavati on the ground of its historicity is not only fallacious but mischievous. It’s worrying to note that the attack is not only on the historicity of Padmavati or on the Karni Sena but on a community as a whole with attempts to demonise their past by hurling unfounded and distorted allegations. While resorting to the oft-repeated pretext of safeguarding ‘freedom of expression’, attempts are being made to deprive a community of its hitherto received cultural memory.
Oral traditions, literature and folklore play an important role in the life of a community. Attempts to distort that understanding through a powerful medium like a film may hurt sensibilities, thus creating law and order problems. To ignore the profound impact traditions have on the life of the people may lead to avoidable disturbances and chaos.
Shiv Shakti Nath Bakshi is executive editor of Kamal Sandesh, the BJP’s mouthpiece
Till we acknowledge filmmaking as a serious profession, films will continue to be soft targets
Can we hold filmmakers responsible for teaching history which should have been the duty and primary responsibility of our academic institutions? For all practical purposes, Indian audiences have learnt their history lessons from mainstream Indian cinema.
History lessons from film
We remember Emperor Akbar as Prithviraj Kapoor watching Anarkali (Madhubala) dance in a multi-mirrored durbar in Mughal-e-Azam ; or Sivaji Ganesan displaying his oratorial skills as Kattaboman, the gold-plated king arguing with a British captain; and Ben Kingsley donning the role of Mahatma Gandhi picking up a handful of salt at the end of his Dandi march. Each one of them provided an imagined version of history. So why has Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film and Deepika Padukone’s portrayal of Padmavati suddenly become controversial? After all, Shyam Benegal narrated the same story in 1988 on Doordarshan in a series based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India without a single protest.
Looking at it closer, popular Indian cinema has been our only space for a discourse on various facets of Indian history, politics and issues concerning gender and caste hierarchies. And Padmavati carries this weight by default. So far, our cinema has been seen as a discourse where screenwriters expressed their imaginations on-screen and the audience carried on their discussions/ debates in their independent private spaces off-screen. So far, this was seen under the aegis of a constitutional right called freedom of expression which was also concomitant with the freedom to agree/disagree or even offend. But the intervention of modern social media seems to have changed the entire scenario. It’s strange that a small outfit from Jaipur called Karni Sena claiming they represent all Rajputs could manage to garner so much attention across India. They reach millions instantly through social media with their vitriolic statements. That they can issue threats to actors and still remain legally above board calls for a serious relook at India’s political situation today.
Yes, it is more complicated than merely stating that the film should be released immediately. There are several questions that need to be answered if we want to have a semblance of democracy in India. Unfortunately, members of our film industry have always been a disunited lot and they never venture into a storm such as this to protect a fellow filmmaker. But why have historians not come out into the open and publicly stated that this controversy is baseless since there is no historical proof of Padmavati ever having existed? Or have we, as Indian citizens, actually accepted myths, legends and folktales as lawful historical references? Why is Prasoon Joshi, our Censor Board chief, the lyricist who wrote all the rebellious songs for Rang De Basanti , keeping quiet?
Despite the immense popularity that our mainstream films enjoy with our masses, this art form is still considered lowbrow, capable of being trashed and abused like a rabid dog. I have been arguing with school boards to include film studies as part of their curriculum and pleaded with IITs and engineering colleges to include film technology as a specialised vocational pursuit. That is the only way to make this profession of filmmaking respectable.
When the nation has not cared to include filmmaking as a valid industrial/academic activity, how does one expect people to acknowledge cinema as a fine art?
Till then Indian cinema will be identified purely with their stars, their icons, left open to the vagaries of nature quite like our decaying neglected historical monuments and become soft targets.
K. Hariharan is professor of Film Studies at Ashoka University