Tuesday, Mar 20, 2018 | Last Update : 07:24 AM IST
A protest is not a bad thing in a democracy and if someone’s sentiments are hurt they have every right to protest.
Undeterred by the Supreme Court order, four of the democratically elected governments have opposed the release of Padmavati for fear of law and order problems. Worse still, instead of punishing those issuing threats like beheading and announcing cash rewards for killing artists, the BJP and Opposition have chosen to remain silent. A silence, which is killing!
As poignant background music plays, a resplendent Deepika Padukone as Padmavati the Queen of Chittor looks proudly at us with firm determination and the following lyrics are sung
Ranisa jo aag se balkhe,
Ranisa badal sa garje,
Ranisa Rajputi shaan hai,
Ranisa maari aan baan hai...
To my eye it looked like the perfect ode to the valour and strength of the Rajput queen we have all grown up admiring. Faced with a choice between getting captured by the enemy Allauddin Khilji, she along with 1,600 women of the royal house of Chittor chose self-immolation in the form of Jauhar rather than surrender. When Khilji marched into the fort he was left with only ashes. Whether the erstwhile queen existed or not is for the historians to debate, but the Queen of Chittor’s sacrifice teaches us all, not the bravery of a particular caste but that at the end of any battle the winner also loses! You cannot capture the soul of a person however powerful you may be.
The trailer of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati seemed to bring all of this to the fore — pain, love, loyalty, commitment, sacrifice and valour. I hoped the members of the Karni Sena who had vandalised the sets of Padmavati and slapped Mr Bhansali in January 2017 had seen the trailer. Also, the intent of the film, which is clearly to celebrate the highest ideals of Rajput honour not indulge in some lurid fantasy between Khilji and the queen.
To my utter dismay what played out in the next few days changed from the usual rabble-rousing of the “ hurt sentiment” brigade to bizarre to downright dangerous. All this happened with the tacit support of all the political parties who didn’t want to lose a chunk of this very vocal vote bank. I almost felt we were stuck in a dystopian world where people waved swords on prime time news shows, asked for the nose of Ms Padukone to be cut off and even announced cash rewards for beheading the heads of Ms Padukone and Mr Bhansali.
A protest is not a bad thing in a democracy and if someone’s sentiments are hurt they have every right to protest. But the manner in which these protests were being carried out was downright undemocratic! There was utter disregard for law and order and complete disrespect for an individual’s democratic rights. Even more appalling was when chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat announced that Padmavati would be banned in their states. The Karni Sena wanted “objectionable parts” from the film removed without specifying because they hadn’t seen the film.
The protests continued even after the honourable Supreme Court reminded the petitioners seeking a ban on Padmavati that it is a call that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) takes after viewing the film.
Many of my Rajput friends were distressed by the behavior of their brethren. But in the cacophony of hate, the moderates always find it difficult to speak out without sounding disrespectful to their own culture. They wondered whether it was brave to raise weapons against a defenceless person, whether it was right to attack a woman in this manner.
All we heard loud and clear was the silence of the ruling party (BJP) which otherwise is so quick to call press conferences. All we heard was silence from the Opposition.
All we heard was the deafening silence of reason. Well let me say it straight, and I speak only for myself, that I do not respect the “honourable” chief ministers of Rajasthan, MP, UP, Gujarat and Punjab for encouraging an undemocratic protest that is harming the dignity, right to occupation, right to creative expression of two citizens of India. India exists in each and every one of us and the rights of one group cannot take precedence over the rights of others.
I find it disgusting that none of them ever took such firm stands for the dismal safety of women and children or the abysmal quality of healthcare or the poor quality of the air we breathe. Their misplaced priorities are a slap in the face of our democracy. Were they elected for appeasing their vote banks? Do they have no duty towards our Constitution? Are votes more important than the well-being of citizens?
Every single political party has failed us at some point or other bowing down to fatwas or hurt sentiments. In the raucous prime time electronic “debates” I cringed each day at the choice of words, “Bhaand”, “Nachaiyye”, “Paap ke keede” used against my profession and people from the film industry. Do the actor-politicians, of which there are many in the BJP, accept what some of these lawless people had to say about their erstwhile profession? I guess if either Mr Bhansali or Ms Padukone were to join the ruling party, all there alleged “misdemeanours” would be forgotten overnight! Will they then be allowed the luxury of holding forth on subjects as diverse as parenting, agriculture, and finance, state of the economy, international relations and space travel? Will they then not be mere “bhaands” or “nachaiyyes”?
We hear only silence not only from politicians who are known to bow down to the “spontaneous sentiments” of the people and have allowed even riots and lynching to happen as a justification for that, but mainly from the superstars of our film industry. I am mortified that all of us cannot get together and support the democratic rights of our filmmakers and actors putting aside any differences we might have. Is a death threat not reason enough to act in unison? We allow ourselves to become soft targets of undemocratic groups. We have tried to bend backwards to try and accommodate every caste, sub caste, group, and political party, or region that has had a problem with our creative works. We have paid the price, often literally to release our films on the given date. Now it is amply clear that you cannot please everyone. If we accept death threats as the new normal then we deserve to be kicked “royally’ in very uncomfortable places. We could have at least written a firm letter to the Government about the lame handling of this crisis. We have to stop being pawns in the hands of political parties. We have to remind ourselves that we are a democracy. We have to learn to file FIRs at the first instance of a threat or a slap. We have to be willing to take our battle to court, however long the struggle. Our rights as citizens of this great Democracy are at stake.
In this context I really admire the stand taken by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, director of the movie, S Durga which was dropped unceremoniously from the 2017 IFFI after being selected by an eminent jury because of its title. Filmmakers like Mr Sanal do not have the kind of rich backers Mr Bhansali’s film has and yet he chose a democratic response to the undemocratic decision of the powerful I&B ministry.
He went to court and much to the delight of the filmmaking community, the Kerala High Court ruled in his favour and directed the I&B ministry to screen his film at IFFI. Bravo Sanal! I wish more from our film industry would choose to take this route. Madhur Bhandarkar did it with Indu Sarkar. Vijay did it with Mersal, and both films had a smooth run at the box office.
To preserve our Democratic ideals of today is as important as preserving the honour of what happened centuries ago. We have to protect our democracy from the politics of hurt sentiments that try to take us back centuries. When I see the threat-giving rabble-rousers protesting a film they haven’t seen, I wonder, “Are these Rajputs?” I cannot bring myself to answer in the affirmative. If anything has damaged Rajput honour, it is not Mr Bhansali’s Padmavati but the behaviour of these so-called custodians of Rajput honour in the past few days. I hope that makes them proud!
(The author is a writer, an award-winning actor and concerned citizen of India)