Their names seemingly rhyme, but two Bollywood films, ‘Padmaavat’ and ‘Pad Man’, vying for public attention in India and abroad, send vastly different messages.  One has grown deeply controversial, the other has mercifully not. ‘Padmaavat’ is about the beauty, valour and sacrifice of a queen who lived, if at all, seven centuries back, but has some people drawing swords, both symbolically and literally, in the 21st century.  Meant to entertain, it has ended up reviving perceived historical wounds.    ‘Pad Man’, about a man who sells sanitary  pads propagates their use by Indian women that, like most traditional societies, often fight shy of tackling a very private matter that is nevertheless, a health issue. It is contemporary.  It appears confident of leaving a deeper, quiet and healthy imprint on the audiences. Its theme also could have angered custodians of public morality who abound these days. But another film, “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha” that playfully tackled open defecation, another private issue of public shame, seems to have chastened the vigilantes. Or, has ‘Padmaavat’ deflected their attention?   ‘Padmaavat’ entered cinema theatres this week armed with, two Supreme Court verdicts, but still nervous about its actors and crew, the cinema halls and the filmgoers being targeted by hooligans claiming to uphold their perceived honour. The film opened wherever it could to encouraging critical and audience response. But the vigilantes indulged in violence in four states where theatres were terrorized into no-show and attacking even school buses targeting innocent children.  Police were deployed, but the guardians of law do take their cue from the politicians. In India, the much-touted freedom of expression comes under a political shadow each time there is an election. Even otherwise, every issue these days risks being politicized. Last year, ‘Udta Punjab’, depicting evils of drug trafficking, allegedly by influential politicos, and its consumption by the young, had made many in the state nervous about its possible impact on the state assembly elections.   Equally nervous and under tremendous political pressure at the central and state levels, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) itself sought a stay on the film’s release citing that the themes dealt with in the film were “too vulgar for the general audience.”  After much media outcry it allowed the film but after 84 cuts and modifications. ‘Padmaavat’ came under the heat spell during the Gujarat elections and with elections due in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other states, it refuses to calm. Violence and threats by vigilantes of the Rajput/Kshartiyas in these states, conveniently blamed on “fringe groups”, have been openly bolstered by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicos, including ministers and lawmakers.  It began a year back with the film’s set being vandalized and crew and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali being attacked. The attackers have gone scot-free and emboldened by politicos fanning their “hurt sentiments”. No other film in Indian cinema’s 120-year history has been banned even before it is certified by the censors, called Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The Cinematograph Act is clear that once certified, a film must be shown and the state governments must enable its peaceful exhibition.     Four BJP-ruled states, all election-bound, however, persisted even after the film was certified and following the Supreme Court’s verdict, still looking for a legal escape. If the vigilante groups insisted on “informal ban”, the state governments want the right to ban the theatres from showing the film. The Supreme Court said a big NO. The highest court has warned that “when creativity dies, values of civilisation corrode.” Its reiteration of the freedom of expression and the observation that states have “guillotined creative right” implicitly captures the blood thirst inherent in some BJP leaders’ bounty for anyone beheading Bhansali and Deepika Padukone who portrays the queen in the film.  And now, senior lawyer Harish Salve has been threatened for defending the ‘Padmaavat’ maker in court.      The film is about Queen Padmavati or Padmini of Chittor in the present-day Rajasthan being coveted by Delhi’s Sultan Alauddin Khilji (1250-1316 AD). On Ratnasen, her husband and the king, being defeated and killed, she immolates herself.  There is an implied Hindu-Muslim angle. But in medieval India, it was common for women of the vanquished in any war to escape abduction, rape and slavery by burning themselves.  Whether fact or fiction, Padmavati or Padmini has for generations been part of South Asia’s folklore that celebrates her beauty and bemoans her sacrifice. Khilji is the villain in the many plays, books and movies that have been made on this theme. Historians have differed on her existence and assuming she did, on what compelled her to mount the pyre along with other women.  The account of Colonel James Todd, a British officer posted in Rajputana has been disputed by fellow-Britons and later, by Indian historians.  It gained popularity as part of the revivalist politics of the 19th century. Bhansali insists that his film is essentially a piece of fiction and is based on the epic poem of a 15th century Sufi Muslim poet Malik Mohammed Jayasi.  The poem’s title is ‘Padmaavat’ the name the Censors have insisted the film should take to escape being considered historical. But that has not doused the fire of protests. It is difficult to differentiate between folklore and history, especially if and when politicians use both expediently, placing ‘shraddha’ (faith) above everything else.  As for the elections, do democratic processes enable healthy discourse with all-in participation? Only partially, if at all, in India, given the rising toxicity in the recent years that has made the election season, a couple of times each year, a nightmare.      The mix of history, folklore, cinema getting with politics feeding past prejudices seems to linger on. It remains to be seen if the Rupees two billion film will recover the costs or climb the pyre of financial funeral.  Besides threat to freedom of expression in a democratic society, the bigger loss is that of governance. The intent, integrity and the capacity to govern are often challenged when the state comes into conflict with collective interests and worse when it is perceived as being sympathetic to the latter. In such a situation, the message, like that of ‘Pad Man’ risks being blurred, if not totally lost. //

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