Padmavati controversy: After SC's dismissal of plea to ban film, what next for Bhansali?

Gautam Chintamani

Nov,28 2017 15:40 23 IST

As welcome a relief as it may be for the filmmakers, the Supreme Court’s (SC) decision to dismiss a plea against the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati outside India is not surprising. While rejecting the plea filed by advocate ML Sharma, who had felt that “grave damage will be done to social harmony if the movie is allowed to be released outside India”, the SC also reportedly chided persons in public offices for their comments on the film. As per reports, the chief ministers of the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab had said that they would not allow the film to release and while the chief minister for Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh later supposedly backtracked, the SC is believed to have said that those in public offices shouldn’t comment on the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) workings.

The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss a plea against the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati outside India is not surprising

The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss a plea against the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati outside India is not surprising

In a way, the manner in which the Padmavati episode has played out reminds one of the manner in which Da Vinci Code was greeted in India. The film was cleared by the CBFC but pressure from the Christian community, as well as the Muslim community in some places, saw seven Indian states ‘banning’ the film. The states that included Goa, Kerala, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab felt that movie was ‘blasphemous and offensive’ and might hurt the ‘emotions’ of the people of the minority community. The reason cited for the ban was that content of the film could disturb the ‘peace and tranquility of the State’ and the film’s release was delayed in a few states where the SC’s judgment to show Da Vinci Code was being challenged.

The manner in which the SC has responded to Padmavati mirrors the stance it took during Da Vinci Code. Rejecting a writ petition filed by the All India Christians Welfare Association, the court found no point of objection when the CBFC had given the film its nod. In fact, the SC also held that no predominantly Christian country had ‘banned’ Da Vinci Code and underscored that there was no definite reason forwarded by the petitioners to ban the movie. Furthermore, the state High Courts of the states that had banned the film on their own also imposed costs on state governments. Here, too, the SC bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra reiterated that it was the CBFC’s prerogative to ‘review the film’ and make a decision on whether it is suitable for screening.

As the system as well as the law both take their course in the context of Padmavati there is still some way to go before the film sees the light of the day. The new release date of the film (previously 1 December) is yet to be updated but with regards to the threats to the film's team, there has been some official action. The Uttar Pradesh police have booked Thakur Abhishek Som of Kshatriya Samaj and an active member of the Samajwadi Party, who offered a reward of Rs 5 crore to anyone beheading film’s director, Bhansali and Deepika Padukone who plays the titular character and the BJP had served a show cause notice to its party member, Surajpal Amu for his Rs 10 crore bounty for Bhansali and Padukone.

So, what next for Padmavati?

For intent and purposes, it seems like the ball is back in Bhansali’s court; the film will finally need to be submitted to the CBFC for anything to happen. The court has been very clear that the remarks from high offices against the film tantamount to pre-judging a film that is not yet certified by the Censor Board. The film has not been submitted to the CBFC, which previously sent it back owing to incomplete paperwork. Although the UK Censor has cleared Padmavati without any cuts, the producers have categorically refused to release the film anywhere until the CBFC clears it.

It’s interesting that while the Constitution of India protects freedom of speech, it also very clearly places certain restrictions on content, with a view towards maintaining communal and religious harmony. According to the Supreme Court of India: “Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instill or cultivate violent or bad behavior. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.”

The SC is probably not going to, for the want of a better term, give into activism but would rather look at deciphering if any rule was violated. The court rested the decision with the CBFC and while it underscored that comments of people in public office ‘whether CBFC should issue certificate or not’ could prejudice the decision, the manner in which the SC looks at censorship, as mentioned above, could also come into play in l’affarie Padmavati as days go by. Irrespective of how things play out at the CBFC, for Padmavati the SC would always be an option for the filmmakers. Unfortunate as the situation might be, there could also be a silver lining herein. Perhaps this is yet another call to re-examine the archaic The Cinematograph Act, 1952 that governs film certification, and in a way, ‘film censorship’ in India and bring it up to date.