Cinebuffs across the country (if not the world) are eagerly awaiting the 25th of January to finally witness the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati (oops I mean Padmaavat or is it Padmavat?). After months of being put on trial by India’s moral/religious/history police and the censor board, it became clear that when it comes to freedom of artistic expression-the Bard was wrong-a lot depends on the name. Though it isn’t the film’s dropping of the ‘i’ in its title that is up for scrutiny today, but the full page advertisement that has appeared in newspapers.
Every statement in this claimed ‘disclaimer’ reads more like an apology by the film, a work of art, to political fascists for everything that appears to have offended them, and could possibly offend them post-release. What makes my skin crawl the most was the last point of this controversial ad - “Padmavaat is a film that every Indian will be proud of.” If you thought making the Supreme court verdict on playing the national anthem in cinema halls marked the end of fake patriotism, well think again. Though by now after all the hegemonic attacks that have followed the film’s public release, should we really be surprised by yet another one? Let’s break it down for you.
The film is based on the epic poem Padmavat that narrates the legend where Alauddin Khilji invades Chittor on orders to conquer the kingdom and the queen, Padmini. According to this report by Scroll.in, the film, starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor, has been in the midst of a controversy since January last year when members of the Rajput Karni Sena assaulted Bhansali on the set of the movie in Jaipur. The Karni Sena was against an alleged romantic dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji and asked for the film to be banned. They felt that the film distorted historical facts and defamed their Queen. Though Bhansali clearly professed that there was no such scenes in the film, the right wing Sena leaders refused to believe it. Had they seen the film? No. Had they dreamt of it? Probably.
In this report by The News Click, revered Indian parallel cinema director Shyam Benegal called the the uproar over Padmaavat a way to “consolidate the Rajput vote.” In the same report the filmmaker, who is known for his socially-charged movies, said, “...you must understand that the Rajput community is not one homogenized community across the country. By raking up the ‘Padmavati’ non-issue, the Karni Sena hopes to homogenize the Rajputs across the country and unite them over an utterly irrelevant crisis. Sadly their ploy seems to be working. If I am from a particular caste and you tell me my cultural heritage is threatened I will naturally react against the threat.”
If making art a pawn in a game to win vote banks was not enough, the Karni Sena also went out and resorted to hooliganism. According to various reports, the party publicly issued death threats against Padukone and Bhansali while vandalising the films’s property. Instead of opposing such undemocratic actions the Governments of various states including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with considerable Rajput population supported the ban on the film. The Central Board Of Film Certification also held the film back until the producers themselves “voluntarily”deferred the film’s release.
Coming back to the advertisement, the film has finally released with “no cuts” and only “modifications with disclaimers”. This advertisement brings the saffronised nationalism that has followed the film (and society) to full circle. While we are happy that the film will be able to reach some, if not all its audiences in the country, we can hardly call this a triumph for art. In the notorious history of India’s film censorship , Padmaavat is another sinister addition that continues to give citizens a delusion of the freedom of expression.
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