Bollywood’s Silence on the Padmavati Controversy is Deafening
If there’s one word followers of Bollywood gossip, news, and trade have been beaten over the head with for the past few decades, it’s the word “fraternity”. To be fair, it perfectly describes the insular nature of Bollywood: if you’re in the fraternity, you’re in, and if you have to ask, you’re out. It’s a word that simultaneously evokes a sense of kinship and the promise of protection should any member of the fraternity be threatened.
Usually, the film fraternity follows through on that promise. It has protected its own against allegations of domestic violence, rape, manslaughter, terrorism, and good, old-fashioned ignorance. But the fraternity draws the line, it seems, at protecting creative freedom.
By now, everyone has heard about the problems plaguing the film Padmavati, the Sanjay Leela Bhansali-directed period drama based on a legendary Rajput queen. Rani Padmavati may or may not have existed, depending on who you ask (she was first mentioned in an epic poem written by a Sufi poet in 1540, at least two centuries after she was said to have lived). However, her questionable existence hasn’t stopped certain political factions from waging war on the film’s team, including its lead actress, Deepika Padukone. We’re no longer talking about protests or strongly worded statements, either. Senior members of the ruling party have offered rewards worth up to $1.5 million to anyone who beheads Bhansali and Padukone. Sets have already been destroyed and Bhansali physically assaulted, and there is a possibility that at least one Padmavati-related murder can already be attributed to these political groups. Cast members and their families are currently under police protection, and the release of the film has been postponed indefinitely.
So what has the Bollywood fraternity been doing while all this is happening? Keeping its head down, perhaps out of fear that someone may threaten to take it clean off. At the recent opening of the International Film Festival of India in Goa, celebrities were curiously silent on the topic of Padmavati in particular, and censorship in general. When producer Boney Kapoor was asked to share his thoughts on the subject, his response was a rather callous, “Padmavati is, well, not my film.” And he’s right, Padmavati is not his film…but it could be.
There’s no use trying to make sense of why some films attract the ire of the mobs and others don’t. I’m certainly not in the business of trying to rationalize irrational anger. What is certain is that yesterday it was Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, today it is Padmavati, and tomorrow it will inevitably be someone else’s film. And the longer the film fraternity remains silent—or, at best, sends out half-hearted tweets of support—the more emboldened these mobs will become. One body hanging from a tree will turn into several, a physical assault will become a high-profile murder, and before you know it, the concept of free speech will no longer exist.
The simple truth is this: it should not matter if Padmavati offends sentiments, or rewrites history, or erases it completely. India is a democracy, and citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of expression under its constitution. This right, of course, comes with certain limitations. One can, for instance, express their displeasure with an upcoming film in an angry thinkpiece, or even a rant on a television panel. They cannot, however, incite violence. So why is it that these men and women who have threatened the lives of members of the Padmavati team are walking around free, while the team itself have had to make concessions to them at every turn?
It’s because Bollywood doesn’t have a spine.
We witnessed a similar situation last year when Karan Johar, looking like the hostage of a terrorist organization, was forced to pledge on camera that he would not employ Pakistani actors in the future. After the Uri attacks, this was the only way political groups would “allow” his film to release without interference. And the Bollywood fraternity Mr. Johar speaks so fondly of, the one he has been a part of since he entered the world, did not come to his defense; instead, by and large, they too made a similar promise not to hire Pakistani actors. Where was their sense of fraternity then?
Bollywood actors may style themselves as kings and queens, badshahs and shahenshahs, but when it comes to matters of real importance, most of them run scared.
We all recognize that these political groups are dangerous, and that standing up to them means putting yourself in harm’s way. No sane person wants to live with a bounty on their head. But there is strength in numbers, and Bollywood has among its ranks some of the wealthiest, most influential, most well-connected people not only in India, but in the world at large. If Bollywood stopped complaining about being soft targets and started standing in solidarity with their contemporaries, leveraging all their combined resources to protect their right to freedom of expression, perhaps these groups would not be so bold in their terroristic threats. Yet instead of banding together, Bollywood is doing its best to avoid the topic altogether, and even the lead actors of the film have hung their director and leading lady out to dry in the press. Bollywood, it seems, stands for nothing, and it will crumble in the presence of those who stand for all the wrong things.
If Boney Kapoor ever makes a Padmavati of his own, he will likely find no real support from his “fraternity”. If his daughter Janhvi, who is set to make her Bollywood debut soon, finds herself the target of a murderous mob one day, people like Boney Kapoor will shrug their shoulders and say, “Not my daughter, not my movie”…if they say anything at all.
It’s true that the government should step in, and the media should report on the issue more responsibly. But, as they say, you can’t help those who won’t help themselves. By staying silent, Bollywood is forfeiting the rights guaranteed to them under the constitution. They are caving in to censorship, the death of democracy. And they are setting a very dangerous precedent: if you scream loudly enough, it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you drown out the voice of reason. Indian artists deserve better than that.
Have you found your voice yet, Bollywood? The world is watching.