The legal conflict between the producers of Gulab Gang and Sampat Lal was the latest in a long line of controversies involving portrayals of public figures. Individual subjects of a wide array of biographies and films have sought legal action against what they perceive as unauthorised or inaccurate representations of their lives. Such controversies have surrounded Shekhar Kapur’s depiction of Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen, Hamish McDonald’s depiction of Dhirubhai Ambani in The Polyester Prince and Javier Moro’s book on Sonia Gandhi. These controversies raise longstanding questions about freedom of expression and censorship. The issues are certainly not new, and political controversies and contexts often shape (and restrict) artistic and academic expression in complex ways.
Works that have touched on taboo subjects such as gender and sexuality, for instance, have often provoked fierce national debate and political opposition. Legal and political battles over cultural representation — whether through film, biography or academic research — are complex cases, each of which is mired in distinct dynamics shaped both by the substance and style of the work on the one hand and the political actors and interests unsettled by these works on the other. However, taken together, they raise important issues regarding the politics and ethics of cultural production that makes claims of fact or authenticity about living subjects.
The ethical questions provoked by these films and biographies are not neutral or self-evident, and may have different implications depending on the social location and political power of the subjects involved. Prominent privileged individuals or powerful movements, for instance, may effectively use claims of factual inaccuracy for self-interested reasons and effectively censor public debate. But the public depiction of subaltern subjects who are socially vulnerable in terms of their gender, caste or class position raises a more complex set of questions regarding the political implications of artistic expression. Public controversies over such depictions often serve as ideological flashpoints that reveal the national politics of cultural production. They are flashpoints precisely because they invoke or unsettle significant national sentiments about social and cultural issues.
Phoolan Devi’s attempt to stop the screening of Bandit Queen hit a chord in part because it intersected with national debates on public norms about gender. Bandit Queen provoked a sharp debate on the representation of rape in the film. Kapur’s use of nudity in representing the rapes was particularly unusual in the context of existing genres of popular Hindi and regional cinema at the time. One of the deeper ethical quandaries that the film raised was whether the attempt to break silences about the violence of rape was inadvertently recolonising Phoolan Devi by depicting her as a passive rape victim. This question has no easy continued…