Sanjay Leela Bhansali-Padmavati row: Political failure to intervene boosts cultural censorship

Monobina Gupta

Jan,30 2017 11:24:28 IST

Given our contemporary political culture, it is perhaps too much to expect the Indian political class to come out with a full-throated condemnation of the violent attack on film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Yet, illusions and hopes have a way of persisting, even when they fly in the face of reality.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Getty Images/File photo

Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Getty Images/File photo

One wonders why our top political leaders, many of them currently engaged in energetic poll campaigns, could not have done their bit in expressing solidarity with Bhansali. One wonders why, as they addressed large groups of the electorate in different parts of the country, the leaders did not warn the people of the dangers of promoting cultural totalitarianism. It is only logical to wonder whether such silence is wilful and expedient on the part of politicians. Whether such chronic behaviour is prompted by tactical poll considerations, where politicians do not want to counter such regressive sentiments of regional chauvinism.

Last Friday, activists of Karni Sena (a Rajput organisation) entered the Jaigarh Fort and assaulted Bhansali, slapping him around, tearing his shirt. The assaulters alleged that Bhansali’s film Padmavati, which he was shooting in Rajasthan at that time, presents a distorted picture. The director, according to them, has portrayed the Rajput queen Padmavati as being in love with the powerful medieval century Khilji dynasty ruler, Alauddin Khilji.

In the aftermath of the violent incident, Bhansali packed up and quit the site where he was shooting. He has now even clarified that his film Padmavati does not contain any “dream sequence or objectionable scene” between Padmavati and Alauddin Khilj. That the director is compelled to furnish explanations about his forthcoming film to a gang of lumpens with little or no idea of history or cinema, shows how dangerous and farcical the situation has become.

“We clarify that there is no dream sequence or any objectionable scene between Rani Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji. We have been carefully researching and making the film ... The attack on the shoot and crew was uncalled for and was extremely damaging to the image of the beautiful city of Jaipur,” the director’s statement reads.

Let’s be clear. The question – whether Bhansali’s film does or does not have so-called “objectionable scenes” of intimacy between Padmavati and Alauddin – is an irrelevant one. Cinema grants its filmmakers the creative and artistic licence to play around with the script and history. Documentaries might be mandated to represent characters or events as they were or as they happened – although even this is no longer strictly true. Even if Bhansali included content in his film which certain sections of people find offensive, he is well within his rights to do so.

What has made this sort of cultural dictatorship all too normal in this country is the lack of active intervention by politicians in such situations – whenever fiats are issued and enforced by mobs against artistes. If Rajasthan’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been less than audible in voicing its condemnation over the assault, politicians from either side of the aisle have hardly made themselves heard any louder.

This pattern of silence or muted criticism is what has made the Indian political class complicit with the mobs, in enforcing and promoting the rising cultural censorship across the country.

Unfortunately, political parties are always most vociferous when it comes to issues of appointment of heads of cultural institutions. And that seems to be the only issue in the realm of culture that provokes politicians to intervene in a decisive manner. By now India has a deeply entrenched culture where ruling political parties of the day appoint their loyalists to top educational and cultural institutions, regardless of the suitability for the job. And the opposition parties, on their part, do what they do best – launch fierce attacks on the appointees. Recall in this context last year’s vociferous opposition to the BJP appointee, Pahlaj Nihalini, as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification.

But the very same parties on both sides of the divide, either look away, or mumble a whispered reproach to groups regularly holding artistes to ransom. Sadly, political parties don’t seem to be aware of the threat that these escalating incidents have come to pose to India’s creative industries and personalities. They simply don’t care about the attrition of artistic freedom, and the culture of fear that has come to stay.

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2017 11:24 AM