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Foreign Film Friday: The 'Padmaavat' Controversy Represents a Larger Censorship Pattern in Bollywood


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Padmaavat (2018), the Sanjay Leela Bhansali directed Bollywood epic, has recently been at the heart of an enormous controversy.

Based on the story of the Rajput queen Padmaavati, the film attracted the attention of several right-wing extremist groups, especially the Karni Sena, a Rajput caste organisation. 

The Karni Sena initially alleged that the film had historical and factual inaccuracies, and raised issues about the fact that it puts the honour of Rajput women at stake. The pressure from the organisation rose during the production of the film, when they announced a 1.3 million pound reward for anyone who would behead the director. In addition, members of the group publicly gave death threats to the cast of the film, including a threat to cut off the lead actress Deepika Padukone's nose. 

In light of the controversy, the Central Board of Film Certification in India delayed the release of the film. Members of CBFC recommended a change in the title of the film (originally titled Padmaavati) as well as several cuts before the film could be released. The makers of the movie complied with the recommendations of the board and the film released in most parts of India. 

However, some states, including Rajasthan, where the Rajput community enjoys a majority, put a ban on the release of the film. Several extremist groups in other cities also engaged in violence and vandalised theatres and cinema screens during the first week of the release. In the end, the Supreme Court gave a ruling that banning the film was a violation of the country’s free speech laws. Thus, the film had to be released in the states which had initially resisted the release. 

After its release, the film received mixed reviews. While it made enough profits at the box office, a success being attributed to the amount of ‘publicity' the controversy had generated, critics weren’t happy at all. Both the male leads of the movie - Ranveer Singh, who plays the role of the Muslim ruler Alaudin Khilji, and Shahid Kapoor who plays the Rajput king - received great critical appraise for their work.

Troubling times were, however, not over yet. The film received backlash from feminists, who felt that it glorified the practice of Jauhar (self-immolation). In an open letter to the director, actress Swara Bhaskar criticised the film for reducing women and their honour to their vaginas. An additional critique of the movie also included the lack of screen-space that Deepika Padukone, the lead actress and title character, actually received. In a movie about a Queen, the Queen was practically missing for the most part. 

In all of the above mess, however, there were two things which did not receive enough attention. One, the entire issue was a matter of censorship and curbing free speech - something that only the Supreme Court pointed out in its ruling much later in the chain of events. Two, the film represents a larger problematic trend of censoring movies with a strong female lead - whether institutional or due to societal and cultural pressures.

This trend can be traced back to Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), which depicts a homosexual relationship between a woman and her sister-in-law. The movie was at the receiving end of a backlash from members of Shiv Sena, a far-right political party in the state of Maharashtra. More recent examples of this trend include films like Angry Indian Goddesses (2016) as well as Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017). Both movies faced issues with the CBFC, and the one thing they had in common was strong female leads. “The story is lady-oriented, their fantasy above life,” said a letter from members of CBFC to the makers of Lipstick

In conclusion, it is safe to say that the Padmaavat controversy represents the worst and the most dangerous form of censorship. It includes death threats given out publicly to an actress and a director, possibly with institutional backing (considering how no police action was taken against members of the Karni Sena). It is ironic, as well as saddening, that in a country which boasts about being the world’s largest democracy, one is more likely to be punished for making an allegedly offensive remark against the current government, than for issuing death threats. 

Padmaavat is in cinemas now.

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