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Should we have defended Sanjay Leela Bhansali?

Liberals must question themselves. There is nothing liberal about portraying women jumping into fire in a manner that doesn’t cause revulsion.

Written by Krishna Kumar | Updated: February 15, 2018 12:21 am
Should we have defended Bhansali? Far from being unique or rare, this episode is actually quite illustrative of the confused reality of our times.

The Padmaavat controversy has gone out of the news, creating room for other pressing matters. However, it has left behind some difficult questions, one of which has to be answered by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of the film. He became the object of sympathy in the world inhabited by liberal citizens when his film came under threat. He benefitted from their commitment to freedom of expression.

Now that a vast number of people have seen his film, it is worth asking precisely what Bhansali was trying to express. Several reviewers of the film agree that it glorifies sati. It uses the latest technology of cinema aesthetics to present women as mere symbols of men’s honour. If these are medieval values, Bhansali’s film does not inspire us to question them. Rather, it legitimises the concept of honour and some of the most extreme claims that patriarchy makes on women’s physiology and thoughts. Having seen his earlier film, Bajirao Mastani, I can say with some confidence that Bhansali has no compunctions about using women as means of commercial success. Maybe he believes in secular values, but these two films don’t indicate this. He has no hesitation in reinforcing stereotypes of women and of India’s biggest religious minority. If this is what his art expresses, does the constitutional guarantee of freedom to express cover him?

This is, of course, an inconvenient question. If we hold freedom of expression above all other values enshrined in the Constitution, we will have trouble opposing hate speech, child pornography, visual depiction of wanton violence, and so on. The other choice is equally difficult to make. That is, if we don’t defend and protect Bhansali’s artistic expression, we run the risk of falling in line with those who demand banning of certain books or attack writers. As both choices are so full of risk and danger, I feel it might have been good if Bhansali could agree to respond to reviewers of his film, some of whom are quite eminent in their own fields, including in history and cinema itself.

His silence is disturbing, because it confirms the feeling that citizens and intellectuals who want to promote liberal values like freedom and tolerance have been fooled. Their support has been bought for commercial gain by clever staging of a fake conflict.

Far from being unique or rare, this episode is actually quite illustrative of the confused reality of our times. Strange patterns of agreement are emerging all the time, demanding the same degree of moral flexibility from citizens that they often notice, with understandable annoyance, in their political representatives. And the situation is not unique to India. In many societies today, citizens have agreed to let some of their basic rights be curtailed for the sake of something else which seems more dreadful than the sacrifice of a right.

Many regard personal security as a higher value than privacy, for example. In the same vein, it is not uncommon in several countries to consider freedom of expression as being less important than the desire to be protected from ugly or repulsive forms of art.

The right to freedom of expression teases us because it benefits a special group of people, such as writers and artists, who have the capacity to express themselves forcefully. To the ordinary citizen, who is not good at raising a voice, tolerating the opacity of those in power is an everyday necessity. I have personal experience of enduring the opacity of an institution I have served all my life. It is indeed quite ironical that this institution is called a university where the young are supposed to learn how to express themselves. Opacity, I suppose, is the defining characteristic of power, no matter who is exercising it. Acceptance of dialogue, as a normal means for resolution of conflicts, is hard to achieve in a society where power is so unevenly distributed.

Padmaavat’s director succeeded in mobilising a vast constituency of liberal opinion on his side. Its members felt as if something deeply implicated in our democratic system was at stake in the controversy over this film. Its opponents had not seen it, so they were charged — by liberal individuals and institutions — of impulsive reaction without facts. Now that the film is available to the public, we can clearly grasp Bhansali’s priorities.

There is nothing liberal about portraying women ending their lives by jumping into fire in a manner that doesn’t cause revulsion. Next time we hear about a film director in distress, we must weigh our options before rushing in to protest, or at least insist on seeing his art first.

The writer was director of NCERT. His latest book is an edited volume titled ‘Handbook of Education in India’.

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  1. Ajay Gupta
    Feb 15, 2018 at 10:57 pm
    If SLB makes a movie depicting Mohammed, Muslims will protest. Probably, we shall not support SLB for his right of expression. Reason is not fear or sympathy for Muslims nor that we give in to threat for peace. We pity on them for their regressive belief. We have no curosity either to know their prophet. When SLB made Padmavat even though accused of glorifying Jauhar and his rights were threatened, we protested. That is how we have been. Open to expression, debate and reform, wherever needed. Jauhar has always been perceived by us as an act of valour, unflinching resolve to protect the dignity. That does not mean it will be accorded approval today. One has to judge their act according to their pre-disposition not according to present situation. Muslims today are still pre-disposed as they were 1300 years back. I am proud of being Hindu. Padmavat hardly deserved the kind of publicity it enjoyed. Don't understand reason behind number of 200 crores and more...
    1. S
      Feb 15, 2018 at 8:34 pm
      I always wonder whether we should be more embrassed about Jihadis in India or liberals in India. So many other ladies ended as slaves of Khilji. If this guy wants to make a movie on those ladies he is welcome. He can ask Yezdi women in Syria - how they suffered under ISIS - he will get a contemporary story. Becuase of people like this we have san ized version of history - where Islamic conquest is white-washed. Why should these elite decide what part of history should be glorified and what san ized? History should be told the way it happened. Let people decide> Padmini was brave enough to jump into fire than face humiliation.
      1. K
        Feb 15, 2018 at 7:24 pm
        Writer's is the third hypothesis.SLB has depicted what did happen then. It does not happen now. No one supports it. Johar did happen. Well those were the times. We have not seen the loot, p er and bloodshed of those days so we will not appreciate that johar was preferable to falling in to hell.
        1. H
          Feb 15, 2018 at 7:16 pm
          Defending Bhansali and defending Jauhar are two separate en ies. Author is confused about these two issues. Yes we should have defended Bhansali,s right to make movies however bad they are or however regressive they are. People always have the choice of mornings watching them. Author could have written bad reviews, could have made appeal in print and electronic media for not watching his movies. Because Bhansali made regressive movies, violent social groups cannot have an automatic right to burn public property, and issue death threat to actors.
          1. H
            Feb 15, 2018 at 7:01 pm
            To be secular and democratic we have to be human first and we are not even come out of our slavery mindset, thus to become human is far away from us. The truth is Muslim ruler defeated Aryan ruler and ruled us around thousands years. The interesting part is that those were running the Aryan regime was on the payroll of Muslim ruler as well as on the payroll of British. However, it is the common people who find hate a very exciting game and to encash it some people engaged in a negative creativity just full fill their wish. Therefore, prior to blaming others we have to fix self responsibility first towards the socio-economical prosperity of each member of society irrespective of their caste and religion. Otherwise, we will keep on killing each other in the name of caste and religion and bowing in front of outsiders.
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