Culture and All is Fine, But Chill Out A Little.

A few days ago, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali and his crew were attacked on the sets of the director’s under-production film Padmavati, based on Rani Padmini of Chittor. The hooligans were part of a group that call themselves the Karni Sena. Not only did they attack people, they also wrecked equipment. Mr Bhansali’s crime was that the Karni Sena believed (read assumed) that his film depicted certain ‘objectionable’ scenes (read sex scenes) between Deepika Padukone (portraying Rani Padmini) and Ranveer Singh (masterstroke-ishly cast as Ala-ud-din Khilji). Keep in mind that this is what this so-called “Sena” believed that such scenes were in the film, which is still in principal photography (being filmed for non-cinephiles). There is no official poster, teaser (video or audio) or on-set filmed footage of the film. It’s hardly likely that Mr Bhansali, known to be fiercely protective of details or footage of his films being leaked, will have given just another political party a copy of the screenplay.

The anger is understandable, the violence is unforgiveable. Legend has it that Rani Padmini committed jauhar upon receiving the news of Khilji’s attack on Chittor. So obviously, a film depicting a love affair between the Rani and Khilji would be met with resistance. Which brings me to the more interesting part of this whole issue: if the knowledge of many a modern historian is to be accepted, there existed no such person as Rani Padmini (simply put, there is no historical evidence of her ever having lived) and Khilji’s attack on Chittor was only a way of expanding his empire. The whole story could just be a lot of popular legend and folklore, which a lot of stories in India are. And popular legend, however inspiring or thought-provoking, is still just legend. It is not documented history. It is not fact. Okay. Assuming that the story is true and all that is said to have happened did happen, does that make the Karni Sena’s act any more acceptable? After all, the film is still being photographed. Nobody has seen its rushes or a teaser or an official still. The casting of a real-life couple as two ends of the story’s spectrum perhaps does add fuel to the fire. But how can one just assume that there will be an ‘objectionable’ sequence? Did they break into Mr Bhansali’s mind (in which case they should all be called either Danny Torrance or Dick Hallorann from now on. Sorry, Mr King)? Or did Mr Bhansali pay them to beat him up? Or were they just a bunch of culture vultures who assumed that “Bollywood hai toh humaari sankriti ko barbaad kiya hi hoga!’ That assumption wouldn’t be too wrong; remember Mughal-e-Azam, Jodhaa Akbar, Bajirao Mastani? Thing is, there is something called creative licence and something else called alternate history. Of course, creative licence is supposedly valid as long as nothing is against sabhyata and parampara. But that’s where the problem lies. As a people, we seem to be way too touchy and sensitive about this culture and tradition stuff. Agreed that we should do our best to uphold our traditions and all but we really need to cool down a little. A lot of the people who opposed the erection of a Queen Victoria statue, citing it to be a symbol of the Raj, in Agra during a film shoot are the same clowns who write shit like ‘Raju loves Pooja’ on the walls of the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. I mean, let’s face facts: the British are in our past and we can do nothing to wipe them out. A lot of the people who had issues with Bajirao Mastani are the ones who spit paan on the walls of places like Shaniwar Wada and Lal Mahal in Pune. Who are these people to lecture anyone about culture? Let’s not try to attack artists over this rubbish, okay? The common man can be worse and political parties are the absolute pits when it comes to upholding culture. Where were all these parties and the people who are supporting them when films showed girls falling in love with their stalkers? Did that not seem to be an attack on our culture and tradition in any way? Why do these parties decide to indulge in victim-blaming when someone is raped (read Mulayam Singh Yadav and Abu Azmi, among others)?  Pardon me if I’m wrong but our culture and tradition don’t seem to promote either stalking or rape, so why the differentiation between screwing up supposed history and actual crime? We don’t need zealots and buffoons to tell us how to protect our culture!

We need to grow up a little and stop being so crazy. Noted novelist Robert Harris portrayed Joseph P. Kennedy Senior (JFK’s dad) as the American President who makes peace with and sort-of pals up with Hitler in his alternate history novel Fatherland. The book released in the early 90s, more than a decade before ol’ Joe’s youngest son Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy died. And Senator Kennedy had no objection to the portrayal of his father that way. Len Deighton’s SS-GB (1978) portrayed a United Kingdom under Nazi Rule, a novel in which Sir Winston Churchill is court-martialled and executed and King George VI is imprisoned in the Tower of London. The same novel features Queen (Princess in the story) Elizabeth escaping to New Zealand with her mother Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Queen Elizabeth II had been Queen for over two decades when the novel released but she did not have Mr Deighton locked up in the Tower of London like Mr Deighton had her late father (in the book). Jo Walton’s Farthing depicted a Second World War without the USA getting involved. The descendants of the vets and the vets who themselves served in the war could’ve raised a hue and cry about it. These examples will be opposed by some people who believe that the Western world has no sense of culture or tradition. Seems to me that we’re the only cry-babies of the entire “civilised” lot (let’s not equate ourselves with the likes of Pakistan and dear old PRC), though I’m sure there have been instances where an artiste’s work has provoked outrage in the West too.

It’s not like what happened to Mr Bhansali hasn’t happened before (though I don’t recall this level of rowdiness): remember Bombay, Fire, Oh My God, PK, and more recently Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Raees? These films were all caught in the middle of certain political parties trying to cash in on some publicity, much like the Karni Sena. Artistes are not responsible to justify their creativity to anyone. They don’t owe an explanation to a descendant of a historical character, or to a political party, or to a regular citizen, or even the Prime Minister/President. They are allowed as much creative licence as they want and nobody can oppose it. It’s a piece of fiction, not an effing history lesson. For a history lesson, people should watch documentaries and read encyclopaedias, not watch a commercial film. You’re the one with a problem if you think all biopics and historical films are 100% accurate (For example: Mr MK Gandhi never said ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. It is popularly believed that he said it because Ben Kingsley spoke those words as Mr Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. And Milkha Singh did not turn around at the 400m finals in the 1960 Rome Olympics). And if you have so much of a problem, file a complaint, do it the proper, legal way. Outrage would be understandable if a Boeing 747 was to fly over Akbar, but no artiste is crazy enough to depict that. And even if he/she is, nobody has the right to curb his/her freedom of expression. Who is a politician to stop anyone from watching a film or from making one? Just because that politician doesn’t want to watch it or doesn’t want it made (ahem ahem, Kissa Kursi Ka. Ahem ahem, Aandhi) doesn’t mean that nobody can watch it or nobody can make it. You have an opinion, so do others. You stick to yours and let others stick to theirs.

Any person opposing that artiste’s creative licence also has the same freedom, but that freedom is for expression and not action. You can’t just beat up someone if you oppose someone’s thoughts. That’s lame. Then comes the entire debate of whether artistes have the right to comment on sensitive issues like religion. I say YES! They do, just like anyone else in the country. Like those narrow minded right-wingers all over social media, each hating on the other’s religion. And if someone has a problem with that, they should take the matter up with the courts. Beating someone up just isn’t done! Nobody can take law into their own hands and dole out punishment as they see fit. There is a procedure that must be followed.

Shahid Kapoor, who plays Rawal Ratan Singh (The Rana of Mewar & Rani Padmini’s husband), tweeted a very thought-provoking tweet the day before yesterday. I quote him here:

‘We need to look deep within as a society, as a country, as a people. Where are we headed.’

PS: Can we please stop all this religion- and caste-based hatred for once and for all? It’s the twenty-first century, for Science’s sake! We seem to be going back in time with our mindsets, or at least that’s what social media seems to tell me.

Varun Bhakay



30th January, 2017

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