Legend of Padmawati may not be true but controversy is

Centuries ago, a Rajput queen is said to have jumped into a raging fire to save her honour from a lustful sultan. Now a film has been made on the queen which is said to depict a  love affair between her and that very sultan. The jury is still out centuries later on the historic existence of the queen, whereas some people have  prejudged within no time the existence of the love scene in the film without watching it.

The result has been protests, violence, vandalism, death threats and politics over the film ‘Padmavati’, based on an epic poem by 16th century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi on the valour of the Rajput warrior queen of Chittor during the times of Delhi sultan Allauddin Khilji.

The film became controversial even before it could be completed. The sets of the film were vandalised and its director, Sanjay Leela Bansali, was roughed up by members of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena, that self-styled upholder of Rajput pride, during the shoot at the historic Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur early this year. The Karni Sena wanted that they should be allowed to review the film before its release which Bansali refused on the ground of artistic freedom.

The shooting was then shifted to Maharashtra’s Panhala Fort, but there too a mob broke into the sets and damaged property and vehicles.

Now that the film is complete and was scheduled for release on December 1, the fringe elements, led by the Karni Sena, got into action once again and demanded a ban on the film which they claimed ‘distorted history ‘ by showing intimate scenes between Padmavati and Khilji’s characters, and thus hurt the sentiments of the Rajputs.

Bansali has, however, denied the existence of the perceived romantic dream sequence between actors Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, who portray the characters of Padmavati and Khilji, respectively, and has said the film is, in fact, a  tribute to the sacrifice, valour and honour of the Rajput queen.

And here the battle lines have been drawn between those who want to uphold the Rajput pride and those who want to uphold artistic freedom. The issue went to the Supreme Court, not once but twice, and on both occasions the highest court of the land dismissed the petitions against the film, observing that since the CBFC, the film certification body, has yet to certify the movie, it cannot ‘injunct’ a statutory body from doing its duty.

In the meantime, the protests against the screening of the Rs 190 crore mega movie became more violent and absurd. Some  theatres in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were vandalised for screening the trailer of the film, somebody threatened Deepika  with physical harm, some Haryana BJP leader announced a reward of Rs 10 crore for beheading the actress and the director.

And some chief ministers jumped in support of the ‘Rajput honour’  and announced banning the release of the film in their States.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the film that has “distorted facts” about Rajput queen Padmavati and shows or says anything to disrespect her, will not be released in his State. “The insult will not be tolerated.” Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje said Padmavati would not be released in Rajasthan without changes. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was firm that  his government would not allow a movie that hurts the sentiments of Rajputs to be released in the State. “We believe in freedom of speech and expression but any foul play with our great culture is not tolerated.”

Punjab Chief Minister and Congress leader Amarinder Singh also joined the chorus, saying distortion of history was unacceptable, but later clarified that he was not seeking or supporting a ban on the movie. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath held both Deepika and Bansali equally responsible for the Padmavati row. His government asked the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry to stop the release of the film to avoid law and order problem but the Centre rightly refused to intervene in the controversy, saying law and order is a State subject.

One senior National Conference leader in Jammu and Kashmir has urged  Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to ban the release of ‘Padmavati’ in the State, whenever it gets the go-ahead from the CBFC.

And there are some who are on the other part of the spectrum such as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who says the controversy generated over the movie was a calculated plan of a political party to destroy freedom of expression. Filmmaker Atul Kasbekar says it’s a filmmaker’s birthright to make his or her film as they deem fit. ” Don’t like it, don’t watch the film. Want to show another version? Then, please do make your own film and may it be a blockbuster.”

Supreme Court lawyer Rajesh Sharma says nobody has the right to indulge in vandalism. The vandals should be send behind bars. The ball is now in CBFC’s court. Its head Prasoon Joshi is in no hurry to take a decision, and wants to follow due process of law. He has returned the application once on technical grounds. He has said the issue will be sorted out through dialogue after taking a balanced view.

Now the Karni Sena has also changed its stand and wants Mewar’s ex-royals to ‘clear’ the movie.

No movie has ever seen so much widespread protests and politics. But more is yet to come.  Yeh toh ek trailer tha, picture abhi baki hai, mere dost. The legend of Padmavati will live on.


Dhirendra Kumar Joshi a political commentator of long standing having worked with Indian Express Delhi and Free Press Journal news bureaus.