When CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi told this newspaper that “it is important for all of us to learn to hear newer voices and listen to unfamiliar points of view with mutual respect, equanimity and grace”, irony died not with a whimper, but with a bang. Mutual respect, equanimity and grace have been in short supply in the controversy that has surrounded Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati, now Padmavat. And with the many acts of capitulation to “hurt sentiments” of groups threatening violence over a work they have not seen, the censor board and I&B Ministry have dropped more than a letter from the title of a film.
With the “I”, filmmakers — creative people of every stripe, really — will have to drop even the illusion that they can represent characters as they want to. That fiction is, in fact, different from history. Also missing in action is a civilised notion of crime and punishment. A fringe group can threaten public figures with disfigurement and decapitation and government after government, led by both the Congress and BJP, will acquiesce to the notion that men cartoonishly wielding swords represent the collective emotions of an entire community. And finally, the credibility of a certification board that likes to play censor has gone the way of the “I”.
But it isn’t all losses, much has been gained from the Padmavati episode. “Our nerves,” Joshi has gleaned from the controversy, “are intertwined with one societal consciousness.” The agent of that consciousness was a panel which placed historians and one-time royals on the same plane, equally capable of deciding the fate of a work of fiction. There is the lesson that the rule of law has no place when the emotions and the ability to express them violently is enough for the state to entertain the vilest notions of community pride. And, a lesson for critics — who needs to see a film before sitting in judgement on it?