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Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

It was the summer of 1977. The air was murky with widespread political conspiracies, yet the country had been freed of the clutches of Emergency, which later came to be known as one of the darkest periods of post-independent India. Babu Jagjivan Ram, a Congress loyalist, had left the Gandhi camp to form the Congress For Democracy coalition within the opposition, the Janata Party. The party, in turn, was successful in building pressure on Indira Gandhi by leaving no stone unturned in ensuring Congress did not win by a split vote. Congress was indeed in bad shape. But, if today one were to go back flipping the pages of history, one would know even in the darkest of times hilarity can be found.

The elections were scheduled for the third week of March and the opposition had kicked off the campaign with a massive rally at Ramlila Ground, New Delhi on the March 6, 1975 and Jagjivan Ram was scheduled to speak. The success of this campaign was detrimental to Mrs Gandhi’s prospects and could spell disaster for her political career. What does Mrs Gandhi do in such dire times? In a last-ditch attempt at salvaging her campaign, she ordered the then-popular romantic film “Bobby” to be telecast on Doordarshan. There was only one channel in 1977, that too run by the state, and Mrs Gandhi and her government hoped India’s adult population, allured by the charm of cine world, would station itself in front of their television sets.

The plan fell through and the next day’s headlines screamed, “Babu beat Bobby”. The Gandhi camp’s stratagem may not have done the trick but today one may see it as one of the many times when political parties used films to further their vested causes.

Of late, a number of films, the most recent being “Padmavati” and “S Durga”, have been mired in controversy and have ended being the target of political parties.

“Padmavati” was the talk of the town, and not in a good way, much before the film even went on floor. The movie has been accused by the Shri Rajput Karni Sena of distorting historical facts to show a lustful, romantic relationship between Sultan Alauddin Khilji and Rani Padmini, also known as Padmavati, of Chittorgarh. Legend has it that Khilji, on a conquering spree, had marched to Chittorgarh after having heard of the ethereal beauty of Rani Padmavati. He defeated Rana of Chittor in 1303 to not just capture the kingdom but also stake claim to Padmavati. Karni Sena maintains that Padmavati never indulged Khilji and committed jauhar, a Hindu custom of self-immolation by women to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by any foreign invaders, when facing certain defeat during a war.

However, recorded and verifiable historical facts ascertain only the capture of Chittorgarh by Khilji. The saga of Rani Padmini is more or less a piece of culturally constructed myth that solidified a place in popular memory over the years. Over time, the story has undergone many mutations and is known in different places by different versions. For example, in Urdu literature, Khilji courted Padmavati intending to marry her.

In the event of a movie being made on Padmavati, Karni Sena has now taken it upon itself to protect Padmavati’s honour, on which, in turn, lies the honour and dignity of Rajputs. And how does Karni Sena accomplish the task? By threatening the actress of chopping off her nose and beheading her, disturbing the making of the film, announcing Bharat Bandh on the day of movie’s release.

“S Durga,” which was earlier “Sexy Durga”, ran into trouble with its title. The filmmaker, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, was directed by the Central Board of Film Certification to change the title and he duly obliged. In order to sanitise the film and make it fit for the sensibilities of the audience, the filmmaker also agreed to 21 audio mutes. But the rough patch is far from over for “S Durga”, the first Indian film in 23 years to win the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, as it has now been taken down from International Film Festival of India in Goa.

A psychological thriller, “S Durga” narrates the events unfolding on a single night in the life of a couple trying to elope. The director in a petition filed at the Kerala High Court wrote, “The film deals with the darker shades of human mind and its sinister potential to create an atmosphere of violence and fear, and attempts to offer a critical view on the misogynistic and oppressive attitude of men towards women by delineating the paradoxical tendency of men to deify and objectify women at the same time.” The trailer of the movie shows the travails of a woe-ridden couple who resort to hitchhiking in the dead of night. In the course of the trailer, the image of Goddess Durga is shown as a metaphor for every woman who is, in the words of the director, deified and objectified at the same time.

For a discerning mind, the echoes of Mr Sasidharan’s critique of male tendencies can be found in the current discussions on film fracas itself. Padmavati, a literary artefact, is deified, while Deepika Padukone, the actress portraying the character, is threatened with dire consequences. In an interview with ABP News, Lokendra Singh Kalvi, Karni Sena chief, goes to the extent of describing Ms Padukone as “ek paise par nanga naach gaana karne vaali” (someone who sings and dances for money).

