The Padmavati debacle: Hooliganism by fringe elements has become the new normal

The Padmavati debacle: Hooliganism by fringe elements has become the new normal

Even if Sanjay Leela Bhansali did take a few dramatic liberties and 'meddled' with history, does it give a band of goons (or anyone else for that matter) the right to assault him?

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Jaipur: Karni Sena activists protest against the shooting of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upconimg film ‘Padmawati’ alleging depiction of ‘wrong facts’ in it at Jaigarh fort in Jaipur on Friday. Source: PTI Photo

A new brand of hooliganism is emerging in India and, we’re allowing it. Recently, the right-wing fringe outfit, Rajput Karni Sena came into the spotlight for physically assaulting filmmaker, Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the sets of his film, ‘Padmavati’. In its defense, Karni Sena argued that Bhansali was “distorting history” by showing Padmawati (who incidentally, was a Hindu) indulging in an intimate relationship with emperor Alauddin Khilji.

This incident raises a few questions though: First, even if Bhansali did take a few dramatic liberties and ‘meddled’ with history, does it give a band of goons (or anyone else for that matter) the right to assault him? Two, Padmavati is a legendary figure—a fictional character that over time merged into the books of history. According to experts, there is even a possibility that she did not exist ( Must we make a hue and cry therefore, over a character whose very existence is questionable?

Let’s cut through veneer of Karni Sena claiming that Bhansali was tampering with history. While the Sena may deny it, but Bhansali was beaten up primarily to receive considerable media attention. Until a few days ago, the Karni Sena existed at the periphery. No one had ever heard of it. However, when it brandished its muscle and assaulted Bhansali, instantly it catapulted itself into mainstream conversations.

This incident is reminiscent of the debacle that surrounded Karan Johar a few months ago. In October 2016, a few weeks before Johar’s film, ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ starring the Pakistani actor, Fawad Khan was to be released, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) created an uproar. They found the idea of a Pakistani actor starring in an Indian film, ludicrous. Johar was questioned about his sense of patriotism and derided as an anti-national.


But the commotion held a magnifying glass over a few important issues. To calm the MNS down, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis held a private meeting in his office between MNS leader Raj Thackeray and Johar. That meeting organised by Fadnavis himself, made a telling statement: instead of arresting the MNS goons, not only did Fadnavis support and encourage the party’s puerile bullying by inviting Thackeray to his office, but he handed over Thackeray (a man not elected into power) the clout to bully Johar and extort five crores (under the veneer of ‘voluntary donation’ for the Indian army).

Fadnavis caved in to Thackeray’s hooliganism, instead of standing up to it.

That kind of puppet-performance conveyed how weak and biased our law and order apparatus is. It also conveyed the inefficacy of an elected representative like Fadnavis to protect a citizen of his state.

At that time, Thackeray’s men who unconstitutionally threatened Johar weren’t arrested. Today, nothing much has changed. The Karni Sena’s men who beat up Bhansali have not been jailed.

And here’s the blatant irony:The police has been quick to arrest ordinary citizens marching in peaceful protests – like Najeeb Ahmed’s mother, who was manhandled and dragged into a police bus for participating in a protest that demanded the officials to find her missing son. The police however, will almost never hunt down and imprison bullies who belong to the violent, chest-thumping extreme outfits.

More importantly, this is a democracy. Free speech and the ability to make films, and to take certain dramatic liberties in art – as long as the artist is not hurting a race, religion or a community – is a right. To allow far-right fundamentalists to wreck havoc at whim and to not penalize them for it is problematic. It challenges the very nature of our democracy.

This isn’t the first time self-proclaimed right-wing vigilantes have created an uproar around a film. Back in 2010, the Shiv Sena clawed its way into the limelight by ostensibly delaying the release of the Shah Rukh Khan starrer film, ‘My Name Is Khan’, because the actor wanted to include Pakistani players in his IPL team. Even the veteran painter, M.F. Husain was forced to live in self-imposed exile, because he received death threats for portraying Indian goddesses in the nude. But here’s the thing: If these right-wing fundamentalists felt enraged that the modesty of the goddesses was being undermined, I wonder where they are when women in India get molested, raped and sexually assaulted on the streets? Where is their rage then?

This brand of hooliganism needs to be suppressed, not encouraged. For Fadnavis to play the silent mediator between Thackeray and Johar, and for Bhansali’s team to issue a statement that there are and will be no intimacy scenes in ‘Padmavati’, indicates a threat not only to freedom of expression, but underscores that right-wing fundamentalists can muscle their way into making ridiculous demands – and get away with it. It throws in some uncomfortable questions onto the table that need to be addressed. For starters, why aren’t these rowdy, law-breaking goons in jail yet?