Now that the makers of ~Padmavati~ have put off indefinitely the release of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, it is hoped the controversy over its contents will be relegated to the back burner. Everyone from the self-styled defenders of the Rajput honour, to the politicians who jumped with alacrity to support them, ought to leave the matter to the Central Board of Film Certification, the lawful authority to vet films prior to their commercial release.
With an eye cocked no doubt at the richer commercial pickings from the unremitting public ruckus over the film’s release, the producers do not seem to be in a hurry to want to bury the hatchet anytime time soon. The fact that the film they sent to the CBFC did not declare whether it was in the historical or fictional category underscores their own dilemma. They would not like to delink or disassociate the film from the popular mythology built around Rani Padmavati.
Continuing confusion in this regard fuels the controversy which in turn raises immensely the curiosity value of the film, assuring record box-office returns in the early days of its release, that is, as and when it takes place. A recent newspaper report said that more than 60 films had faced public protests before their release in the last decade. Among them was Bhansali’s own ~Bajirao Mastani,~ which supposedly hurt the sensibilities of a section of the people in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Other films also faced pre-release opposition on religious or regional or caste grounds.
Notably, a number of them did well on the box-office. Having said that, we must condemn in the strongest possible words the unlawful and violent antics of the protesters. Vandalizing theaters, which showed an early trailer of the film, was unacceptable. The guilty need to be penalized, especially in order to send out a clear message that they do not have the sanction of the rulers. However, the intervention of the authorities is immediately warranted to put down those who have issued death threats to the lead actress Deepika Padukone and Bhansali. Whoever earned his five moments of notoriety by offering a Rs. Five-crore bounty on the heads of Padukone and Bhansali, needs to be held for criminal intimidation.
Unless the police in Meerut charge the publicity-seekers, other misguided people would feel encouraged to announce a bigger bounty – and a content-starved media would, pronto, give him the oxygen of publicity. Unfortunately, when the UP Chief Minister, the saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, himself openly joins the anti-Padmavati bandwagon, saying that he wouldn’t allow its release in the State, it is unlikely that the police would move against the Meerut youth who had issued the threats to Padukone and Bhansali. It is really strange that public passions are aroused over a film which no one has seen. Having imagined that the film depicts Padmavati, regardless whether a historical or mythical figure, in poor light and that it would hurt their sentiments, several more politicians have thrust themselves into the ugly controversy.
The Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje respectively, have railed against the film, with the former promising to create a fitting memorial for ~ rashtra mata’s ~ sacrifice. Curiously, even the Congress Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, a former true-blood Maharaja of the Patiala state, too has endorsed the anti-Padmavati platform. The only one to strike a different note, though again with an electoral angle in mind, is the Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Expressing concern at the security of Padukone, a bona fide daughter of the State, Siddaramaiah committed to provide her police escort. Though Bhansali has remained silent throughout the public tamasha over his film, it is advised that Padukone too keeps her own counsels, not because we condone the ugly controversy in anyway, but her intervention only further instigates the irresponsible elements to raise the ante as it were.
While the top leadership of the BJP publicly disapproved the threats of violence issued against Padukone and Bhansali, regrettably it said that it too was against the release of the film. The party should have refrained from expressing such an opinion given that it virtually curbs Bhansali’s fundamental right to free expression so long as it does not impinge on public decency and order. Numerous times the higher courts have clarified that artistic freedom, though not absolute like all other fundamental rights, must not be curbed without valid grounds. Once the CBFC has certified a film for release, the only course available to those aggrieved by its content lies in appealing to the courts. Not in creating a law and order situation and intimidating its actors and producers.