Padmavati assault: We need to stop apologising

Last Updated: Mon, Jan 30, 2017 12:06 hrs
Padmavati assault: We need to stop apologising

(Shoot of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati disrupted by protesters; Image tweeted by @MissKyra12)

The goons have spoken the one language in which they are articulate – violence.

And we have spoken of the importance of resistance, of standing up to them. Yet, in the hours following the attack on director Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the sets of his film Padmavati, the first thing everyone involved in the film did was to tell the goons that they had no grounds for attacking Bhansali, because history was not being distorted in the film as alleged.

The fact is, the goons had no grounds for attacking Bhansali even if history were being distorted in the film.

Art ought to be free to explore, and fiction ought to be free to find its own facts.

There was no need for Deepika Padukone to step in as Padmavati and confirm that the film was being respectful to a queen who died centuries ago.

No one ought to be free to attack someone else for saying or doing something which goes against one’s opinion.

Since when has it been wrong for a film to move away from the facts? Even biopics have thrown in the odd romance to keep us interested. Films ‘based on true events’ have veered away from the mundane in the interest of the box office. The real T E Lawrence does not seem to have ever been on the receiving end of racism while going to a bar, or the victim of mistaken identity. Some of the most iconic scenes in the Peter O’ Toole film may have never happened.

Even in India, there is no historical drama that has not distorted fact. There is a good chance that a song that goes “Raat ka nasha abhi aankh se gaya nahin” was never sung in the historical King Ashoka’s presence. This is even more likely because those words were not in use in his time.

When Jodha Akbar was released, a group of troublemakers were upset that Jodhabai was portrayed as Akbar’s wife, because they believed she had actually been his daughter-in-law.

Hey Ram did distort history by making a fictional character meet and plot to kill Gandhi.

If films were fact, encyclopaedias would be a lot more interesting than they are; or films would be a lot more boring than they are.

Besides, it is the rare film which is forgiven for being factually correct. Realistic portrayals are considered offensive when flattering portrayals can be fabricated.

Communities of people are all too ready to take offence because they have been “shown in a bad light”, irrespective of whether that particular shade of light is deserved or not.

So if poetic licence is “distortion of history” and sticking to the facts is “showing [someone] in a bad light”, why does an artist owe an explanation to the accusers?

If a film does not have a right to come up with its version of history, where will the clampdown end? Will novels be banned for selling lies? Will artists be attacked for paintings that are imaginative?

We have banned books and films in the past. We have failed to protect creative artists of various kinds in the past.

Ironically, even as groups of vigilantes attack people over perceived offences, facts are being distorted and expunged from our history textbooks.

When even our school textbooks can choose the stories they want to tell, why is a filmmaker not free to do so?

When even history has no respect for history, why should a filmmaker be constrained by one version of events, which we cannot verify from where we stand?

There is only one important fact, one which none of us must distort, and that fact is this: even if an artist were questioning a truth, a theory that has been verified into fact, he is within his rights and those attacking him are infringing upon his rights and upon the law.

Going by this fact, the police ought to have protected Sanjay Leela Bhansali and cracked down on his attackers, many of whose faces are clearly seen in the video of the assault that has been playing on our television and computer screens for a couple of days now.

The popular version of the story of Rani Padmini and Alauddin Khilji plays nicely into the saffron outfits’ perception of Muslims as lascivious, lecherous voyeurs, desirous of the wives of other men, resorting to subterfuge rather than risking confrontation. It also plays nicely into the conservatives’ perception of the ideal Indian woman as virtuous and chaste, happy to sacrifice her life to protect her honour.

It is immaterial whether this is the true story or not.

Any attempt to find a different narrative would amount to provocation, to the vigilantes to whom argument is synonymous with assault.

Art may offend today; science offended a few centuries ago.

But neither fact nor fiction must change to accommodate the whims of thugs.

An artist does not need to clarify that he or she respects a historical figure.

An artist does not have to attest that he or she is being faithful to the truth.

An artist does not have to apologise.

An artist only has to do one thing: create.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.