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Padmaavat is not a political film and yet, seeing it can become a political act


I’m not a fan of advocating mass suicide by women as a method of safeguarding some male notion of honour, but I am going to watch Padmavat.
I am not a fan of Sanjay Leela Bhansali either, and yet, watching his latest movie is the only way I can think of that I as an individual citizen can mark both my protest and my support: Support for the right to make films, write books and voice opinions without being brow-beaten into submission and protest against the craven abdication of state to such bullying.
Even by the standards of our perennially outraged nation, the sustained protest over imagined offences in a film as yet unseen about a character whose historical authenticity is not established is unprecedented.
From vandalism to assault and threats; from inviting erstwhile royals for their stamp of approval to parliamentary committees, the controversy has ranged from the absurd to the scary.
Incredibly, despite the upheaval, the film is now, one minor title change and four notifications later, ready for release, cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification.
The censorship of movies and books is no longer new or, even sadly, shocking.
Film-makers are routinely asked for ‘no-objection’ certificates from the subjects they portray – the makers of Modi Ka Gaon, a tribute to Narendra Modi’s development policies were asked to get a no-objection from Modi, according to The Hoot.
A documentary on Amartya Sen was denied certification when its director refused to excise the words ‘Hindutva’, ‘cow’ and ‘Gujarat’. Sexy Durga becomes S. Durga, and still cannot be screened at the Goa film festival. And on it goes.
But Padmavat has been cleared for release; its attempted censorship and ban comes from non-state actors and Vasundhara Raje’s decision to block its release in Rajasthan out of respect to the ‘sentiments of the people’ is meek acquiescence to these non-state actors.
This is the office of the chief minister acting as a super-censor, abrogating to itself the powers to decide what citizens in a democracy should or shouldn’t see.
This is about an elected government bowing to majoritarian force; about a group that makes open threats and gets its way because it has muscle and political patronage. This is, quite simply, failure of governance.
Equally shameful is the silence by Congress, but then, let’s not forget, it was the Congress that began the slide with the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
And what do we make of the silence of the Bollywood fraternity – with a few honourable exceptions? If a powerful industry is so shaken, what does this tell us about a chilling effect?
In 2015, after weeks of sustained threats over his book, Madhorubagan the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan announced his exile as a writer. A year later, the Madras High Court ruled that the author ‘should be able to write and advance the canvas of his writings’. Last year, saw the assertive resurgence of the writer with the launch of a collection of poems and short stories.
No civilised society can advance by silencing the voice of its poets, writers, film-makers, photographers, chroniclers. “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” the American writer E.B. White once said.
Recent events have shown just how easy it is to silence that voice, metaphorically, and even literally. The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh last year is a frightening reminder to all of us of what could happen to those who voice inconvenient opinions. There is no room for dissent or an alternative view.
How can one individual stand up to this, particularly when the state fails to deliver justice, fails to apprehend those who break the law, fails to stand up for the rights of individual citizens?
Padmavat is not a political film and, yet, seeing it can become a political act, else how do we as individuals take a stand against the muscle of bullies and the might of a complicit state?
Sometimes, the simple act of watching a movie can send a message. It’s time we sent it.