Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat has been embroiled in controversy for a long time. The film that stars Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor and was initially titled Padmavati did release on January 25, but the protests against its release have hardly subsided. It is not surprising then that on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the concluding session— that debated and discussed the importance of free speech in India — veered towards this film and the resistance it suffered from. The speakers spoke about how the right to freedom of speech has become a luxury today providing little or no space to the right to dissent.
Members of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena have for long attacked Bhansali’s film Padmaavat on the grounds of demeaning the Rajput community. And while the director has maintained that his film is based on Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat, it hardly pacified the members of the party. This lack of tolerance for a contrarian voice formed the crux of the last session on the second day at the literary festival. The session Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech in India that derived its name from Advocate Abhinav Chandrachud’s recent novel, was attended by the author himself along with Pinky Anand, Additional Solicitor General of India, poet Ashok Vajpeyi, actor and politician Vani Tripathi Tikoo and was moderated by Salil Tripathi.
While Chandrachud argued, much as he has in his book, that the right to freedom of speech in modern-day India is almost farcical, Vajpeyi, who in the past has written the book India Dissents, spoke about the alarming situation of the present times where there is a constant attempt to muffle an opposing voice. “Dissent is a part of India,” the poet said, adding that today “the language of public discourse has become cross and quarrelsome.” Commenting on the present situation, he said there is a conspicuous absence of dialogue and it is this attitude alone that led some section of the people demand a ban on Padmaavat even before they had watched it and made a few state governments demand the same. “Writers, unlike other professionals, believe in the multiplicity of truth(s),” he said, referring perhaps to Bhansali’s interpretation of the poem in his film. “But these truths cannot be undermined by lies,” he added.
Anand, on the other hand, maintained that though freedom of speech is cherishable it does come with certain constraints. “In a country like India one man’s right is another man’s hurdle, one man’s dissent is another man’s praise,” she added and asked, rather rhetorically, “Can you take up something that goes against the security and integrity of the nation?” Although she defended the different states’ decision of prohibiting the film from releasing —“It is the right of a state as a protector of the people,” she maintained “we have to accept dissent”. Tikoo, who is a member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), also stated that contrary to what is being believed, Padmaavat was released without a cut and it is imperative to understand a film within its context. Although the session was not on the film its shadow undeniably loomed large.