The Supreme Court’s decision to stay the ban announced by four state government on screening the movie, Padmaavat, is unprecedented and should be viewed as such by the film industry and CBFC. Moreover, the Court has directed the state governments – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana – to ensure law and order.
What is equally important is that the makers of the movie, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, his producers as well as the 500-plus cast and crew who worked on the film, have stood up to the freedom of speech and bullies. This needs to be loudly lauded because it comes from members of an industry that more often than not chooses to cower behind the flimsiest of reasons.
There have been several instances in the past where filmmakers have given in, sometimes to the Central Bureau of Film Certification (CBFC) and at other times to members of fringe groups and political parties looking to gain mileage from controversies that may surround a film.
A recent such instance in 2016 involved Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The film’s release was opposed by Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which protested against the fact that the film’s cast included a Pakistani actor, Fawad Khan. This took place at a time when relations between the two neighbours had severely deteriorated. But Karan Johar did not approach the country’s legal system and instead subscribed to the prevalent jingoistic sentiment of the time, by declaring his patriotism on his sleeves.
So one of the most powerful personalities of the film industry stooped to engage with political powers and a truce was famously arrived at between the two parties, after the BJP-led state’s Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, played mediator. MNS even claimed that Karan Johar “donated” Rs 5 lakh towards the Army welfare fund as part of the truce.
The incident was one of great shame where a state’s Chief Minister had publicly endorsed a bully instead of assuring the makers and exhibitors that anyone breaking law in Maharashtra will be punished.
What we saw in the Padmaavat case is hardly different. The four states that banned the film are all led by the ruling BJP. The chief ministers of each state, instead of protecting the film, have allied with and endorsed the fringe Hindutva group Karni Sena, and announced a ban. This despite the fact that the Supreme Court, in an earlier case, had left the decision to ban or clear the film to the CBFC, which had certified it as U/A, with suggested changes.
The filmmakers have not only, at each step, complied with law and followed due process, they have also, reportedly, accepted the “suggested changes” by the CBFC. Among other things, they changed the film’s title from Padmavati to Padmaavat. And throughout, they maintained a dignified silence, neither badmouthing the CBFC nor criticising “public sentiment”.
On the other hand, several BJP MPs from across the country, including Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, have supported the anti-Padmaavat protesters who have, ever since the film was being shot, behaved in the most aggressive and violent ways. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took time out to laud Akshay Kumar’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha on social media, has also remained silent on the treatment of Padmaavat.
It all started in January 2017 when the so-called Karni Sena vandalised the film’s sets in Jaipur, also reportedly physically attacking the film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The group was protesting against the supposed on-screen portrayal of the Rajput queen Padmavati. The filmmaker opted for the safety of his crew and moved the shoot to Kolhapur where the set again suffered at the hands of miscreants.
After several such roadblocks, the film’s release was announced for December 1 and the song Ghoomar released as part of the promotions. All hell broke loose soon after as massive protests against the film began across Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. In Jaipur, subsequently, a man was found dead, his body hanging from the Nahargarh Fort with a message that was vague but in context of the film.
Interestingly, the protesters have not watched the film until today. Also, whether queen Padmavati ever lived, or if she was a fictional character from Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s acclaimed work Padmavat, is highly debated.
When the events unfolded, the filmmakers must have wondered why they were being targeted, unsure what there was in the trailer for Hindus not to like? The director, in keeping with the bigotry of our times, had given the audience the Allauddin Khilji they want–a brutal, unkempt savage Muslim leader who eats raw meat and perhaps lusts after another man’s wife.
In contrast, the Rajput king Ratan Singh and queen Padmavati, in Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, come across as brave, beautiful, the kind who believe in everlasting love and who are willing to give up their lives fighting evil foreign forces that threaten to take over their land.
As several petitions to stay the film’s release landed in front of the Supreme Court in November, it placed the ball in CBFC’s court, which cleared the film before the new year dawned, perhaps in hope of fresh beginnings. The elections in Gujarat were over and the BJP had managed to retained power.
The controversy can now be put behind, the I&B Ministry, which oversees the CBFC, must have thought. But the rut continued and the BJP-ruled states, chose their side, one that did not favour the law. It is this stand that the film’s reticent team challenged in the SC yesterday.
Some believe that Team Padmaavat should have approached the legal system before, when CBFC issued a statement claiming they suggested a mere five changes (rumours have it that 300 cuts were suggested). But even now, the makers, in their first official communication to announce the new release date as January 25, have been evasive about the issues they faced, only saying that the film “celebrates Rajput valour”.
After all, a film, which is the labour of many hands — at least 500-odd people in cases like Padmaavat–stands to lose a lot more if it ruffles feathers, given that there are several stakeholders involved, including exhibitors.
Certainly, Padmaavat’s makers have conducted themselves well, staying away from reactionary statements, but following the legal and due processes. They have also fought a lonely battle because the film industry rarely unites over anything — members of the fraternity had a token protest and strike that did not draw any powerful names). The only one instance in recent memory when some prominent industry names came together to protest against CBFC’s stance was over the Anurag Kashyap-produced Udta Punjab. Eventually, the Bombay High Court allowed the film to release with a mere one cut.
For this long, patient battle, the Supreme Court has rewarded Padmaavat with what is due to them, striking down the ban on the film’s screening so it can have a peaceful release on January 25. The Court has, in fact, placed the onus on the respective governments to ensure that fringe elements do not dictate terms in the running of the states.
The film’s makers stood up for their rights. The country’s judicial system has yet again demonstrated that bullies have no place in a democracy.
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