Padmavati controversy: Thugs and vandals cannot decide what we should or should not watch

Rani Padmavati was a Sri Lankan. Historical record shows that the earliest source that mentions her is Padmavat, the epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, in which she is an exceptionally beautiful princess of the Sinhala kingdom, which was in the geographical region now known as Sri Lanka. Whether or not Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose film about this possibly fictional queen has run into enough trouble to ensure that it does well at the box office, has managed to portray that accurately is not the reason why the movie has been in the headlines.

Everyone from historians, former royals and extremist goons seem to have problems with the depictions of various characters in the film. Anyone unfamiliar with how these things tend to go down in India could have thought that such deep engagement with the subject of a movie could lead to interesting debates about historical, fictional, and mythological figures; their relevance and their depictions; but of course not. Why would anyone debate rationally when one can go out and break things. Also, breaking things gets you on the news. No news channel will let you rant on primetime about the flawed depictions of historical figures in cinema.

Fringe groups hitched to some conservative Hindu bandwagon have now threatened to kill Bhansali and maim Deepika Padukone (who plays the eponymous queen) if the film is released without their approval. They even went so far as to say that they would “chop off her nose”. How her nose has been more offensive than, say, her ears, in her role as Padmavati is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was simply a misplaced attempt at portraying themselves as the righteous mythological hero Lakshman, and Padukone as the errant Shurpanakha from the Ramayana. Never mind that everything about Padukone in the film has been directed, crafted and styled by others. Obviously, rationality and logic do not figure in this. Because if they did, there would be more discussion about the depiction of Alauddin Khilji as some sort of meat-devouring savage who spents his days wrestling bare bodied in the mud.

By capitulating to these violent groups time and again, filmmakers such as Bhansali legitimise this illegal manner of expressing discontent, and encourage these violent thugs to do this again and again. Even if they’re only doing this to get a free pre-release screening; letting them get away with this will only ensure that it happens again.

A work of art – be it a movie or a book or a painting – must be judged on its own merit. If it is offensive to a person or a group, that group has a right to argue against it, protest it, even. It would be perfectly legitimate to mobilise people to not watch the movie or read the book, even picket outside theatres, if they must. But destruction of property, threats to maim and behead artistes must be treated as what they are – vandalism and goondaism. And those who threaten people must be treated as potential criminals.

Shah Rukh Khan met with the chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to assure him that the Pakistani artiste who had acted in his movie was not promoting it. Karan Johar was forced to promise that he would never work with “talent from the neighbouring country” because of yet another pointless uproar about his film. There are many more examples. Which is why we should not be surprised that this has happened again.

It is not for these goons to certify whether a film should be released or not. There is an authority in the country tasked with doing this very thing called the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC); and no sena should be able to supersede it. If there is a problem, legal recourse is still an option in this country. While the need for censorship and whether “offending” someone should be grounds for withholding films is still being enthusiastically debated; allowing thugs to dictate art cannot be the way forward.

The problem with this approach of violence and vandalism is that it leaves no room for nuanced discussion. I do not expect Padmavati to be a great work of art. But I would like to decide whether or not it is offensive to the craft of cinema for myself. I don’t even think we should allow a censor board to decide what we are allowed to watch. I certainly don’t think some street gang of thugs and vandals should.