Movie censorship

Padmavati release postponed: By failing to act against early attacks, government emboldened the mob

Another attack of creative freedom in India.

What led to the release of Padmavati being postponed from its due date of December 1? Was it the decision of producers Bhansali Productions and Viacom18 Motion Pictures to screen the movie for influential news anchors and rally their approval even before the censor board could offer its opinion? Or were the Gujarat elections due on December 9 and 14 responsible?

Padmavati’s many detractors – the Rajput caste organisation, the Karni Sena, at the fore – would argue that the film’s fate was sealed by its audacity in attempting to depict the legend of Alauddin Khilji’s raid of Chittor to sate his lust for the queen Padmini. Though historians have established that the tale is a myth, Rajput groups claimed that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film was a distortion of their history. They have won the debate, at least for now.

The last-ditch attempt by Padmavati’s producers to garner the support of Republic’s Arnab Goswami, India TV’s Rajat Sharma and CNN-News 18’s Zakka Jacob clearly did not work, as the producers on Sunday announced their decision to indefinitely push back the release date. The anchors glowingly endorsed the movie last week, with Sharma declaring, “Not a single dialogue, not a single scene, not a single sequence can be said to go against the proud history of the Rajputs of Rajasthan.”

Goswami and Sharma are perceived to have connections with the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership. The producers probably hoped that Padmavati’s road to the theatres would be smoothed if these prominent TV personalities rejected allegations that Bhansali had distorted history. But the ploy angered Central Board of Film Certification chairperson Prasoon Joshi. “It is myopic to treat the certification process haphazardly to suit convenience,” Joshi told ANI. “On one hand, the CBFC is being pressurised to accelerate the process, and on the other hand, it is an attempt to subvert the very process. It sets an opportunistic precedent.”

Bureaucratic wrangles

But what about the events that forced Padmavati’s makers to take the unprecedented step of ticking off the CBFC chairperson? Last week, Joshi’s organisation rejected Padmavati’s application for a censor certificate on the questionable ground that the submission form was incomplete. The producers would have had to resubmit the film for certification, making it difficult for them to reach the December 1 deadline.

The censor board has been known to make exceptions and jump the queue for prestigious productions that stand to lose a lot of money if they cannot arrive in cinemas on time. Padmavati was the only release on December 1. The Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh starrer is being dubbed in Tamil and Telugu and converted into 3D, and is aiming for a wide international release. The budget of the A-list production is rumoured to be in the zone of Rs 180 crores.

By citing a bureaucratic rule – an incomplete application – the censor board fuelled rumours that it was acting at the behest of the ruling BJP, which is facing Assembly elections in Gujarat and a municipal election in Uttar Pradesh. The party evidently did not want to offend the film’s upper-caste opponents who were protesting against the alleged depiction of Rajasthani court culture.

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Contrary to Prasoon Joshi’s claims, the truly opportunistic precedent in this episode was set not by Padmavati’s producers but by its opponents. The troubles began in January, when the Rajput Karni Sena vandalised the movie’s sets in Rajasthan and assaulted Bhansali. The Rajasthan government’s refusal to book the Karni Sena leadership or send out a strong statement in favour of the freedom of expression has emboldened fringe outfits, former royals and BJP leaders to repeatedly question Bhansali’s motives in filming a story based on an epic poem.

The campaign against Padmavati included threats to behead and mutilate Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone. The Union Home Ministry declared that it was the responsibility of the states to ensure protection to theatres that dared to screen Padmavati. On Saturday, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia demanded that the film be released only after the changes that have been demanded by various groups are carried out.

Raje applied her own pressure on the censor board in her letter to Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani. “The Censor board should also analyse the possible results after release of a film rather than just giving its certificate to a film,” she wrote.

In their desperation to get their movie to cinemas on time, Padmavati’s producers ended up seeking a facile resolution. There is a real possibility that producers will use television channels and other media platforms to force opinion in favour of stalled movies. The biggest threat posed by the Padmavati episode is to place the historical genre in peril, prompting producers hereafter to make sanctioned, sanitised biopic. Offence will be assumed, rather than proven.

The Karni Sena and other critics have been emboldened by the Centre’s silence on the repeated assaults on Bhansali’s right to make a fictional film on a subject that has been previously adapted for the big and the small screen without incident. Ajit Andhare, the Chief Operating Officer of Viacom18 Motion Pictures, neatly summed up the quandary of the producers in a tweet, which has since been deleted: “What an irony, those who are supposed to watch are looking the other way and we have to run around and show it at other forums to ‘clear’ it.”

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