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Fiction As Fact : The Rule Of Mob

Fiction As Fact : The Rule Of Mob

Only barbarians attack children. We have heard about such attacks in northwest Pakistan, where the Taliban do not want girls to study in schools. It was her resistance to the Taliban that brought the Nobel Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever to win the recognition. On January 24, the students of a school on the Gurgaon-Sohna Road came under attack from the Karni Sena protesting against the Hindi film Padmaavat. 

Just a day before, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a thunderous speech at the World Economic Forum at its picturesque headquarters at Davos inviting capital from all over the world. He portrayed India as a land of opportunities, while reiterating his government’s relentless campaign against terrorism, both global and domestic. Back in India, those running the administration, both at the Centre and in some states, were cocking a snook at the Supreme Court.

The governments knew that the Karni Sena had threatened to burn down theatres showing the film Padmaavat and, yet, they did nothing to prevent violence. Imagine how they would have reacted if the Muslims had protested against the portrayal of Alauddin Khilji, one of the most powerful rulers of Delhi, who integrated many states into a single entity through conquests, as was the case those days.

Good or bad, Khilji was the one who fended off the Mongols from setting their foot in the country. Would the all-powerful Indian state, headed by a 56-inch-chested man, have reacted in the same manner as it has dealt with the agitation unleashed by the Karni Sena? Would not the leaders have been rounded up and put behind bars? Why, then, this mollycoddling of a gang of misguided young and not-so-young men out to prove that law and order were for the lesser mortals like you and me?

On January 24, I had a ticket to watch the movie at one of the multiplexes in the national Capital. As I was about to reach the theatre, I received a message on my cell phone that the show was cancelled due to “unavoidable circumstances”. The management was under pressure to cancel the cinema for fear that its property would be damaged. I knew that it would have been better to watch the movie before I wrote this column but I abandoned the plan because I did not have to prove that the film did not contain anything that offended the sentiments of the people.

In India, we have a Censor Board, whose certificate is a must to show a film in public places like a theatre. The Board, appointed by the Modi government, had suggested some changes in the film, including a change in the title, and they were carried out. The Board’s decision was challenged in the Supreme Court and the court after hearing the parties concerned allowed the film to be released.

The court also advised the state governments, which had banned the film, to advise the people against seeing the film if they so desired but they should do everything possible to let the theatres show the movie. The very fact that "a million people" saw the film on the first day showed that nobody would have listened to such an appeal. 

Instead of letting the apex court have the last word on the subject, the Karni Sena persisted with its threat to make mincemeat of peace if the film was released. And that is exactly what it did in Haryana and Rajasthan on January 24. There are some who threatened the director and the lead actor with dire consequences but they, too, went scot-free. 

The Centre and the States should have promptly arrested the Karni Sena leaders and their properties confiscated and auctioned to compensate the loss the public suffered when the Karni Sena goons vandalised public property. Far from that, some ministers of Haryana and Rajasthan tried to justify the agitation. One even said that the government was on the same page as the Karni Sena. Even a Central minister, who tried to manipulate his date of birth to continue in the Indian Army for some more time, spoke like a Karni Sena leader. 

As is his wont, Modi, who is always on Twitter, did not even condemn the vandalism, let alone ask his Home Minister and his hand-picked chief ministers to round up those who instigated violence in the name of caste pride and honour. What’s worse, even Congress leaders like former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh thought caste affiliation was more important to him than the national interest when he, too, spoke in the same manner like the Karni Sena chief. 

None of them was bothered by the fact that the protest over a silly movie has reduced us to a nation of jokers. Where else would a film based on a fictional story lead to such violence except in India?

Recently, I flipped the pages of a thick Malayalam novel on Karna, the much-misunderstood Mahabharata character. I would have bought it for my grandson who is greatly fond of Karna but for the fact that he can’t read the Malayalam script. The author would certainly have taken liberty with Maharshi Vyasa’s story to write the novel. 

That is exactly what MT Vasudevan Nair did when he wrote  Randamoozham (Second Turn) which is retelling the Mahabharata story from Bhima’s perspective. Similarly, the Bible does not say much about the feelings of Mother Mary after Jesus was crucified but that did not prevent Joy Vazhayil from writing a long poem on her sorrow. They all have used their imagination to interpret religious texts. After all, there are so many Ramayanas which are different from one another in details, though the main story is the same.

Likewise, in the 16th century, Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote a long poem titled  Padmaavat in the Hindustani language of Awadhi, using a Persian script. It is the oldest extant text among the important works in Awadhi. He used his imagination to describe Padmaavat as a stunningly beautiful woman. Nobody asked him how he  could describe her beauty when centuries separated their lives.

