India's Free-Speech Problem

Violent protests over Padmaavat, a Bollywood epic, reflect the country’s history of flirting with censorship.

Members of the Rajput community protest against the release of "Padmaavat."
Members of the Rajput community protest against the release of "Padmaavat" in Mumbai on January 18. (Danish Siddiqui / Reuters )

The opening Thursday of the Indian film Padmaavat should have been an occasion for the liberal use of cliches about movies made in the world’s largest film industry: epic, colorful, vibrant. It has instead evoked another stereotype of modern India: violence, intolerance, and the diminishing space for free expression in a nation that, to its critics, is slowly reflecting the Hindu-nationalist ethos of its government.

Padmaavat, one of India’s most expensive movies, is loosely based on Padmavat, a 16th-century Sufi poem. It is about Alauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi, and his desire for Padmini, who is married to another king. That king, Ratan Sen, rules the northwestern Indian kingdom of Chittor; the story of Khilji’s sack of Chittor in the 14th century, the slaying of Ratan Sen, and the mass self-immolation by the women of the kingdom is the stuff of both history and legend. History because Khilji and Ratan Sen are historical figures; legend because Padmini’s existence is a matter of debate—the 16th-century poem is the first known reference to her. But historical fact has never gotten in the way of a good controversy, and so it is with this film.

Even before the film’s release, groups representing members of the warrior caste of which Ratan Sen was a part, the Rajputs,  said Padmaavat portrayed Padmini in poor light. Their threats against everyone involved in the film, theaters that planned to screen it, as well as actual acts of violence prompted the film’s producers to say they would delay its release from December 1 to January 25. Rajput women threatened mass self-immolation if the film was released. Activists attacked a full school bus Wednesday near New Delhi, the capital, prompting authorities to increase security nationwide ahead of the film’s release. India’s Central Board of Film Certification joined in. The panel, which is a vestige of a colonial-era censor that still has final say on what is acceptable for Indian audiences, ordered Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the film’s director, to make five changes, including disclaimers and the title. (The movie was originally titled Padmavati.)

Bhansali’s last two films were also controversial. One (Ram Leela) was a love story involving two feuding Rajput tribes. The other (Bajirao Mastani) was about the historic romance between a Hindu king and a princess whose mother was Muslim. Both films, like Padmaavat, stoked the kind of ugly scenes that have become a hallmark of modern India.

Much of this has been linked to groups that have ties to India’s Hindu nationalist government. Critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party haven’t done enough to stop violence and that, in some cases, they actively encourage it—not just around films, but against the media, minorities, and women. Some of this criticism may be justified: The violence surrounding Padmaavat has been excessive compared to the typically over-the-top demonstrations movie controversies can provoke, and the government’s response muted. But India’s other political parties are hardly blameless. The country has a decades-long history of film censorship and violence that predates the creation of the BJP. In fact, if there’s one thing Indian political parties and their supporters can agree on, it is the suppression of speech and expression they dislike.

The first Indian film to be banned by the government was Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), a Bengali-language movie that portrayed the life of a Chinese migrant worker. The censors deemed it too political and forbade its release for two years. It was hardly an isolated case. The films most frequently targeted were the ones that appeared critical of Indira Gandhi—the Indian prime minister through much of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—and her Congress party. The most famous of these is Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), a satire about her government that was not only banned, but its prints seized, and subsequently burned.

In the years since, outright bans have been rare, but films deemed controversial have been held up by the censors, ordered to make alterations, and only then released. What hasn’t changed is public anger and violence over movies deemed offensive to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and any one of India’s umpteen religious and regional groups. On the one hand, the fact that authorities are responsive to this mass outrage, and the threats of violence and self-harm emanating from across India’s sectarian divisions, is a sign India’s citizens do have a voice; on the other, the government’s response also shows a dangerous acquiescence to the politics of intimidation, which has become all too common in the world’s largest democracy. Movies did run into trouble over their content in the past, but now they run into trouble over public perception before they are released.

Javed Akhtar, a legendary Indian scriptwriter and lyricist, spoke about this in 2016, citing the example of perhaps his best-known film Sholay.

“In 1975 I showed a comedy scene in a temple. Today I won’t,” he said. “But even in 1975, I wouldn’t have shown a scene in a mosque because that level of intolerance was there. Now the other one [Hindus] is matching it. Now they are joining the club. … It’s a tragedy.”

He may have a point. The BJP and its supporters have been criticized for their role in the Padmaavat controversy, but the opposition Congress, which calls itself secular, is more hardly conciliatory in its approach to the film.

“Films which hurt sentiments of any religion or caste should not be made,” Digvijay Singh, a senior Congress leader said Thursday in response to the row. If filmmakers took his suggestion seriously, Indian films would be reduced to three hours of song-and-dance sequences in Switzerland or elsewhere.

Ultimately, though, controversy or violence hasn’t prevented movies from becoming massive box-office hits. PK, the 2014 comedy that pilloried religion in India, sparked massive protests but became one of the country’s highest-grossing films. The truth may be that when it comes to watching movies, Indian audiences, Hindu or not, are agnostic.

“There are people who say intolerance has risen to a dangerous level in the society. I don’t believe it,” Akhtar said in those remarks from 2016.  “There are people who say there is no intolerance in the society. I don’t believe them either.”

He added: “The fact lies somewhere in between. The fact is that Indian society is and was always tolerant. There are certain segments of societythey are always at war.”