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Counterpoint: Age of Intolerance

Even if a film is historically inaccurate and portrays a dead person critically, do we have the right to ban it? Vir Sanghvi examines...

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:07 IST

Such is the the climate of intolerance in today’s India that it is almost impossible to write a book or make a movie without having to cope with a mob of protestors who claim that you have offended their caste/community/religion/region/city/grandparents/favourite pets.

Two such protests erupted last week. The first, and more publicised, of the rows related to Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar which is still to be released in Rajasthan because of fears that so-called Rajput organisations will vandalise cinema halls where it is shown. The second, and less known, relates to Rani, a fictionalised biography of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi by the well known author Jaishree Mishra. Apparently the book is insufficiently respectful to the late queen and the Mayawati government has assured the protestors that it will be banned in Uttar Pradesh. Both protests raise several issues which have been insufficiently addressed so far. Here are some of my concerns:

<b1>How much historical accuracy is required in a novel or a book? In most of the world, the historical novel is a well-established genre. The idea is that the author picks on a historical incident or character and uses it as a basis for a work of fiction. For instance, though Henry VIII was a real person, nobody expected Robert Bolt to stick closely to the facts when he wrote the acclaimed A Man For All Seasons about the king’s dispute with Sir Thomas More.

Movies are allowed even more latitude. Hollywood’s many Biblical epics have played fast and loose with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. Every Palestinian character has blond hair and blue eyes and when we hear the voice of God, His accent leaves us in no doubt about His nationality. More recently, many critics have argued about the historical authenticity of such films as Elizabeth and Braveheart but nobody has demanded that they be banned for diverging from the history books.

Nor have we insisted on historical accuracy in some of Hindi cinema’s greatest hits. The late Prithviraj Kapoor made a terrific Alexander the Great in Sikander but the film had zero historical authenticity. Similarly, K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam was more or less entirely made up (there’s some doubt as to whether Anarkali even existed) but this was never an issue.

So why are we insisting on historical authenticity now? Why should India be different from the rest of the world? And why should today’s India have different standards from the India of a few decades ago?

It worries me that nobody bothers to ask these questions. Instead we have let the mob redefine the rules.

Even if a work of fiction is historically inaccurate, it does not follow that it is necessarily critical or slanderous. Let’s take the controversy over the Rani book. One of the complaints is that the Raja of Jhansi is described thus: “not kingly or warrior like at all but small and puny”. This may or may not be true but it is at worst a physical description. The Raja of Jhansi is not described as a mass murderer or an evil man. So what is so slanderous?

The Jodhaa Akbar controversy is even sillier. The basic criticism is that Jodhaa Bai was not Akbar’s wife but his daughter-in-law. Historians are divided on the facts but judging by what I’ve gathered from Rajput descendants of the original queen (including Brajraj Singh of Kishengarh and Padmini of Jaipur) the confusion is unnecessary. Akbar married Harkan Bai, the daughter of the Raja of Amber (which later became the state of Jaipur), but she was never called Jodhaa. In fact, the name Jodhaa is a corruption of Jodh, a name given to princesses from Jodhpur (which Harkan Bai was not). But she was mistakenly called Jodhaa by British writers (including James Todd) and the error was imprinted in the public memory by Mughal-e-Azam. The movie Jodhaa Akbar carries a disclaimer at the beginning clearing up the name confusion and the matter should have ended there. Certainly, there is nothing slanderous or demeaning about the way in which Harkan/Jodhaa is portrayed.

Yet, a simple matter of nomenclature has been allowed to snowball into a major controversy. The mob has effectively banned the film in Rajasthan. And Indian society seems powerless to assert the right of free speech and free expression.

Even if a film is historically inaccurate and portrays a dead person critically, do we have the right to ban it? All over the world, the answer in all liberal societies is always an unequivocal no. For instance, many supporters of Lyndon Johnson were appalled that Oliver Stone’s JFK suggested that Johnson had a hand in John F Kennedy’s assassination. In England, the law takes the line that public figures are fair game even if they’re alive. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Peter Morgan wrote the influential TV play

The Deal about Blair and Gordon Brown

, in which neither man came off well. But the British government made no attempt to prevent the telecast of a play which attacked the sitting Prime Minister.

<b2>Only in India do we take the line that famous people must be treated with respect and that any fictional representation that is less than reverential must be banned. Elsewhere they argue that the mark of a thriving democracy is that creative artists are free to attack the famous and the powerful.

Even if we take the line that a critical portrayal of a historical figure is offensive, we are still left with another issue: who exactly has the right to take offence?

The laws of defamation are clear. You can’t really defame a dead person unless you can prove that the slanderous remarks actively impact a living entity. For any of the protestors to have the right to take offence, they need to prove that the slander affects their lives or careers.

But in nearly every case, the protests we encounter in India come from publicity hounds, political parties and little known organisations who have no clear link with the historical figure in question. Take the Jodhaa Akbar controversy. If you were to trace a far-fetched connection then you could argue that the present royal family of Jaipur is hurt by the portrayal of the queen. In fact, the Jaipur family is thrilled. Ashutosh Gowariker consulted them before making the movie, and Padmini, the current Maharani, not only loved the film but also released the soundtrack.

So who are the people who object? What is their locus standi? And why do we allow them to get away with it?

I asked at the beginning what the difference was between the eras of Sikander and Mughal-e-Azam and today’s protests. Why have we suddenly become so much more illiberal?

The easy answer is to blame the politicians. Indian politics has become so fragmented and fractured that there is always a political party that sees some advantage in catering to the prejudices of a particular caste or regional grouping. In an era of coalitions and caste-based politics, liberal democracy is the real loser.

But there is a more difficult answer to the question and it has to do with us in the media. Can it be a coincidence that the era of noisy protests has coincided with the explosion of mass media? Is it not true that any two-bit organisation that nobody has ever heard of can suddenly achieve national prominence if it sends six people to vandalise a cinema hall but takes care to invite four television crews to film the incident?

<b3>The truth is that in the era of competitive media all of us search compulsively for stories that contain drama and conflict. If there’s violence, that’s so much better. And if the target is sufficiently high-profile — say, a big-budget movie starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai — then the story immediately leaps to the top of the news bulletin.

In a column devoted to the need for free speech, it seems hideously inappropriate to castigate the media for exercising their right to freedom of reporting. But some questions need to be asked. Have we become controversy junkies, easy prey for any publicity-hungry nutcase who is ready to stage a demonstration for our cameras? Are we now so desperate for interesting footage that we will afford coverage to anybody who promises to liven up our news bulletins?

Many people have blamed the entire Raj Thackeray-inspired controversy over North Indians in Bombay on the influence of the news channels. I wouldn’t go so far. It was a legitimate story and deserved to be covered.

But I think the time has now come for us to step back and to examine the consequences of the disproportionate and undeserved coverage we provide to anybody who is willing to beat up a taxi driver or burn down a cinema hall.

Of course we must preserve freedom of speech. But as journalists we must also recognise the importance of news judgment and a sense of proportion.

Otherwise we become no more than vehicles of convenience, cheerfully used and abused by any joker who wants to stir up a controversy.