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Padmaavat proves again: State might no match for bullies

Above all, watching “Padmaavat” is a statement against the creeping lumpenisation of public space and discourse

mumbai Updated: Jan 24, 2018 23:44 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Padmaavat,Padmavati,Karni Sena
Mumbai offers many lessons in giving in to the bullies, and one in calling them out.

Watching a film should be enjoyable and stress-free. With Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic period drama “Padmaavat”, it is anything but. Watching it has become a statement in support of him and lead actor Deepika Padukone, both of whom have been threatened with physical assault, disfigurement and death. It is a statement against the appalling and unconstitutional methods employed by the little-known Karni Sena against the film, its director and actors.

Above all, watching “Padmaavat” is a statement against the creeping lumpenisation of public space and discourse. Self-appointed defenders of anything demand to have their way, threaten public order, take law into their hands, and deliver “justice” by taking lives in most horrific of ways. In doing so, they brazenly challenge the authority and writ of governments. In this case, the defenders of Rajput aan, baan and shaan, as they remind us, have also cocked a snook at the Supreme Court, no less, which declined to ban the film. These sainiks are hard at work, torching malls and theatres, stoning a school bus.

But the Karni Sena did not become so powerful overnight, in a vacuum. Unreasonable young men who terrorised in the name of the cow and lynched Muslims or Dalits were celebrated as “gau rakshaks”; abusers and misogynists who threatened rape-murder online were encouraged because the Prime Minister followed them on social media; men and women who publicly declared that their belief/faith superseded the law of the land were hailed as public leaders.

On each such occasion, there was a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the aggressive law-breaking bullies and those they persecuted. Had the Rajasthan government called out Karni Sena’s bluster early, things may not have come to this pass.

Mumbai offers many lessons in giving in to the bullies, and one in calling them out. The Thackerays and the Shiv Sena have threatened the world of arts, literature and cinema – and mostly got away with it. Ironically, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena backed the release of “Padmaavat”, counter-threatening that “those who obstruct it in Mumbai would have to face the wrath of MNS workers”. This is convenience.

What if the film had depicted a Maratha warrior in unflattering light? Would he have allowed its release? Both the Shiv Sena and the MNS have perfected the art of stalling a film’s release, threatening — often carrying out — violence, making a spectacle of Bollywood czars and stars bowing to them to “avoid trouble” at the box office.

Historically, the Sena’s response to disagreeable depiction, dissent and criticism has been threats and attacks. The legendary Acharya Atre was physically assaulted because he had criticised the party as “Vasant Sena” given the tacit support it apparently received from then (Congress) chief minister Vasantrao Naik.

In 1972, Sena chief Bal Thackeray had objected to parts of Vijay Tendulkar’s celebrated play “Ghashiram Kotwal” and slandered him in public. The Sena “banned” author Kiran Nagarkar’s “Bedtime Story” when it was first published.

It violently campaigned against the publication of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s “Riddles in Hinduism”. In the 80s and 90s, Thackeray counted the most powerful men in Bollywood as his friends. They courted him to avoid trouble. Their acceding to his menacingly-worded requests enhanced his extra-constitutional power.

Filmmaker Mani Ratnam had to screen “Bombay” for Thackeray before its release, never mind that the Censor Board had certified it. Violence was very much in the air.

In 2016, Raj Thackeray made Karan Johar’s life hellish before the release of his “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” because it featured a Pakistani actor. Eventually, Johar compromised by donating Rs5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund as some sort of patriotism cess. This deal, do not forget, was brokered by CM Devendra Fadnavis.

In 2010, when the Sena had threatened to block the release of “My Name is Khan”, the then CM Ashok Chavan and his deputy RR Patil ordered preventive arrests of Shiv Sainiks and declared they would go to theatres for the first day first show. They let it be known that the government was in control.

If the state chooses, it can enforce law and let order prevail; the bullies are no match for its might.

First Published: Jan 24, 2018 23:44 IST