Another movie that got caught in the eye of the storm is Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi flick “Nude”. The film was pulled from IFFI due to its objectionable title. However, the director has gone on record to say the film per se is about male gaze.

Intolerance has long been a condition with which the country has been associated. Scuttling of filmmakers’ right to freedom of speech and expression is not new. Anurag Kashyap’s “Black Friday”, based on 1993 Bombay bomb blasts, was banned on the eve of its release date because the controversial theme of the movie could instigate communal riots. “Parzania”, directed by Rahul Dolakia, dealt with the real life story of a family during Godhra riots, and was banned in Gujarat. As for India’s first political satire, “Kissa Kursi Ka”, made during the Emergency days, the end came in the form of banning and confiscated prints. More recently, Tamil film “Mersal” found itself on the wrong side of the Central Government after scenes where the lead actor criticises GST and healthcare emerged. The film went onto become a box office hit.

The above-mentioned films were tied together by a thread of political ideology, a kind of political thought that “Padmavati”, “S Durga” or “Nude” clearly lack. The latter set of movies does not express or engender political thought, nor are these films bodies of political theory. Then why are politicos baying for blood in a picture where they have no part to play?

Karni Sena by obstructing the release of “Padmavati” wants to protect the image of Rani from being sullied. (We must bear in mind the Sena has not watched the film to know its plot.) Those behind the exclusion of “S Durga” are not in favour of affixing the adjective “sexy” with the name of a goddess. The trouble-makers for “Nude” object to the portrayal of women in the film. (Mind you, even they haven’t seen the film.)

The fringe groups may have reasons and purpose, even if inane, to call for the ban of a certain movie. But, what is it that makes political parties jump on the bandwagon and get embroiled in pointless controversies? How are the fringe elements able to hold governments to ransom? Are not our centres of power commanding enough to inspire fear in the fringe groups? How long would it be before these peripheral groups are reined in?

The fact of the matter is political parties are willing to get on the wrong side of the film fraternity so as to redeem themselves in the eyes of their vote bank as bodies that empathise. In siding with the fringe elements and scuttling freedom of expression, the political parties are playing to the gallery, scoring a goal in an empty net goalpost.

It is notable that no professional historian has come out in support of the Karni Sena or backed its views. Yet, we see the likes of Vasundhara Raje Scindia giving the phrase “much ado about nothing” a reinforced thrust. UP CM Yogi Adityanath and Shivraj Singh Chauhan also are not far behind in going after the film. Interestingly, none of these politicians are calling for an outright ban of the film. All they want is for the release of “Padmavati”, as well as “S Durga” in the south, to be deferred until after the elections are over.

“Padmavati” found disapproval in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the Rajput community makes for a sizeable number of votes. In case of “S Durga”, the Goddess’ worshippers, all mainly belonging to a particular religion, have taken umbrage. Religion and matters of caste have long governed vote banks. Several political parties, for instances Bharatiya Janata Party which rides on the Hindutva wave, have long envisioned a consolidated Hindu vote bank. RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar in a speech once said, “Adult franchise was nothing more than granting rights to cats and dogs,” and called for voting rights to be restricted only to Hindus. The Congress also has used vote bank politics several times by either cornering the minority vote or playing the communal card.

Trouble brews when artistic expressions like a movie or a book (say Perumal Murugan’s “One Part Woman” which came under fire for its portrayal of Ardhanareeswaran) are used as pawn for furthering the vested interests and political causes of a niche group. How are filmmakers, or for that matter writers, painters or singers) to appease the sensibilities of every mind in the country? If such is the case, our filmmaking experience (or any creative pursuit) is going to be limited to girl-meet-boy love stories (mind you, girl and boy of the same religion) with butterflies prancing about and flowers being brushed against each other for innuendo’s sake.

Jean Luc-Goddard once called cinema the most beautiful fraud in the world. As much as cinema is an exhibitionist spectacle, politics is also a performance of playing to the gallery. The vote is the most powerful tool in the hands of the public and a vicious game of ‘survival of the fittest’ determines who gets the vote. When the politicos can stoop to their lowest and climb the highest mountain to get that one vote, but just what is the film fraternity or a movie or the money riding on it. It’s ultimately “kissa kursi ka”, ballot box over box office.

(Published on 27th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 48)