The Last Word on Padmavaat

Witnessing Padmavaat unfold on screen, on its first day of release, was unique, especially since your smart phone kept reminding you of persistent violence against the movie. The casual viewer may have even ignored a woman threatening to immolate herself outside the theatre or even the policemen who stood guard, but the skeptic whispered if a riot broke out, on which side of the Ansal Brothers Threshold of Responsibility, would the theatre owners stand?

Even the mob has its morality, unless its 9/11 and its no longer a mob undoing your day. The final result of NO flourishing theatre reporting an unwholesome incident only further suggests a calculated political moral behind attacking the screening of Padmavaat. Even if it were to be a conspiracy, the conspiracy raises important legal issues from its core.

Previously, we have found the Supreme Court curbing the breadth of provocative artistic interpretation of ‘historically respected personalities’ (See, Devidas Ramachandra Tuljapurkar v. State of Maharashtra).

“Imagine a playwright conceiving a plot where “Mahatma Gandhi, Vishwa Kavi Rabindra Nath Tagore, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel meet in heaven and they engage themselves in the discussion of their activities what they had undertaken when they lived in their human frame. In course of discussion, their conversation enters into the area of egoism, thereafter slowly graduates into the sphere of megalomania and eventually they start abusing each other and in abuse, they use obscene words.”

The Supreme Court said of this case that the “the author has chosen historically respected persons as medium to put into their mouth obscene words and, ergo, the creativity melts into insignificance and obscenity merges into surface even if he had chosen a “target domain”. He in his approach has travelled into the field of perversity and moved away from the permissible “target domain”, for in the context the historically respected personality matters”.

A pure rights-based argument about Padmaavat, where the Karni Sena’s objections stem from the portrayal of Rani Padmini, a “historically respected personality”, has not gained adequate notice. However, it is undeniable that Rani Padmini has been portrayed to be an object of lust for both the men who would determine her destiny forever.

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Soon after the release, in an open letter to Padmaavat director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, actor Swara Bhaskar commented:

“I understand that Jauhar and Sati are a part of our social history. These happened. I understand that they are sensational, shocking dramatic occurrences that lend themselves to splendid, stark and stunning visual representation; especially in the hands of a consummate maker like yourself — but then so were the lynchings of blacks by murderous white mobs in the 19th century in the US – sensational, shocking dramatic social occurrences. Does that mean one should make a film about it with no perspective on Racism? Or, without a comment on Racial Hatred? Worse, should one make a film glorifying lynchings as a sign of some warped notion of hot-bloodedness, purity, bravery – I don’t know, I have no idea how possibly one could glorify such a heinous hate crime.

Surely in this context, you could have offered some sort of a critique of Sati and Jauhar in your film?”

There was not a need of glorification of death over rape+torture+possible death. Padmavaat surely does not handle the crime of Sati or Jauhar in a way Kathryn Bigelow handled Racism in ‘Detroit’, last year. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is no Kathryn Bigelow.

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That, the actor’s open letter has received wide-spread positive responses, further indicates many of us have found something questionable about how SLB has exercised his freedom of expression, even as we have promised him the highest extent of that freedom each time, every time.

Notably, when the Supreme Court was possessed of the matter last, the CJI’s Bench was only considering whether the notifications/orders issued by some States of prohibiting the exhibition of the film should be stayed or not. It certainly ordered that “there shall be stay of operation of the notifications and orders issued by the Respondent-States and we also restrain the other States to issue notifications/orders in any manner prohibiting the exhibition. But it was made clear too that the interim order was not a final expression of an opinion on the merits of the matter.

“If a substantial ground is established in law by the States, there may be a different perception, for we are passing an interim order, considering the prima facie case and having due regard to the fundamental conception of right of freedom of speech and expression.”

The matter is to come up again on 26th March, 2018 by which time it is expected Padmavaat in most willing States would have paved way for the next blockbuster. The SC however may still retain an academic opportunity to examine the limits of the freedom to express on ‘historically respected/disrespected personalities/events’.