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Fear Factor

We’re not even a month into the new year and Bollywood has already had more than its share of drama. The dream Friday weekend of the Republic Day holiday turned into a nightmare when, after the release dates of many other films had to be adjusted, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor, finally hit cinemas.

If the film’s release was a victory for those associated with the film and believers in freedom of expression, the movie’s release took place only after violence wrought havoc in some parts of the country, angry voices hurled all sorts of allegations and the highest court in the land was dragged in to sort out the row.

With its larger-than-life canvas and stellar performances, the controversial film was worth the wait for us. But, we wonder if the nightmare surrounding Padmaavat was worth it for the film’s producers and its director.

This is not the first time political parties and religious organisations have raised a ruckus before a film’s release, claiming that the film potentially hurts the sentiments of a particular community. Bhansali was at the centre of a similar controversy with his last film, Bajirao Mastani, but the way in which this controversy escalated has set off alarm bells in the trade.

We spoke to some writers, producers and directors in the Hindi film industry and asked them whether they think making a historical film is a viable option any more; and if they were to make a film based on history, how they would approach it following the Padmaavat row.

Siddharth Roy Kapur, Producer

Given the recent events surrounding Padmaavat, it is unavoidable that producers, directors and writers will be doing a certain amount of self-censorship when it comes to depicting potentially controversial historical figures on screen. Speaking personally, I would still like to tell those stories from history that interest and excite me, and which I believe will excite audiences too. There are always multiple versions of history, depending on what the source material for your research is, so I believe the most important thing to do would be to be clear and upfront about your sources right from the outset and ensure that they have the credibility to withstand whatever scrutiny they might be subjected to in the course of the release of the film. And, after that, let the battle begin!

I think we have become more sensitive as a society to any perceived slights on our culture or heritage. This has come about because of decades of cynical vote bank politics and a divisive approach to attaining power, rather than an approach that brings people together. Add to that a media hungry for the next outrageous sound byte, and you have an environment that enables any fringe group to garner instant fame by making outrageous statements without any consequence. This has emboldened many attention-hungry groups to use the film industry as an easy vehicle for national fame or notoriety.

It is incumbent upon the state and the courts to act swiftly and decisively to ensure that any such acts are nipped in the bud and not allowed to gain prominence. But while the courts have invariably acted in favour of free speech and artistic expression, unfortunately the State has been silent and hence complicit.

If and when I make a historical movie, I would prefer to prescribe do’s rather than don’ts. DO your research thoroughly and rigorously, so you know your subject better than anyone who chooses to challenge you on it. DO have a strong legal team to advise you on any permissions or life rights you might need in order to protect yourself as much as possible from potential legal challenges. DO take the plunge and make the film if you believe in it, and then back your decision all the way, with faith in the institutions of our country to do the right thing at the end.

Madhur Bhandarkar, Director-Producer

Whether a historical movie or a political one, there is always an uproar when a film is released. What is happening with Padmaavat today is a repeat of what happened with Indu Sarkar in July and I completely understand the situation that you are thrown into which includes the threats that you get from political parties.

They even went to the extent of telling me that the minute Indu Sarkar released, the government would fix me. And it was all because they thought this film might be demeaning to their leaders. I was fighting on three fronts – one was the Censor Board; the other was the alleged daughter of Sanjay Gandhi; and the political party in question who barged into my press conferences and the five star hotel I was staying in.

I believe it is difficult to make a film set in a political or historical context rooted in reality since our country is a diverse land. I had to add the word ‘fiction’ to the disclaimer of the film. It’s always the same thing… someone’s sentiments are hurt, some public figure is demeaned, someone is shown in the wrong light, etc. People take unnecessary offense at everything. There have been so many novels, documentaries and serials written and made on historical and political issues but the minute you convert them into a film, there are many who pounce at you.

There were many who wanted to ink me or issue a fatwa against me. I can totally relate to Sanjay Leela Bhansali and what he must be going through. For my safety, I had to call for security and I would like to thank the state government for providing me with security.

Padmaavat is not the first movie at the receiving end of public ire, even if not on this scale. The Da Vinci Code and Qissa Kursi Ka were banned for political reasons. Even Kamal Haasan had to give in to the Censor Board and cut four to five scenes from his film. And the problems are not peculiar to any particular political party.

In my film, I had to change the name of the characters and change some scenes completely. I think Indians are much too sensitive to the things we see in the movies and people tend to get hurt easily. I will never forget the nightmares I use to get due to the threats that my family and I received.

For Indu Sarkar, I had to bounce between different courts before I got the green signal from the Supreme Court. If I had to make a film like that now, I would make it only if I had official sanction from the individual himself or their family or descendants.

In the last six months, we have seen Indu Sarkar and Padmaavat go through this nightmare. So let’s face it – you either make a fictional film or make it a movie with official rights.

