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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

A baying mob should never be allowed to triumph

A new Bollywood film has provoked anger, acrimony and violence

Protesters kick the a film poster of Bollywood film 'Padmaavat' during a demonstration against the screening of the movie at Jyoti Chowk in Bhopal. Dominique Faget / AFP
Protesters kick the a film poster of Bollywood film 'Padmaavat' during a demonstration against the screening of the movie at Jyoti Chowk in Bhopal. Dominique Faget / AFP

Several states in India stepped up police patrols ahead of today's release of Padmaavat, a new Bollywood film mired in controversy. Hindu groups took to the streets when the country’s Supreme Court said the movie could be screened nationwide. Right-wing Hindu organisations allege the movie distorts history and had earlier sought to have it banned. Filmmakers deny the claim. As The National reports, the film begins with a string of disclaimers, its producers keen to point out that the movie was inspired by the work of Malik Muhammad Jayasi, a Sufi poet, rather than being a faithful portrayal of historical events.

Nevertheless, the response to Padmaavat has been ferocious. Police opened fire in Gujarat on Tuesday to disperse protesters. Fearing retribution against customers and employees, India’s second largest cinema chain said it would not play the film in its venues in Gujarat and Rajasthan. An effigy of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was burned in Chhatisgarh on the same day, while hardliners offered bounties to those willing to commit acts of violence against the film's stars. On Wednesday, 150 Rajput women threatened to burn themselves alive if the film was released, mirroring the film's most dramatic scene. Crucially, none of those who spilled onto the streets had actually seen the film. They were simply swimming with the swelling tide of acrimony.

The visceral reaction raises questions and complications for film regulators and authorities, particularly when public safety is threatened. Padmaavat is, of course, only the latest film in a long list of movies to have been selectively withdrawn from screens around the world. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange was removed from UK cinemas after it inspired copycat acts of violence. The 2014 comedy The Interview, not normally mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick's masterpiece, had its US cinema release pulled amid cyber-attacks and threats from North Korea. In the event, public demand to see this forbidden fruit transformed the film's fortunes.

Film makers and law makers argue that they have a right to free expression and, certainly, it is always a dark day when a baying mob strong arms its way to supremacy. What the controversy over Padmaavat tells us is that the authorities have a difficult line to tread in keeping the streets safe and ensuring that cultural producers continue to develop films and projects that challenge and entertain.