Padmavati row: Sanjay Leela Bhansali's experiences could lead to a whole generation of timid artists
Barely six weeks after goons from an organisation calling itself the Shri Rajput Karni Sena protested and misbehaved with the crew on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, the film and filmmaker are embroiled in yet another incident of vandalism, this time in Kolhapur.
With reports coming in of the sets of the film being set on fire by 50–60 unidentified miscreants, the new incident is yet another reminder of how artists frequently struggle to express themselves freely in India.
This is also now the third film on the trot by Bhansali to have been targeted, with Goliyon Ki Rasleela – Ram Leela running in with various groups regarding its title, as well as references, to names of communities, and Bajirao Mastani drawing the ire of those ‘offended’ by its lack of authenticity.
This, however, goes far beyond just incidents surrounding one filmmaker. Creative people have found their works banned ever since the birth of our democracy, and they continue to occur frequently. Back in Nehru’s India, books like Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama and V S Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness were banned for reasons that would offend people, and it seems like today, seven decades after independence, things haven’t gotten any better. (Some would argue that they’ve actually gotten worse.)
The problem lies in the fact that this culture of being ‘offended’ has never been discouraged by the government of the day and the state’s law-and-order machinery. Instead, in order to keep the involved electorate happy, governments have frequently wilted under pressure, making the artist bear the brunt of needless pandering.
A mature democracy must encourage its people to be open to multiple points of view and varying interpretations of art, history and culture, in order to foster an environment that can let artists broaden their horizons and lend perspectives to the stories of our times.
The fact that a mob can get away with violence and vandalism while the artist is forced to make compromises, can only engender the belief that it’s not worth exploring bold new narratives and themes in the quest for artistic greatness. (The argument here is not about Bhansali specifically giving us said artistic greatness – that is purely subjective. Personally, I’m not a fan of Bhansali, but that’s not the point.)
Consuming films and books is a choice, and so is what you take away from them. Our socio-cultural systems across communities and lifestyles, backed by education (formal or informal), must be designed in such a way that being offended does not lead to a physical expression of violence. And those mobs that encourage such behaviour must be stringently brought to book.
If some work of art were to offend someone’s sensibilities, then it must be instilled in people that the best (and only permissible) way to respond to it is to create or commission another work that expresses the counterview.
Expressing opinion through art isn’t only the sanest way to make your point, but it will also spawn art that cuts across ideologies, enriching national discourse. (As a filmmaker, it pains me to see fellow filmmakers, technicians and other crew members being attacked, but the only way I believe I must respond to it is by writing about it, and perhaps some day making a film about it.)
Of course, this might seem like a utopian state of affairs, but the point is that we’ve never seen the political class even attempt to change such behaviour through policy. They’ve never displayed the intent to make it easier for artists. If anything, they lend their tacit support to violent protests, because of that oft-abused term, ‘vote bank politics’.
Now more than ever, the creative community as well as genuine patrons of art must rally together and attempt to make this behavioural change a part of the discourse; so that we can avoid yet another generation that sees hooliganism as a response to something we disagree with.