Subhash Kapoor, Writer-director

Bollywood has always been a soft target for people to stir trouble and rake up political issues. These issues enjoy their 5 minutes of fame and then disappear. And, if issues like these can happen to someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, they can happen to anyone in the industry.

Going forward, more and more writers and filmmakers will be cautious regarding their scripts and while deciding what they want to show their audience. Earlier, when a filmmaker narrated a script to a producer and expressed concerns about the Censor Board, the producer would say, ‘Don’t worry, we will get the Censor Board done.’ Now, it’s just the opposite. Today, if you approach a producer and narrate a story or a scene, you will find a panel of people standing there to tell you, ‘No, the Censor will not pass this scene or this movie.’

In the case of Padmaavat, the Censor did pass it with cuts, so it is sad to see how our freedom of expression and the right of an artiste has been curbed. Things have changed and now, people tend to react to just about anything happening around them without even trying to understand the other point of view. This kind of behaviour pollutes and corrupts the socio-political atmosphere in the country.

I wouldn’t call it intolerance but people are definitely becoming touchy about many things and sometimes react in extreme ways. Also, when you read the literature penned in the early part of the 20th century, you will notice how innovatively people used to write and you will be struck by the quality of their writing. I think today’s generation of filmmakers and writers should not shy away from expressing their thoughts and should take some inspiration from the ways in which earlier writers used innovative ways to express their thoughts.

Ramesh Taurani, Producer

While making a historical film, it is important to conduct relevant research and portray a balanced view. Ultimately, one also must remember that it is history being seen from a creative point of view, which makes it interesting to make and watch.

Sadly, the world has become an intolerant place. But it is our responsibility as filmmakers to not let that affect us and tell stories, historical or otherwise. When picking a controversial topic in history, it is important to present a fact-based or balanced view of things.

Tanuj Garg, Producer

I think the current situation is unwarranted and it is a pity that filmmakers who are genuinely keen on directing movies based on history will have to think twice. It has become a tricky genre for filmmakers in India. There should not be any limits on creativity and, as a production house, I don’t know whether I would like to take a risk like this one.

Movies based on history have been made across the ages but things have become pretty extreme now, and all this due to false egos. Some people are projecting a false sense of patriotism and pseudo-sentimentality while sitting in judgement on what is right and what is wrong. These people have received an impetus only because the government has done nothing to curb them. Eventually, filmmakers suffer. The regulatory machinery is unable to protect filmmakers, which is very sad.

As ironic as this sounds, if I were to make a historical movie, I would change the characters’ names and turn it into a fictional movie. But, then, how ‘historical’ would that be? History is never factual; it is your interpretation of what may have happened. From our perspective, it is extremely limiting to our creativity and as producers, it is very unfortunate that we have become victims of the environment we work in. I think one has to take a practical call on how to move forward.

Rumi Jaffrey, Writer

Our film industry started with a film called Raja Harishchandra, a historical movie. But people did not bother with controversies then as they do today. It takes much effort and hard work to make a film and when it is finally ready for release, people wake up and say that the concept is offensive. India is such a diverse country with so many different cultures and any member of any community can stand up and say ‘This particular thing hurts our religious sentiments.’ This affects the environment of filmmaking, which should actually be free and creative.

Take Padmaavat, for instance. No one even knew about this story, about Rani Padmini, before Sanjay Leela Bhansali announced that he would make this film. Our medium of movies is that strong. Even when Bajirao Mastani was first announced with Salman Khan, everyone in the industry was wondering who this historical figure was. So people should actually be glad that, thanks to the medium of cinema, people all over the world know about Padmaavat and other historical stories.

Moreover, those who have watched the movie say it only brings pride to Rajput valour. And even if it didn’t, even if it showed the negative side of a historical story, why would you stop someone from presenting it to the public? People learn things through history… good and bad.

Technically, the characters in Padmaavat are not proven to be true, just like the characters in Mughal-E-Azam were not true. Nobody believed that the son of Akbar had a love affair like he did and all the rest of it. But it is a good fictional tale. The reason people claim they are offended by this are only seeking publicity. They are aware that social issues don’t grab attention like the film industry does, especially Bollywood. People immediately sit up and take notice.

People who are defending the Karni Sena on TV today did not even know of them till recently. They have turned them into a household name. This level of publicity usually helps an organistion like the Karni Sena grow into a political party. The only solution to this raging violence is that the government should be extremely strict with them. Only then will they realise that our country has something called ‘law and order’. Avaam mein kanoon ka darr nahi hoga toh woh bigdegi hi.

People are using force to change history to their own advantage. They are vehemently against showing any kind of negativity that has happened in the past. But why? History, regardless of being good or bad, is still history and should be presented the way it is. How can you tell someone to change the past just because it suits the sensibilities of your community?

The Karni Sena is forcing people like the CBFC chief, Prasoon Joshi, to get extra security because of their threats; they are abusing the film industry on TV; they are claiming to uphold Rani Padmini’s honour by demeaning Deepika Padukone. How is that okay? Thankfully, despite all this, the film has finally released. But no one in their right mind will go anywhere near a topic like this anytime soon.

