Sanjay’s Free Speech Test

The recent affray between Rajput Karni Sena and Sanjay Leela Bhansali highlights the problem with Indian right, which is that they expect their version of history being written, recorded, animated and adapted by those who don’t necessarily confer with it. Rather than creating a parallel narrative, they want the majority dissenters to consume and assimilate their version voluntarily and if not then at times by force. The resulting casualty is free speech.

The Padmavati case is even more severe; firstly because the roughing up of the director was pre-emptive, there has been no final cut or written script available that necessarily to show that the intention of the director was to distort history. More importantly, regardless of the intention of the director, there shouldn’t be any bar on the creative rendition of a historical account. Even a false depiction, however distorting it maybe, should be allowed to float around for public scrutiny and dignified criticism. To deny this would mean that the narrative, which is seen as the right historical account, is so fragile that it would rupture as soon as there is a contrary challenge.

Moreover, unless the director stakes a claim of historical accuracy, even scrutinising the film through the prism of historical correctness is a futile exercise. It is pertinent to keep in mind that a feature film stands at the delicate intersection of the requirement of generating profits whilst balancing the historicity of the era. Therefore, maintaining historicity to the minutest of details would be inadvisable. However, if rumours are to be believed the director’s intent was to show some intimacy between Alauddin khilji and Rani Padmavati. This although, in no sense, a minute distortion and almost unwise, doesn’t reach the threshold of censorship. In fact, I am doubtful if there could ever be a threshold worthy enough for censorship of any kind, vigilante or government imposed, not only because they are highly ineffective but also because they are forever marred with political persuasions, interests and prejudiced convictions.

It is no surprise therefore that politicians across the political spectrum have remained docile when it came to the protection of free speech and creative freedom. The Indian left has been equally guilty in this failure, which is generally treated as the first responders in violation of freedom of speech. There have been not even muffled whispers by the left when it came to protecting Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin and Shirin Dalvi from vigilante censorship. It remains to be seen what transpires once the films hit the theatres but the government must ensure that the directors are not held ransom to by such vigilante groups. The directors shouldn’t have to pay the army welfare fund or to any kind of regiment, hush money for the film to be released.

Postscript – Rajputs are immensely proud clan who derive their identity with a history and culture of sacrifice and bravery. Their identity stands independent of their religion as Hindus. The instigation came not from the fact that Padmavati was a Hindu and the Khilji king as Muslim but because it was a comment upon Rajput identity. The reaction, however wholly unwanted, illegal and thoroughly unacceptable.

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