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Padmavati punctures cultural nationalism

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Padmavati, Padmavati row, Padmavati postponed, Padmavati Protest, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Deepika Padukone, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, BJP, Suraj Pal Amu

The ongoing controversy over Padmavati has an interesting twist. The Deepika Padukone starrer seems to have obscured the cultural nationalism narrative of the BJP and RSS at least for the time being. Padmavati has split the intellectual and political class, film fraternity (many Bollywood biggies are silent) and the Indian States.

Even as northern states like UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have banned the Sanjay Leela Bansali flick, southern states are okay with it while Karnataka CM Siddharamaiah invoking Kannada pride (Deepika is a daughter of the soil) has beefed up security for Ms Padukone and her family after a Rajput Sena activist threatened to chop her nose while another offered Rs 5 crore for her head for “distorting” Rajput history though some historians still maintain that Padmavati is a “fictional” character. A BJP leader subsequently scaled up the supari to Rs.10 crore. He has since been served with a show-cause notice by the party.

In June this year, to promote Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of “Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat” (One India Great India), senior RSS leaders Dattatreya Hosabale and Krishna Gopal held a meeting with culture ministers of BJP-ruled states helmed by union culture minister Mahesh Sharma wherein the need to formulate strategies to counter sub-nationalistic tendencies and advance “cultural nationalism” was discussed. The Indian Express quoted one of the participants saying that “We have become more Marathi, more Gujarati, more Bengali and so on…we are losing Indianness. We forgot we are Indians first and got divided into our own states”.


India needs to celebrate its diversity rather than endorsing the one-nation, one-language, one-religion philosophy. But that does not mean that chauvinistic organisations like Karni Sena be allowed to take law into their hands. Already, too many caste and communal Senas are out there in the garb of cultural police. These non-state actors are emboldened by the silence of the powers that be.

 Why is it that while the RSS worry about linguistic, caste, racial and sectarian identities, the BJP chief ministers in north India back a caste outfit like Karni Sena? Is it because of the upcoming elections in Gujarat and MP and Rajasthan next year that the Sangh has opted for a tactical retreat as it suits BJP’s electoral calculus?

Interestingly, two years ago, film Bajirao Mastani (powered by the same crew – Bhansali, Deepika, Ranveer Singh) had also run into initial trouble with descendants of Peshwa and Chhatrasal dynasty protesting against alleged distortion of historical figures of Maharashtra and Bundelkhand. But nobody threatened to slash Deepika’s nose or offered Rs 10 crore bounty on her head and the movie became a super hit.

The reason perhaps be that Bajirao Mastani has a political storyline. Compared to Padmavati, Bajirao Mastani reversed religious identities; lead actor Ranveer Singh played the role of a Hindu ruler (mind you not Muslim) while Deepika, though of Muslim-Hindu progeny, was portrayed as a Muslim warrior with a golden heart.

For some reasons Padmavati controversy is allowed to linger. And now, BJP Subramanian Swamy, the desi Sherlock Holmes, who sees global conspiracy in everything, says he suspects an “international conspiracy” behind Padamavati. Talking to Zee News, he alleged that “Dubai residents want Muslim kings to be presented as heroes in our movies and Hindu women eager to enter into relationships with them”. (It is a different matter that the 2.8 million Dubai inhabitants constitute lakhs of Hindus as well). Swamy said, “we should keep tabs on the fact that if there is a larger international conspiracy behind it”.  He wanted the Enforcement Directorate to investigate the funding of Padmavati.

And betraying the farcical nature of the discourse, Karni Sena leaders admitted that they have not seen the movie they are opposing.  When Firstpost.com, in an interview, asked Sena leader Lokendra Singh Kalvi if he has seen the movie, he retorted haughtily, “There is no need”. Is he a law unto himself?  Deepika’s comment that “nothing can stop the release of this film” appears to have stung him further. “Is Deepika Padukone the President (of India) or the Prime Minister to say that the film will be shown at any cost?”, fumed Singh. But, is it not the job of CBFC chief and not the President or PM to clear films?

Last week, Ms Padukone had told media, “The only people we are answerable to is the censor board, and I know, and I believe that nothing can stop the release of this film… Film industry’s support symbolises how this is not about Padmavati… We’re fighting a much bigger battle”.

Deepika told IANS that “It’s appalling. It’s absolutely appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation? We have regressed”. Have we regressed? Yes, signs are aplenty.

A few days ago, The New York Times carried an Op-Ed page article, “The Dying Art of Disagreement” (text of a lecture delivered by Bret Stephens at the Lowy Institute Media Award in Sydney). Inter alia Stephens said, “I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong…are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task”.

Stephens referred to Galileo and Darwin, Mandela, Havel, Liu Xiaobo, Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky saying such are the ranks of those who disagree. He said, “identity politics” has made the distance between making an argument and causing offense terrifyingly short.

“Disagreement” has been a dying art in India as well. The nation has been hurtling from one needless controversy to another at the cost of governance. These stage-managed distractions only help the government and the ruling party to obfuscate real issues. Time that civil society saw through these games.

The author is an independent journalist.