As the storm over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming historical film Padmavati refuses to blow over, award-winning director and former MP Shyam Benegal talks about how he dealt with fact and fiction in his films and iconic TV series, Bharat Ek Khoj, based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. He also heads the committee appointed by the Centre to frame new guidelines for Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC). Excerpts from the interview:
With Padmavati, there have been problems raised by certain people. What are your thoughts on these objections made by those outside the CBFC?
No one appears to have seen the film, other than the filmmakers. No one really knows what it contains. The Shri Rajput Karni Sena must clarify, as it claims to know what it contains.
Biographies run into trouble with families, but this is the portrayal of a mythical character. Does this make it a problem of another order?
As far as Rani Padmini or Padmavati is concerned, her existence is vivid in popular imagination due to Padmavat, the long heroic ballad written by Mallik Mohammad Jaisi, a Sufi poet, in and around 1540. In Bharat Ek Khoj, a series on Indian history that I made for Doordarshan in early 1980s, I had picturised an episode based on Padmavat. There is a scene in it where Alauddin Khilji, who laid siege to Chittor Fort, is standing below the ramparts and looking at a pavilion above where a group of women are singing and dancing the ghoomar. Rani Padmavati is seen watching the women. On another pavilion, above the pavilion of the dancing women, Raja Ratan Sen looks at the same scene. They are on three different levels.
The narrative of Jaisi’s ballad is rich with emotion and pathos. I can only speculate on reasons behind the Karni Sena’s agitation. I get the impression that the Padmavati story is being used to create and consolidate a political block of the Rajput community.
How must literary characters or historical characters be handled by filmmakers?
Whenever any film relates to any contentious historical or mythological incidents or events, it is always prudent to refer to its source. If it is drawn from a fictional ballad, like Jaisi’s work, then that should be made clear too — whether it’s a traditional rendition, a mythic retelling; or a historical recreation. Mentioning the source is essential, since the story is not a purely imaginary work of the filmmaker. For instance, the Shiv Sena had problems with how I presented Shivaji in Bharat Ek Khoj. I made it clear that it was derived from the historian Jadunath Sarkar’s authoritative work, Life of Shivaji. This prevented all unnecessary controversies.
To what extent did you follow Discovery of India, and to what extent did you go beyond the text?
I was aware of one very important fact: Nehru had written this when he was incarcerated in Ahmednagar jail for three years or more. He did not have his source material at hand — no libraries to refer to. He did correspond with historian EP Thompson when in doubt. His rendition had a strong nationalist bias. I had Nehru narrate the commentary in his own voice (Roshan Seth played the role). I also made sure that the views of recognised contemporary Indian historians — across the three main periods: ancient, medieval and modern India — were given expression as well. The subjective voice was that of Nehru, while the objective voice was that of the professional historians.
In 2017, how would you define creative licence in India? Now you cannot cast real life stars who are Pakistani and also not talk about mythical characters.
This happens from time to time. It is like a pendulum, which has swung to the majoritarian view at present. Media, newspapers and TV have all gone that way. It has swung the other way as well, in the past. As far as casting actors from Pakistan is concerned, it is not that we have never been able to do so. We have often had actors from there. Currently, the prevalent situation between the two countries does not allow it. As filmmakers and people in the creative field, we have to be aware of the political vagaries of the time. This does not mean we should not do what we must, but always be aware that there can, at times, be a backlash.
But what is the role of the state when people start issuing threats?
Threats have reached alarming levels at present. We have seen individuals offering bounties of Rs 5 crore and more for killing or mutilating actors and the director of Padmavati. These threats have been issued publicly on TV and other mass media. Such threats are unheard of in a democracy. Are threats of mutilation and death allowed to be made without rebuke. Will the government remain a mute spectator? This is a shocking state of affairs. The government has an obligation. They must give protection to anyone who is threatened in this manner. Also, it is the job of the government to stop threats of this nature being made. I am surprised that the government has taken no action or even made any offer to protect those who are being threatened. Instead, we have people from the ruling party endorsing the threats.
Is fictionalising history per se, a bad idea?
Not a bad idea at all. History offers wonderful subject matter for fictional rendition — adventure, romance, melodrama, tragedy, etc. Also, characters from history are larger than life, which makes them very attractive.
Is this a new phase of mob rule that filmmakers and playwrights in India are experiencing?
Mobs may be unthinking but the leaders who manipulate them are not. They have a definite agenda.
Freedom of expression has always been a limited idea for a variety of factors in India. But is the right to get insulted getting overwhelmingly exercised now?
Freedom of expression as an idea has never been absolute in any society. The limit to my freedom of expression is when it starts to impinge on someone else’s freedom of expression. How far it can go is a matter of debate in a democratic society. Dictatorships can and do ride roughshod in such matters.
The International Film Festival in Goa saw two films picked by the jury, Nude and S Durga, dropped. Does this concern you?
I am very concerned. There are certain rules and conventions about film festivals internationally. The decisions of the jury must be respected. Governments cannot tamper with those decisions. If they wish to do so, they must scrap the jury and make their own selection. Why pretend to have a jury? Films that are entered in festivals are meant to be uncensored and as pristine as possible. A film festival is meant to celebrate the art of cinema.
Is there any news on the report of the committee on new guidelines for CBFC that you headed?
The ball is in the government’s court now. We have submitted the set of recommendations, which we think would respect the integrity of films as a creative expression and make certification smoother and better. There were two parts to the recommendations: the first part was given in April and the second in September.