For years, Indian liberals have fought for the right to freedom of artistic expression — the paintings of M. F. Husain, Jatin Das, movies like Fire and PK and readings of the Three Hundred Ramayanas.
As calls rise for a ban on the release of Padmavati — a film that valourises Rajput caste identity and glorifies sati, we ask:
Is Padmavati forcing Left-liberals and feminists into an awkward silence on the question of unqualified freedom of expression?
We are in the midst of a culture war. Each week, we discuss the propriety and limits of the freedom of speech and expression. These debates often turn legal and it seems that our public institutions from the state governments to our courts are failing to draw clear boundaries of “reasonable restrictions”.
Filmmaking in independent India has rarely existed with a sense of artistic independence and the resistance to the Bollywood movie, Padmavati serves as a ready example.
There are a multitude of objections to the movie by a diverse category of persons. These arise from descendants of the queen on whose life the movie is based to those who claim it would glorify the practice of Sati. These objections do require social debate but not legal censure.
Here are other sharp perspectives on Padmavati and the freedom of expression:
The Cinematograph Act, which requires the pre-certification or prior licensing of movies is an archaic law. A recent report of the Shyam Benegal Committee recommended large-scale amendments. It is a law which whittles down the artist to the whims of social pressure, privileging restrictions over the freedom of speech.
Very few realise the commercial and social pressures, which already prevent artists and filmmakers from making works of historical fiction or depicting relevant social and historical subjects to large audiences.
A few months ago when appearing for the filmmakers of “An Insignificant Man”, my difficulty was not in persuading the appellate tribunal as to the legal merits, but explaining it to the young filmmakers who had invested more than two years of their life. While they were acutely aware of the legalities, they still viewed the law, in a work of cinema, as a foreign object. They are right. The merits of any movie are best judged by an audience in a cinema, not by the scissors of a censor board.
Apar Gupta is a practising advocate based in Delhi.