We behave rather strangely for a country acclaimed as the world’s largest democracy. We ban books and films before even reading or seeing them. In October 1988, India became the first country in the world to ban the import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, within nine days of its release in the UK and much before the rest of the world woke up to the perceived slight to Muslims for what they considered to be blasphemous references.
We had, unfortunately, a role to play in it, carrying an exclusive interview with Rushdie and some excerpts from his book in the September 15, 1998, issue of India Today. The initial attacks on the book came from the late Janata Party MP Syed Shahabuddin who alleged that the book was “a deliberate insult to Islam” while admitting that he had not read the book, only the review.
Subsequently, there was a fatwa demanding Rushdie’s head by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, which forced the writer into hiding for nine years.
That drama has been replayed in India again and again attacking a variety of art and literature, from Wendy Doniger’s books to Bollywood films ranging from Jodhaa Akbar to Udta Punjab. With Padmavati, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus dedicated to the mythical Rani Padmini, the politics has hit a new low.
Since work on the film started late last year, Bhansali has been slapped and shoved, threats have been issued to mutilate leading lady Deepika Padukone, and a bounty has been placed on both the director and actor’s heads. Powerful chief ministers of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab have banned the release of the film in their states. Meanwhile, a little-known group, calling itself the Karni Sena, led by a former Union minister’s son, Lokendra Nath Kalvi, is making political capital from the so-called insult to Rajputs. Not a single one of them has seen the film.
India has become a republic of “offended sentiments” in which one person’s freedom of expression ends where another person’s perceived honour begins. The postponement of Padmavati’s release underlines several disturbing trends. The most important is the absence of the rule of law. The state did nothing to book Kalvi for hate speech or to ensure that the Central Board of Film Certification completes due process for its timely release.
Then there is the question of artistic licence. The world over, filmmakers are making movies and TV series on living figures, such as Netflix’s The Queen, and recent history, such as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Most of all, the politics of Padmavati has exposed the rampant desire under way in some quarters to reimagine our history in simplistic terms as valorous Hindus versus evil Islamic invaders.
In such a charged environment, facts don’t matter, emotions do. So it doesn’t matter that Bhansali’s film is based on a poem, Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, written in 1540, more than 200 years after Rani Padmini of Chittor is said to have immolated herself to defend her honour against Alauddin Khilji. Based on the historical record, there is no evidence that Khilji attacked Chittor for Padmini rather than the mundane reasons of territorial conquest. Or indeed whether Padmini existed. But none of that matters to those who cannot see beyond their own agenda.
Senior associate editor Suhani Singh who reported this story believes the postponement of Padmavati and Kalvi’s threat that he’ll ensure it remains in cold storage is a blow to filmdom. It’ll make filmmakers think twice before tackling subjects out of the ordinary. There’s also deafening silence from some of the most powerful people in the industry amid a culture of fear. “All their muscle-flexing is restricted to the screen,” says Suhani.
The fundamental problem is that we still think in terms of caste and community and how we can further our self-interest. In a country beset with such serious problems as a slowing economy, crumbling infrastructure, suffocating pollution, ailing healthcare and a pathetic education system, the national conversation is dominated by a mythical character. It doesn’t reflect well on us as a nation with claims to modernity and democracy.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, The Politics of Outrage; December 4, 2017.)