Another film, another ban. This is India. Films are cut, censored, banned almost as regularly as they are made. It’s a dance Indian film-makers have embarked upon for decades. And so, it was with some indifference that I watched the disorder erupt over a new Bollywood film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, called Padmavati.
The indifference to the scandal, for lack of a better word, eventually piqued my interest when I read that Rajput Karni Sena, a small right-wing group in Rajasthan, threatened to behead the lead actress, Deepika Padukone, who plays Padmavati, who is said to have been a Rajput queen in the 13th century in what is now Sri Lanka.
Those offended by the film, Rajasthani Rajputs, say Bhansali included a love sequence with Padmavati and the invading Delhi sultan, Alauddin Khilji. The group organising the protest argue that the scene denigrates Padmavati, who, they say, set herself alight before the Muslim sultan entered the city, in a bid to preserve her honour. The film-maker says there is no such scene in the film.
Can films, cartoons or art be offensive? Of course. Go write about Anne Frank as a teenage seductress in Nazi Germany and not as a Jewish holocaust victim and see how that works out for you.
Can art be used a means to impose ideas, culture or narrative, perhaps even denigrate or advance patriarchy or racial superiority? Of course, art is not innocent.
I haven’t seen the film so I cannot comment on whether its detractors have any grounds to be upset with how Queen Padmavati is depicted.
But it turns out that neither have the detractors seen the film because it has yet to be released, which makes all this rather peculiar.
Since shooting began earlier this year, Bhansali has been besieged by complaints. He was assaulted on set in March this year. Following the threats to Padukone’s life, there have been dozens of programmes and debates and discussions over the affair.
And some Indian states have refused to carry the film in their cinemas for fear of upsetting communities who have threatened to riot should it be released.
Again, the threat of shutting down cinemas, or censoring content is not new in India. Threatening to behead an actress is certainly novel by Bollywood standards.
But I digress.
This episode is only the latest in a series of attempts by the Hindu right wing to police, censor and impose its narrative in India.
Just two months ago, a Malayalam film, Sexy Durga, was banned from film festivals because of the title (Durga refers to the Goddess Durga though the film title referred to a character in the film).
Likewise, that Queen Padmavati as a historical figure might or might not have existed is of marginal importance.
Instead, the kicker is how a story that might exist only as a parable is hijacked to advance the political ambitions of the right wing.
And as it stands, serious debate and discussion on the rise of the right in India is an uncomfortable topic.
It’s only “ridiculous” phrases (like a bounty for those who will behead Padukone) that manage to pop these echo chambers.
Like the neo-Nazi fascism unfolding in the US, Narendra Modi’s government and the bullish policies of his lackeys have fast been normalised; navigating the fascism is done routinely, and often subtly.
For instance, actor and producer Shah Rukh Khan visited Raj Thackeray, a right-wing Marathi politician, in a bid to have his film Raees, screened without interruption in Mumbai. Likewise, actor and producer Aamir Khan, not known for honouring award ceremonies in India, curiously chose to receive an award from Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Hindu Nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, earlier this year. It was the first time he went to an award ceremony in 16 years.
These are red flags; if this is what superstars must do, what hoops are ordinary people jumping through in their everyday encounters with state-sponsored fascism?
And though I am horrified for Padukone, I hold little sympathy for the Hindi film industry over this affair.
It is true that Bollywood is a “soft” target for the censorship board when it comes to questions of “morality” or “religious sensitivities”, or the “national interest”.
But while the absurd aversion for nudity has seen film-makers find innovative (or cheesy, or plain disturbing) ways to portray love making, it has an uncanny reverence for the “national interest”.
In this way, Bollywood is no martyr; it rarely pushes the boundaries or bucks the trend. It is as misogynist and paternalistic as the Indian public. Its songs and dances and metaphors make women, minorities and the poor grovel at the feet of privilege.
In truth, Bollywood has always set the tone for Indian national values, maybe because its survival has depended on it.
Modi was elected in 2014, and since then there have been dozens of people slaughtered for eating beef; Muslim men have being targeted and tortured for suspected “love jihad”. Textbooks are being altered, novels are being banned, there were even attempts to prove the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple and not a Mughal tomb.
The urban poor have been demoralised by the onset of demonetisation that literally left old men and women dying in queues at banks.
Where are those stories on the silver screen?
There are none because whereas cinema - be it here, there, anywhere - allows audiences to suspend disbelief, Bollywood, has always helped manufacture consent.
By targeting a film they haven’t seen, to protect “the honour” of a female character we aren’t even sure existed, the right wing are setting boundaries; it doesn’t matter what is in this film or who Padmavati was.
What matters is the subtext: certain depictions, ideas or narratives of Muslim and Hindus will not be tolerated. Only a certain type of India will be allowed to exist, thrive, win.
And if that is not enough to convince you of what is to come, I don’t know what will.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor at The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.