Creative curbs

Loknath Das

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The ‘Padmavati’ episode will further push film-makers towardsself-censorship

Earlier this year, while discussing the issue of censorship with a film-maker-friend I was warned about the bigger demon lurking on the horizon: self-censorship. “Writers have started to censor their own screenplays,” he said. “I myself have rewritten or deleted scenes which I guessed won’t augur well.”

So, on the face of it the five “modifications” suggested by the Central Board of Film Certification to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati may not seem all that alarming — just a few practical adjustments, a fair compromise to have the big-budgeted film get released; but they could well be yet another signpost in the treacherous road ahead for the film industry. This is one on which the pressures on creativity would only increase rather than ease, with not just external restrictions but self-suppression likely to get the better of free expression. The more debatable of the modifications is about the insertion of the disclaimer that the film does not claim historical accuracy and hence also the change of the title from Padmavati to Padmavat to clearly attribute the material/creative source as the fictional epic poem by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. As a consumer of popular culture it’s a comment on our inherent discomfort and inability to deal with creative interpretations of history and reality. Any supposedly tricky, thorny version needs to be clearly stated as invented, imagined and fabricated. There is certainly no room for a personal reading of an assumed truth, or seeing the past in a relevant, contemporary light. What we are then likely to see is either none of the above or the pat, safe and conventional takes to escape being held hostage by various aggrieved religious and political organisations.

Once upon a time there used to be a simple, all-encompassing disclaimer: “Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” It appears that it will not suffice any more, a reason for the rather immature insistence (even in this instance) on specific disclaimers for anything even remotely uncomfortable. At times it can turn laughable as it did with The Ghazi Attack , which had a disclaimer at the start — the longest ever in my memory — attempting to cover every contentious ground imaginable and, in turn, exposing its own lack of creative resoluteness.

One assumes that Bhansali called the film Padmavati because he wanted to give primacy to the woman at the centre of the story. The change of title then also takes that sense of agency away from not just him as a filmmaker but the character itself and the actor, Deepika Padukone, portraying the role. What’s most galling, however, is the modification suggested in the song ‘Ghoomar’ to make the depiction befit the character being portrayed. There had been shrill objections to the queen shown dancing without a ghoonghat (veil). That is likely to change now, a thumbs up for the deep-seated patriarchal notion about a woman’s honour and a righteous mindset when it comes to her depiction on screen. Where does Indian cinema go in the face of such increasingly strident conservatism? We can only guess.