India Today - - NEWS - (Aroon Purie)

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 Rus­d­hie’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 lit­tle­known 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 amidst 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.

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