But, then, nobody asked Shakespeare why he described Helen of Troy as "the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, love's invisible soul” and whose beauty “launched above a thousand ships”. If Sanjay Leela Bhansali thought that it was the subject of a good movie, he could not be questioned. In fact, there are many regional films based on Padmaavat or Padmavati. Doordarshan had once telecast a serial based on the beauty. Bhansali is not an ordinary film producer, writer and director.

The Modi government honoured him with a Padma Shri three years ago. In any case, Padmaavat is more a fictional character than a historic figure. As the story goes, she was a  Sinhala. Word about her beauty reached a Rajput prince in Chittor who ditched his first wife to marry her. Word also reached Alauddin Khilji about her beauty and since he also wanted everything that was unique, even if it was second hand, he attacked the Chittor Fort, to lay his hands on her. He could not fulfil his ambition as she sought glory in death, a practice called Jauhar venerated by the Rajputs.

Writer Anna MM Vetticad in her review of the film writes, “Jauhar was a horrendous practice underlining the belief that a woman’s life is worth nothing if her vagina, the sole property of her husband or future husband, is invaded by another man. Considering that conservatives even in today’s India place greater value on what they see as a woman’s ‘honour’ over her life, it is scary that Bhansali has chosen to glamourise jauhar in his film in a bid to play to the Rajput gallery.”

It is true that Khilji attacked the fort, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was the capital of Mewar and is located in Chittorgarh. He also invaded, conquered and plundered the Hindu kingdoms of Gujarat, Ranthambore, Malwa, Siwana and Jalore. There were no Padmavatis in those places to inspire him to make the conquests. How ridiculous it is to believe that he attacked Chittor just to sleep with a woman!

It is also history that when Khilji attacked Chittor, the king of Chittor sought the help of his neighbouring kingdoms, none of whom came to his help. Trouble started for the film when it was rumoured that it had scenes where Padmaavat and Khilji were depicted as lovers. Those who saw the movie say that Khilji was portrayed as an uncouth, dirty, bloody, debauch who also fell for the male flesh in whose company no woman, let alone a Rajput princess, would have felt comfortable.

If Bhansali can be accused of anything, it is in his wrong portrayal of Khilji, who was a shrewd ruler and one of the first integrators of the nation. But, then, the director was pandering to the base instincts of his viewers and not writing history. One good thing that has happened is that visitors to Khilji’s tomb, one of the most deserted in the Qutab Minar area, has started witnessing some footfalls. 

Tourists have also started seeing with greater interest a taller Minar that Khilji wanted to construct near Qutab Minar. Alas, he could complete only one floor before he fell to an illness. His successors did not show any interest in completing the task. So Qutab Minar remains unique and the tallest of its kind! Had the Rajputs been so powerful, brave and audacious as they pretend to be, they would not have allowed Khilji to plunder state after state. They make no point, except portray themselves as buffoons and rowdies when they vandalise public property in the belief that the film did not justify the myths about their heroine.

Bhansali did not crown himself with glory when he invited the Karni Sena chief to a private screening of the film. The question is, who is he to watch a film and pronounce his judgement that it is watchable by the people? Of course, it is not the first time that someone has arrogated such power to himself. Mumbai had one leader, who changed his mind on a film when the film producer prostrated before him with a copy of his film. He acted like a Super Censor.

If we go by the advice of the likes of Minister VK Singh and Congress leader Digvijay Singh, film-making, writing etc would become a thing of the past. Take the case of Modi, who equated himself with Gujarat. Whenever he was criticised, he would say so many crores of Gujaratis were attacked. What is worrisome is the increasing role of the fringe elements in society which get patronage from those in power.

When a group of Carol singers are attacked and their vehicle burnt in Madhya Pradesh, a case is registered against the attacked, not the attackers. When a man is lynched to death, effort is on to verify whether the meat in his refrigerator is beef or mutton. When a dairy-owner buys high-yielding cows and transports them with all the necessary documents, cow vigilantes stop him and kill him. The killers go scot-free!

In Uttar Pradesh, a person who had been facing several criminal charges was chosen Chief Minister so that he could use his power to drop all the legal proceedings against him. He is today above the law. In Haryana, the Khattar government showed its utter incompetence when those demanding reservation turned the state upside down causing losses worth billions of rupees. Of course, this time it deliberately allowed violence in Gurgaon to teach a lesson to the Supreme Court, which allowed the release of the film.

Last year, when an RSS worker was killed near Thiruvanthapuram, the then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley boarded an IAF aircraft to reach the Kerala Capital to express his sorrow to the bereaved family. It is a different matter that he did not visit the family of a soldier who was killed on the border, who stayed close by. When mobsters, who take pride in demolishing a 16th century shrine at Ayodhya, come to power, is it any wonder that the rule of law becomes the rule of mob?

ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 29th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 05)