The controversy surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s now titled film Padmavat tell us a great deal of the state of art, and its form of expression today: that art, cinema, historical characters and freedoms—that comprise much of freedom of press, speech and expression—are underrated in the country. It is a dangerous yet intriguing example of hypocrisy steeped in our culture, our history writing, or rather rewriting, and attempts to bring to life historical characters in cinema. More so, it demonstrates fissures and underlying tensions among historians, academicians and directors who make such movies. Distortion of history is a fact, born out of the machinations of political parties and their electoral agendas. Congress party mastered the art much before the fringe elements realised the electoral benefits of such an exercise.
In a film industry flooded with new talent, big production houses, internationally renowned stars, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the cast of his film must find themselves hopelessly alone. Apart from a few condemnations of the Karni Sena and its aggression, the industry has remained somewhat silent. It is not surprising that the industry was riled up when Kangana Ranaut spoke of hypocrisy and rampant nepotism in the industry. The buck doesn’t stop with Padmavat. It’s a warning to all, anyone daring to make a film on any historical character will have to seek approval before money and time can be invested in the film. So films are no longer about creative expression, but about forging a consensus. Case in point is Udta Punjab, a film that exposed the dark underbelly of the illegal drug trade in India’s wheat bowl. The filmmakers and producers were accused of distorting the image of Punjab rather than lifting the cover on the after-effects of drugs on thousands of youth in the country. Films such as Raees, Indu Sarkar, all became a part of political chorus, while the country stood silent and watched. This is not only a dangerous precedent but the larger message of these protests and death threats go beyond the films. Rather, they are a threat to the non-existent freedoms that we hold so dear. What is even more problematic is that we as a nation have become immune to such aggression or have aided the process of its normalisation in the social and political discourse. The hate towards Gurmehar Kaur for showcasing the hypocrisy of the so-called nationalists was there for all to see. It is not only that social media has become an arena for hate; rather it has slowly and sheepishly crept into our lives.
In a film industry flooded with new talent, big production houses, internationally renowned stars, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the cast of his film must find themselves hopelessly alone.
The suicide of a 20-year-old girl after repeated harassment by right-wing activists is an example of this trend. Her only crime was that she is believed to have posted on WhatsApp that she liked Muslims. Whether the girl was talking about her Muslim friends or Muslims in general was something that nobody seems to have bothered; the blunder that cost her life was her freedom of speech and expression, which she believed she possessed. The attack on Padmavat and the public shaming of Bhansali and the leading lady of the film is highly condemnable and objectionable.
It’s funny how we dare to dream that our films make it to the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs, yet we are not aspiring to come up with the cinema worthy of such adulation. Rather, scuttling filmmakers, artists and whistle-blowers seems to have become the norm. The film industry is not a victim, neither is it a supporter of the so-called free speech cause, rather filmmakers, leading producers and even actors ridicule anyone who seeks to bring them closer to reality.
It’s high time the country woke up to the reality that we need quality cinema and freedom for creative expression. Otherwise, all that we are likely to see are action packed pot-boilers, devoid of meaning and content and are more of a propaganda tool like those films we were shown during the Emergency in 1975. It is also a lesson for filmmakers; we are not a banana republic and nor can we accept the gross distortion of facts in the name of protection of creative freedoms. The public are deserving of a quality cinema.