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.