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Reason cannot stand up to prejudice

Something strange and bewildering is happening to movies in India and nobody is sure where it will lead.

Over the last two weeks, the big story in newspapers and on TV channels has been the campaign against Padmavati, a Bollywood film that is now ready for release --- but cannot be shown because of the protests.


The film tells the story of Rani Padmavati (also called Padmini) who, legend has it, was Queen of Chittor in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The story, familiar to every schoolchild in India, revolves around an attack on Chittor by the ruler of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji.


   In most versions of the story, Khilji was obsessed with Padmavati whose beauty was legendary. He attacked Chittor because of this obsession. But even though he won the battle, he never got to meet her because Padmavati committed ritual suicide.


   That somebody should want to retell the story of Padmavati is not unusual. It has featured in plays and books through the years and has often been the subject of films. In 1963, a Tamil film Chittoor Rani Padmini told the story. In 1964, a Hindi film Maharani Padmini dealt with the same subject. More recently, the Padmini legend was the subject of a TV film made by the noted Indian film director Shyam Benegal. In 2009, an entire TV series (Chittod ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur) was devoted to the tale.


   So why has a new film that deals with the same subject matter suddenly aroused so much anger?


   It is a question that nobody has been able to answer satisfactorily. A year ago, when the film was being shot in Rajasthan, a little-known organization called the Karni Sena vandalized the set. This was regarded as a fringe activity and nobody believed that the protest would resurface.


   After all, Padmavati is a big-budget prestige production, financed by Viacom 18, a joint venture between Viacom, a major American entertainment company and Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. The film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is one of Bollywood’s most respected film-makers and has directed many hit films. Padmavati’s stars – Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh --- are among India’s top box-office idols.


   The Karni Sena originally accused Bhansali of besmirching Padmavati’s memory by including a romantic encounter between Allauddin Khilji and her. (Apparently, this was to be a dream sequence set in Khilji’s own imagination). There is, in fact, no such scene in the film and Padmavati and Khilji are never on screen together. Moreover, none of the protesters have seen the film or read the screenplay.


   So why do they believe that this film will portray Padmavati in a negative light?


"Some of this would be vaguely understandable if Padmavati was a serious historical figure. But the evidence suggests that she did not even exit."

   They simply won’t say. And the protests have snowballed. The campaign is now not restricted to the fringe. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan has written to the federal government in Delhi asking for the release of the film to be blocked until ‘necessary changes’ are made. The governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, two large Indian states, have also declared that they will not allow Padmavati to be released. All three states —Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh --- are run by the BJP, the party that also runs India’s federal government.


   BJP functionaries in other states have gone further. A senior party leader from Haryana has announced a bounty of Rs 100 million for the heads of director Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone. Over the last week the protests have spread beyond the BJP with the Congress Chief Minister of Punjab also complaining about the film’s ‘distortion of history.’


   Protests against works of fiction are not unusual in India. In fact, India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses following protests from Muslim leaders in the 1980s. And since then, every community has felt emboldened to ask for bans on any book or movie that allegedly hurts its sentiments. The Catholic Church even demanded a ban on the film of The DaVinci Code and nearly got in its way as a previous Congress government wavered.


   So, some of what is going on is understandable. Not only is there a long and dishonorable tradition of curbing freedom of expression but fringe groups, such as the Karni Sena, know that violent protests are the easiest to way to attract media attention and gain national prominence.


   What makes this episode unusual is that there seems to be nothing to protest about. According to journalists who have seen previews of the film, it only retells the familiar story. No one – including the protestors --- has been able to specify a single deviation from the popular legend.


   And yet, not only has the campaign against the film been adopted by mainstream political parties, others have jumped into the fray. The Princess of Jaipur, who has not seen the film, has complained about insults to Rajput honour. The brother of the Maharana of Udaipur, has gone from TV channel to channel arguing that he should be shown the film first and asked to decide on its merits because Chittor was part of the kingdom run by his ancestors.


   Some of this would be vaguely understandable if Padmavati was a serious historical figure. But the evidence suggests that she did not even exit. There is no historical evidence for the story about Allauddin Khilji’s obsession with the Queen of Chittor and the legend dates back only to an epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, written in in 1540, over two centuries after Allauddin Khilji had died. So the charge of historical inaccuracy is irrelevant because there was probably no real Padmavati and she is certainly not represented in history.


   Why then is a big-budget film that faithfully retells an old legend, without deviating from the usual plot, the subject of violence, death-threats and a political storm involving senior ministers and state governments?


   The only answer possible is this: the controversy is a symptom of a new India that confuses myth with history and opinion with fact; where decisions are made only on the basis of overheated emotion and a misplaced sense of community pride.


   In this situation, reason simply cannot stand up to prejudice.




  • Rao 01 Dec 2017

    Well.., not having an educated, well informed population, who can think beyond their concentric circles of religion, language ,region or money is really the culprit here. Movies are also no longer just Entertainment but are coming down to the level of Social Engg. We live in a world where "Fake history" can be easily created, hence the protests, I assume.
    And India is not a Federation of states unlike the United States. It is the union/central govt. Please correct...

  • Biswajit Dasgupta 25 Nov 2017

    Completely baffles us here as to what the controversy is all about. These protests started off as a joke or PR stunt perhaps but now with the governments involved, it really is a mockery of sorts.
    A small error - the third last paragraph, second sentence - the last word would be exist and not exit.
    Nice article.

Posted On: 25 Nov 2017 03:10 PM
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