Freedom of expression is a fundamental right bequeathed to every Indian citizen. At least on paper. Theoretically, we have the right to think for ourselves, dissent and make personal choices regarding self-expression, thank you very much, without fear of being hounded or prosecuted. It is a precious right which our ancestors fought and died for during the freedom struggle against imperial overlords who sought to dictate how they thought and behaved.
Yet, as the Padmavati row has proved, we still need to pick up cudgels and fight the good fight, this time against those we voted to power ourselves, who are attempting to blatantly control what Indians can watch, think, or read. Thanks to a climate of moral and cultural hysteria we have ushered in an age of rigorous censorship that has made it an extremely difficult time to be in the creative fields (or any field for that matter). All things artistic, be they innocuous or inflammatory, are liable to hurt the “sentiments” of vested interests and their makers will find themselves in the unhappy situation of having to deal with wannabe censors, often backed by the tyrannical authority of those in power.
The perils of writing historical fiction
Today, if an author were to make the attempt to write of the life and struggles of legendary figures from history or mythology – a distinction that is not as clearly demarcated as one might think given that too many “facts” gleaned from the realms of legend or fantasy are stubbornly venerated as the absolute truth – the going would be rough to the point of ridiculousness. I ought to know, having written on mythological figures like Arjuna, Kamadeva, Shakti and Yama that involved the occasional heated debate with editors. Not surprisingly, they tend to have qualms about subversive interpretation of Puranic texts, since they might be considered scandalous or just be banned outright.
Beloved “historical” figures are even trickier to handle, given that they are no longer considered human beings who once lived, laughed, loved and lost just like the rest of us but have been elevated to the status of godlike beings, symbolic of valour and virtue. It is amazing how many Indians, hurting from the unpalatable knowledge that as a nation and as a people we have often fared dismally against foreign invaders and continue to fall horrendously short of taking care of the interests of our citizens, cling to mostly made up “facts” of grandeur and glory.
The Padmavati tropes
While writing my books on Kartikeya, Prithviraj Chauhan and Padmavati, I remember making my editors nervous and having fiery arguments over a flurry of emails and frantic phone calls. Padmavati was particularly difficult, thanks to the raging controversy buffeting the film version. I remember how hard it was to work past the preconceived notions surrounding the character, her parentage and even nationality, all of which lacks the backing of sound research.
The depiction of Jauhar and Alauddin Khalji was even more irksome since I flat out refused to glorify the former and vilify the latter. With regard to the former, it truly gets my goat when the notion of a woman burning or taking her life to uphold her virtue, and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by patriarchy, are romanticised and held up as an example of ideal womanly conduct. As for the latter, too many are convinced that the admittedly unsaintly Shah was a lusty, libidinous lecher when history has it that he was mostly a determined, ambitious, often ruthless monarch who also proved himself an able administrator. After many an exhausting round, we arrived at a compromise that we could all live with, though I could not help thinking that a Hilary Mantel or Ken Follett would not have had it so rough.
It must also be mentioned that editors mostly prove themselves amenable once I draw their attention to the original source material which contains a lot more incendiary material than anything my fevered imagination can concoct (in the case of mythology) and the glaring holes in the tapestry of history that can be plugged with imaginative writing. In Padmavati’s or Prithviraj’s case, once I reached the obvious conclusion that entire chunks from their life and times are lost, there was nothing to be done but to fictionalise the gaps in such a way that it is melded neatly with the existing facts.
The ease of banning
Of course it is hard to place the blame on publishers entirely, given how easy it is to slap a ban on just about anything under the rampant spirit of censorship that plagues this nation. While hardened criminals who brutalise women, rob the nation of billions, shoot and kill endangered species when not driving drunk over pavement dwellers, are considered innocent until proven guilty, a work of art does not have it so easy. All it takes is for a fanatical sort to gather likeminded folks and bandy about terms like “sedition”, “obscenity”, “insulting religious beliefs” or “defamation” to ban books or movies without even having to prove in a court of law that such damaging charges are justified, let alone allowing the author, publisher or filmmakers to have their say. What follows is a long, costly and arduous litigious procedure with an uncertain outcome which can drive the interested parties to the brink of ruin.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this writer is nowhere as bold or beautiful as the likes of Deepika Padukone or feted and recognised as Salman Rushdie. This makes it possible to spin many a fabled yarn inspired by beloved characters from history and mythology without having to deal with censorship, death threats and the hate brigade that uses social media platforms to train their guns on those of us who want nothing more than to be left alone in La La Land. Even the publishers eventually give you a wide berth to express yourself since they have bigger fish to fry, with the likes of Twinkle Khanna and Chetan Bhagat regularly mouthing off on Twitter.
With all this talk of history and national pride, we need to remember that we are traditionally peaceable folks, known to have taken giant strides in the fields of art, architecture, science, literature, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. We will do well to preserve and perpetuate this knowledge, instead of allowing the unnecessary evil that is censorship to run roughshod over artists, writers and thinkers thanks to misguided notions about honour and glory.
It is very telling about our times that a Veda Vyasa, Valmiki, Vatsayana, Kamban, Kalidasa, and incidentally, Mohammad Malik Jayasi (whose role in cementing Padmavati’s position in the collective Indian consciousness cannot be stressed enough) would have found it impossible to create such immortal works today. Our knowledge and culture is our legacy to the world and it will not flourish if these inclement climes are allowed to persist. The spirit of tolerance is the noblest thing about our identity and we should not let hooligans and hoodlums take that away from us.
Anuja Chandamouli is a writer of historical and mythological fiction. Her books include Padmavati: The Burning Queen, Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son and Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts.