Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone has said that India has “regressed” as a nation, in an apparent reaction to the continued controversy over the Sanjay Bhansali movie Padmavati, where she performs the title role as the Rani Padmini of Chittor.
In an interview on Tuesday to news agency IANS, the actor said, “It’s appalling, it’s absolutely appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation? We have regressed.”
Though her comments seem to have been triggered by dogged protests over the film and the vandalism it has been subjected to at various stages of shooting and promotion, Deepika’s charge implicates the whole nation and deserves close scrutiny. The question is, do protests over the movie signify that India has “regressed” as a nation?
The 31-year-old actor, no stranger to the Bollywood industry and the rules and regulations that govern it, would know that every movie needs a clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) before it may be released for screening. The CBFC is a statutory body which comes under the Union ministry of information and broadcasting to regulate public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952.
The CBFC is therefore a government institution, though it ostensibly enjoys autonomy in its decisions. Has the CBFC banned the movie, or refused to issue a certification? Has it even asked the makers to lob off portions of it as a precondition for release? The answer, till now at the time of writing, is no. The movie, which is scheduled to be released on 1 December, is still awaiting certification.
The immediate question is why has there been a delay in certification? Is the CBFC dragging its feet over the decision?
It is interesting to note that the delay was on part of the filmmakers, who missed the deadline of submitting the movie for certification at least 68 days before its release. A CBFC spokesperson has indirectly criticised the makers for not sticking to the deadline, noting that a delay “creates confusion as it potentially indicates the mounting of undue pressure and unfair criticism of the CBFC,” according to a report filed by ANI on 9 November.
It appears that the movie was finally submitted for certification on Friday. Ajit Andhare, COO of Viacom18 Motion Pictures told PTI that the makers do not anticipate any delay on CBFC’s part. “Bhansali Production applied online last Friday. We are waiting to hear from the board for the screening. That is our first priority. I am not foreseeing any problem. No film in the history of censor board has got delayed, I have no reason to believe the film will be delayed. We have nothing to worry (about),” he said.
So let us recount the facts. The movie is still waiting for a CBFC certification due to a delay on part of the makers. The censor board has not yet asked the makers to edit out any portions. It has not taken any measures that can be termed as preventive.
The Union I&B ministry has been receiving deputations from different protest groups asking for the movie to be banned. One BJP leader from Mumbai has even written to minister Smriti Irani, requesting her intervention to stop the release. According to Amarjeet Mishra, the movie “distorts history”, shows queen Padmini in “bad light” and “hurts the sentiment of Hindus”.
So far, Irani has refused to pay heed to the protests. In fact, on the sidelines of a recent event Irani, the I&B minister, came out in support of the movie and assured the makers that miscreants would not be allowed to stop its screening.
“I am sure law and order will be under control… The State government will ensure no miscreants disrupt any kind of interaction or display. I don’t envisage any problem. If there is any challenge, the State government will meet it,” the Union minister told filmmaker Karan Johar during the sidelines of a recent event.
It is also to be noted here that the Supreme Court has refused to stay the release of the movie, dismissing a plea and has backed the CBFC to take the correct decision. The film’s trailer, released on YouTube, has received huge response from the public, leading the artists to express their happiness.
So now the question to Deepika is, on what parameters did she adjudge “India as a nation” to be “regressed” when the government, its statutory arm, the judiciary and even the public have come out in support for the movie?
Or does she consider the factions who have protested against the movie to be the only representatives for the nation? Stretching this logic takes us to the point of incredulity where it would seem that the Bollywood actor has no faith in the different constituents of Indian democracy and has a very narrow understanding of the word ‘nation’.
More unfortunately, Deepika’s reaction, where she says that “this is not about Padmavati... We’re fighting a much bigger battle”, is indicative of the completely wrong notion about freedom of expression that many like her suffer from. The Bollywood actor needs to realize that freedom of expression is not a one-way street, nor can it be suited to meet only one end in a diverse democracy such as ours.
Just as the film industry and those associated with it enjoy their rights for creative freedom, similarly those who consume the contents have every right to express their opinion and dissent. They also enjoy the right to assemble and protest against a movie. Instead of signifying India’s regression, it symbolizes the vibrancy of our democracy.
Equally, nobody can condone violence and vandalism in the name of protests and it is incumbent on the state government to ensure that law and order is maintained. Deepika was correct in expressing her anguish against the vandalism that has been carried out against the movie, repeatedly. The film’s sets in Jaipur were vandalized, costumes were burnt. On Tuesday some goons who went by the name of “Karni Sena” rampaged a theatre hall in Kota and vandalised a mall in the name of Hinduism. Thus must go down as a failure on Vasundhara Raje government’s part which has so far emerged as an incompetent administration.
But on a more broader question, Deepika’s effort to tar the entire nation as “regressive” is unfair and nonsensical. Her comments, however, go much beyond than just tar a nation. It represents a marvelous insensitivity to the delicate structure of this diverse democracy where societal balance is incumbent on a tacit understanding that contentious issues and subjects that generate passion among different faiths and communities should not be carelessly poked.
In a letter to Irani and prime minister Narendra Modi, a member of the Udaipur-Mewar royal family has alleged that the film is based on a source that is inaccurate. According to M K Vishvaraj Singh, Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s ‘Padmavat’, that the movie ostensibly relies heavily on, is an allegorical work that “does not claim to be, nor is it regarded as, historically accurate.” Singh goes on to write that “If the film professes to be history and its maker goes on record to claim that he has kept in mind the cultural sensitivities, then it’s an artistic and historic fraud to portray a ‘queen’ attired inaccurately, courtesan-like and as a painted doll in a film that purports to pay obeisance to her.”
The question ultimately boils down to values of liberalism taking precedence over cultural sensitivities. While it is undoubtedly a liberal idea to question legends, myths and cultural sensibilities and subject them to creative explorations, such efforts must be done carefully.
In 1998, Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul told Hindu newspaper on the subject of Islamic invasion of India that: “I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions … The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed.”
Invasion of India by Islamic conquerors is a contentious subject that may lie in far-history but still shapes our reactions in near-present. Alauddin Khilji’s invasion of Chittor fort and Rani Padmini’s self-immolation wakes up many sleeping dogs and pokes at these resentful memories. It is understandable that there will be protests. It is through these protests and arguments that an argumentative democracy advances. To label these as “regressive” is to miss the point altogether.