Sanjay Chauhan, Writer

I wanted to make a biopic on Malik Mohammad Jayasi, a famous poet. I had conducted a lot of research and found his life, his connection to Mughal Emperor Jehangir and, of course, him writing Padmaavat all very interesting. His life was also very tragic. But if I approach a producer, they would point out that this was the same man who wrote Padmaavat and reject my idea.

The film fraternity has become like that saying, ‘Garib ki lugaai, gaon ki bhojaai’. Trouble can crop up from just about anywhere. People randomly threaten us, our movies, our work, our audience, etc. Multiplexes run the risk of being damaged at great cost, thanks to the actions of rowdy protestors. Who would want to be threatened and their place of work under siege? Who wants to be trolled on social media? As a theatre owner, I would avoid that.

The worst part is that law and order agencies, and the government do not support us. We are therefore forced to write only certain type of, acceptable, bhakti bhavna wali films. It is difficult for any writer to write a historical movie at this point in time. Also, the reactions we are at the receiving end of are further hyped by the television media. All the TV channels care about are TRPs, and they deliberately court publicity by hosting controversial debates on air. They have killed journalism.

Television reporters have tossed caution to the wind and blatantly take sides. This clearly fuels the mayhem. Why don’t these TV ‘reporters’ point out that the Karni Sena has done nothing to fight social evils like child marriage, dowry, rape and the suppression of women’s right to education? Instead, they glorify them by featuring them on TV. They are the reason groups like the Karni Sena feel emboldened to perpetrate violence. Unko badhava de rahe ho.

With all this happening, I would not even consider writing a script that is close to being a historical, not to mention that producers will no longer be willing to back projects like these.

Lastly, history is nothing but someone’s interpretation of events. People don’t seem to understand this, and the reason is that the TV media feeds people nonsense. Unfortunately, the audience tends to believe the opinions of the people who appear on TV.

Who in the Karni Sena has actually read the story of Padmavat written in the 15th century? The story goes back centuries. Now, in 2017, they have suddenly woken up to say that it is not true. The poem of Padmavat starts by the poet asking for strength to write this story. It is his interpretation and the movie is the writer and/or director’s interpretation. Why do we have to face so much angst because of it?

Ritesh Shah, Writer

With things the way they are today, the question of taking a particular type of approach does not arise. One should not even attempt the genre. Anyway, we already know our history, so where is the need anyway? Things were very different before WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook came along. Social media has turned everyone into an ‘expert’ on the economy, politics and especially history. I would not write a historical movie today but my advice for those who would still attempt to is to keep all kinds of people in mind and cut out everything anyone might object to. After that, pray hard!

Kalapi Nagada, Producer

Historical movies require a lot of research to make sure no facts are tampered with or shown in a different light than the original. Movie making is an expensive affair and considering the current scenario surrounding movies, one has to be cautious with the genre we select. Movies based on history and historical figures have been made in Bollywood since the beginning. Yet suddenly, we find ourselves in a society where fringe groups are deciding what kind of movies we should and should not watch.

The creative freedom of filmmakers and the audience is being curbed. Once the CBFC gives the go-ahead for a movie, then it should be up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to watch the movie.

As far as making a historical movie goes, I believe that the script should be thoroughly researched and one should not tamper with the facts. And avoid glorifying bad elements in the story.

Sanjay Masoom, Writer

I think in the name of creativity, we should not misrepresent characters from history. We should not take liberties with historical figures who play on people’s sentiments. Cinema should not cross boundaries to change facts. As a filmmaker, you may have your own unique perspective but one cannot change history.

Nowadays, social media platforms spread information almost instantly and that’s why we get a quick and strong reaction to something. While making a movie on historical themes, we should be careful not to hurt people’s sentiments.

Vipul Rawal, Writer

We have so many stories to tell from Indian culture that we don’t really need to make any Hollywood remakes. India is a land of culture and each state has so many stories waiting to be told. Indian history needs to be told via films, and that’s how I developed the Rustom story. One should thoroughly research one’s subject, approach it with honesty and avoid tampering with the subject.

Politicians have been smartly diverting the public’s attention from serious issues by painting a doomsday scenario. Also, since the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick and Harry wants his 15 minutes of fame. Don’t exploit a historical subject for unethical, commercial gain. Don’t take shortcuts during your research. Don’t give in to pressure from fringe groups.

Sanyukta Chawla, Writer

I think the biggest problem we face as writers is to separate fact from fiction and then, for the sake of effective storytelling, marrying the two. Many rich stories and folklore in India are often wrapped around real events and real people and history. Most importantly, clearly identify the difference between history and these stories.

It is important to always follow the truth and act responsibly while departing from what really happened to heighten an emotional experience. Also, always tell stories with empathy.

– Soumita Sengupta, Bhakti Mehta, Suranjana Biswas

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