Padmavati and Film Censorship: Fiction is Fact; Fact is Fiction!

Padmavati, the film based on Rani Padmini, has been the subject of controversy for a long time now. Though the revered queen’s very existence is in question, members of the Rajput community, led by Karni Sena, started a protest against the film stating that the film defames their divine queen. Politicians quickly jumped onto the protest wagon, and voices for and against the Padmavati are now numerous. None of them have seen the film so far, but strongly believe that it distorts historical facts and defames the respected Rajput Queen.

The going was tough for the film producer and director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, right from his shooting days at the Chittor fort. Ignoring the protest, he quietly pursued his creative endeavour and fixed a release date for Padmavati until the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) returned his application for certification. The Indian Censor Board first returned the application for certification by citing formality objections, and later stated that it may take sixty eight (68) days to make its decision. In the mean time, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) certified the film without much trouble, classifying it as 12 Plus and did not ask for any cuts. Following BBFC’s classification, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court asking for an injunction against the UK release of the film on 1st December, 2017, which was duly rejected by the Apex Court. As the controversy continues to rage, a parliamentary panel, the Standing Committee on Information Technology that was meeting to discuss issues related to films, has asked Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the Chairperson of CBFC to appear before it. At the hearing, Sanjay Leela Bhansali was questioned about why he screened the film to journalists before its certification, to which he responded that it was a private screening and that the film will not be released before it is certified by CBFC. The scheduled release date of 1st December, 2017, has now been deferred until CBFC makes its decision.

For a quick background, Rani Padmini, also known as Padmavati, is a   legendary personality known for her exceptional beauty and honour. As per the legend, she was married to Ratan Singh of Chittor, and committed Jauhar, self-immolation to avoid capture by Alauddin Khilji, who sieged the fort for her. Several versions of the story exist, and many scholars believe that Padmavati was a figment of fiction, not fact. Over the years, Padmavati was the subject of several expressions, manifestations and interpretations in poems, stories, plays, films and television programs. Several movies were made on Padmavati in different languages and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film is neither the first, nor will it be the last.

Over hundreds of years, the story of Rani Padmini was told and re-told by different authors in different social, cultural, historical and other contexts, and each one of the creative expressions added elements to the legendary Padmavati’s identity and persona. Works of numerous authors, poets, playwrights, and film makers, gave life to the character and embellished Padmavati’s being. None of the earlier expressions evoked controversy and one cannot help wondering if the protest is truly about Rani Padmini or something else.

Padmavati has a special place in both the minds and hearts of most Indians, and it is understandable if sentiments of one or more communities may be affected by a portrayal that is not in line with their beliefs. That in fact is a ground for CBFC to consider while reviewing the film for certification, and cannot be the basis for anything beyond that. After the film is reviewed by its panels, CBFC may restrict the film to adults, or ask Bhansali for restrictions or cuts to the film. It may also refuse to permit exhibition of the film, or like BBFC, allow Padmavati to be exhibited without any changes.

Theoretically, CBFC is required to make an objective decision based on principles for reviewing films in the Cinematographic Act and judicial precedents. As reiterated by the Supreme Court in several cases, the decision must be made based on contemporary social standards, and creative expression cannot be curbed based merely on disagreement, objection or belief. The lessons from Udta Punjab, Lipstick Under my Burkah, Sexy Durga, etc., elucidate that Courts have very little patience for unreasonable restrictions on freedom of film expression and lean heavily in furthering it rather than curbing or restricting it in any manner based merely on prejudice, bias, or belief. The lens of CBFC for Padmavati cannot go beyond precedents and principles, and will, if nothing, be a reflection of its place in the free expression spectrum.

Delays in film certification and release are often sufficient to damage the business interests of a film, and though a film might finally emerge victorious after a trial, the injuries inflicted in the process may prove to be very costly for the producers. The fear of damage and mounting pressure draws even the strongest of free expression advocates into a compromise, and a truce is generally reached in the midst of a fierce battle. When seen from the business perspective, creative expression looses the battle against prejudice and often lacks the will to fight the war. Is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati headed in the said direction? Only time will tell.

Authored by Dr. Kalyan C. Kankanala

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