Padmavati controversy: Creative expression stifled by fear marks road to cultural decline

Milind Deora

Nov,22 2017 13:28 39 IST

The impending release of Padmavati has garnered national attention largely due to the furore it has incited. The alleged misinterpretation of the titular character has outraged certain communities that claim to represent her legacy. While I can’t claim to be an expert on the historical facts in question, and therefore cannot offer an argument supporting or refuting them, I do believe that historical accuracy need not always be a pre-requisite for an artistic endeavour.

The protesting communities may well be correct in their interpretation as opposed to the film’s director and actors (since Padmavati isn’t here to defend herself) – I’m not in a position to pass a judgment on that front. The reason I’m indulging in this debate is because an indispensable part of free speech and expression in a democracy is the ability of artists to artistically represent their ideas without threats of violence or bounties on their head. If our actors and directors and artists have to live in fear, if creative expression is stifled by this fear, we’re undisputedly on our way to cultural decline. Also, it would be impossible to honour the legacies of individuals who have had an immense impact on our country, or chronicle and preserve significant events, movements, or milestones, without tolerance for artistic representation.

The impending release of Padmavati has garnered national attention largely due to the furore it has incited

The impending release of Padmavati has garnered national attention largely due to the furore it has incited

Moreover, opponents of the film are doing a disservice to themselves by making threats and causing an upheaval. It is counterproductive to their cause, because it has managed to garner nation-wide publicity for the film, and might have attracted audiences who are now curious to watch the film simply because of the controversy surrounding it.

In Hollywood, for instance, the strategy might have been to ignore it, let it play out, and let audiences decide on the merits (or lack thereof) of the film themselves. A case in point is Laurene Powell, the late Steve Jobs’s wife, who wasn’t too happy with the Danny Boyle-directed Steve Jobs. Knowing that she had no legal recourse, she chose to simply ignore it and avoid a controversy – and while the film didn’t bomb at the box office, it certainly did not achieve the kind of commercial success that the Ashton Kutcher-starrer Jobs did, which had Powell’s and Apple’s weight behind it.

The State has a significant amount of power in how this debate unfolds. It has often intervened in order to disrupt creative expression, from Salman Rushdie’s books to artistic depictions of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. It has often curtailed freedom of speech citing a law and order problem. Where it should ideally be intervening is cracking down on outfits that create the law and order problem in the first place, and dealing strictly with unabashed threats of violence – we should not be a country where those who declare fatwas and issue threats go unchecked.

Having said that, the right to free speech and expression isn’t unbounded, and we must certainly impose some limits to the exercise of that right. Religion in India is a deeply divisive issue, and that makes us more intolerant, sensitive and reactive when it comes to matters of faith than a lot of other countries around the world.

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, it was mired in multiple controversies, including allegations of historical and biblical inaccuracy. His film may have featured blasphemous content, but he wasn’t shunned by his religious community – he was ostracised, rather, by the Jewish community (which is a powerful collective in Hollywood) for perceived anti-Semitic content. I doubt such a movie would have seen the light of day in our country, or our filmmakers allowed the ability and flexibility to present an objective critique of a popular religion.

While we must strive to create a culture that is tolerant towards harmless, sometimes comedic, critique or satire of religion and culture, unfortunately at the present moment we are forced to apply more rigid benchmarks for free speech in our country.

Nevertheless, a lot of people who are protesting against the release of Padmavati haven’t even seen the film, and threats continue to persist despite the creators and cast making no claims to historical accuracy and insisting that the film actually glorifies the titular character.

At the heart of the matter, the issue isn’t opposition or protest against the film. In fact, the Rajput community has every right to exercise their democratic right to protest. If they find the film offensive, they have the right to approach law enforcement and to move the court. What’s truly problematic is the threat of violence and other tactics of bullying instead of or in absence of legal recourse.

As a society, it should be unacceptable to us when outfits like the MNS or Shiv Sena resort to violent behaviour and violent threats against artists, as it should be unacceptable that rewards that run into crores have been declared for anyone who beheads Padmavati director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone. No one has the right to take law into their own hands.