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?
As a Left-leaning progressive (not Liberal), the Karni Sena’s threats to ban the film, are indeed something I strongly oppose. The latest death threat by a Haryana BJP media spokesperson putting a Rs 10 crore bounty on Deepika Padukone’s head, and official silence around it makes it clear how such violence is implicitly sanctioned by those who wield power in this country.
About a month ago, I had posted a comment on Facebook wherein I called out how the Padmavati trailer itself promoted caste essentialism by glorifying the Rajputs as brave and valorous, and by furthering the deeply patriarchal cause of a fictitious Rani Padmini’s jauhar (self-immolation) as a heroic “choice”. In pointing out how Padmavati’s trailer furthered Islamophobia, sexism and casteism, I later received a barrage of vitriolic comments. I was told I needed a “bullet to my head”, “(should) die like Gauri Lankesh”, among other abuse.
When I first went to file a police complaint, I was told by a policewoman that arguably even the men were just exercising their freedom of speech, and she asked how they could be classified as threats. I was exercising my freedom of expression as a progressive. The reality of our society’s rigid hierarchies, however, highlight how only some kinds of viewpoints are privileged under our notions of free speech.
Here are other sharp perspectives on Padmavati and the freedom of expression:
To me, the current fracas over the film’s release is only an extension of this idea. Firstly, discriminatory hate speech that punches down is not free speech. And yes, free speech is important — but we should first ask whose free speech do we always rush to protect?
There is a theoretical difference between liberalism and Leftism. Indeed, liberals, film-makers and everyone else should speak up against voices threatening to behead actresses or those glorifying Rajput chauvinism. Padmavati can be reconciled with as primarily a matter of freedom of artistic expression — despite the toxic stereotypes the film itself propagates.
But we need to take this idea of liberalism and ask for the same rights of free expression to Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, G.N. Saibaba — and countless others whose work and lives have been dubbed too “radical”, too “Ambedkarite”, too “seditious”, or too “Leftist”.
If powerful Right-wing media figures can stand for Padmavati’s release, the issue isn’t a simplistic one of “Good Liberals” versus “Bad Right Wing”, but one of how free expression itself is shaped by hierarchy, power and privilege.
Sabah is a journalist at ThePrint