A group of seasonal agitators who seem to surface every time there is a film relating to Rajputs. A filmmaker with a grandiose vision of making yet another historical spectacle. Two men in sharp suits who sit in TV studios and pass judgment on the nationalist credentials of the vast mass who sits outside breathing less hallowed air. And a ministry of information and broadcasting and a central board of certification which plays mute witness to ugly and rancid threats of mutilation and decapitation.
One of the most seasoned filmmakers in the country and one of the biggest studios have succumbed to the culture of bullying. Bullies can come in all shapes, sizes and sorts. There are those who occupy TV studios and those who shout slogans in the streets. Once you give in to one lot it is but natural you have to give in to the other, so it is no surprise that the filmmakers have postponed the release of Padmavati. It is also worth noting that the filmmakers reached out to extra constitutional and self proclaimed censors only when the actual institutions created to perform their duties failed.
So this is what India has come to. A republic of, for and by bullies. Whoever shouts the loudest, whether in studios or streets, wins.
Who is defeated? Not just the filmmakers, but freedom of speech, democratic institutions, and the public. The public which is denied Sexy Durga and Nude because their names are suggestive? The public which cannot watch a film on its release date because it "offends sentiments"? The public which cannot read Wendy Doniger's books because Dinanath Batra deems them anti-Indian mythology? The public that cannot watch Pakistani actors in Hindi films because the Shiv Sena thinks it is anti-national? The public that cannot laugh at Sham Rangeela's jokes because the prime minister might be offended?
The list goes on, and it is a mixed list.
In one case, a private TV channel took it upon itself to censor a jokester because it assumed the prime minister would be offended. In another, the courts passed a judgment favourable to Batra. In yet another case, the filmmakers "voluntarily" postponed the release. And as for the Shiv Sena, no one, not even Uddhav Thackeray knows whether he is part of the NDA government.
The authorities may well say they have no role in any of these decisions. But I would urge them to re-read their own once-beloved and now-forgotten leader LK Advani who said when asked to bend the press crawled during the Emergency. It is a measure of the culture of fear in our nation that people are taking the law into their own hands, as it were, becoming judge, jury and sometimes self executioner.
There is the question of where it leaves our creativity. It will survive, of course – Iranian cinema routinely produces masterpieces even under repression. But what will it do to us as a nation? Will the Rajputs rewrite their history and omit mention of the women they gave and the treaties they surrendered to? Will poems like "Padmavati" be removed from our consciences and our textbooks because they valorise a passion that never was and a queen that perhaps never existed? Will every Muslim be seen as an outsider? Will our women have to go back to bearing the burden of chastity and honour for their men who have neither?
Rani Padmini was an iconic childhood heroine for me, as was Rani Lakshmibai and Meerabai. Rani Lakshmibai was a mother who would take on the mighty English for the sake of her son's kingdom. Meerabai was a woman who dedicated her life to Lord Krishna and produced some of the finest examples of religious poetry. And Padmini was a woman who symbolised death over dishonour – though that dishonour was not seen in religious terms.
We are robbing future generations of the richness of our past. We are creating one-dimensional villains and heroes where there were people who were both. Padmini's husband Ratan Singh was a brave man by all accounts but also one who was prone to acting on wrong advice. Khilji was given to cruelty but also driven less by lust for Padmini and more by lust for power, to expand which Chittor was significant.
We are also robbing our children of the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, film from history, myth from reality. A film based on a popular poem can enrage a group of men (and a few not so good women) so much that they can put a price on the head of a filmmaker and his lead actor? Well done, India. We don't know about Moody's India, but Modi's India isn't particularly highly rated right now.