Hindu right-wing’s attack on Bhansali and their failure in the politics of Indian cinema
Soon after the news broke that Sanjay Leela Bhansali was assaulted on the sets of Padmavati, a film based on the 16th-century mythical tale of Delhi sultan Allauddin Khilji’s love and longing for the Rajput queen of Chittoor, there was a concerted effort online to put the assault on Bhansali ‘in context’. From filmmakers to lawyers, voices in the right-wing echo-chamber went after Bhansali, pretending to condemn the violence orchestrated by a Rajput outfit.
The ‘condemnation’ of the violence from such quarters was mere tokenism, and the real reason for speaking out was to show solidarity with the goons on the ground. Violence is wrong, they said, and then went on to attack Bhansali anyway, knowing well that such statements only justify the act and embolden attackers to continue doing so in the future.
There is near-total agreement (read here and here) that the story of Khilji’s love for Padmavati is purely a figment of a poet’s imagination, and even the director of the film has maintained that it is a work of fiction. And yet, Bhansali is accused of attempting to ‘whitewash’ history by spinning fictitious tales about real historical figures to serve a political agenda.
No art is apolitical. Good or bad, simple or abstract, art is rooted in the political beliefs of the creator, even if it does not manifest in an easily identifiable manner. It is often produced as a part of the larger propaganda of a social class, or as a counter to it, and the political undertones in cinema are hard to miss.
What then frustrates the Hindu right-wing in India is that popular cinema, across languages, has not been effectively used as a tool for their propaganda. Pop cinema could be elitist or nationalist, is most definitely casteist and patriarchal, but it has never been effectively used to propagate Hindutva.
While there are directors like Imtiaz Ali, Mani Ratnam or Anurag Kashyap to present liberal ideas couched in entertaining narratives, the right-wing is stuck with unremarkable and substandard filmmakers like Pahlaj Nihalani and Vivek Agnihotri. After the wildly popular TV series on Ramayana and Mahabharata, there have been no major productions dealing with pet Hindutva projects, which were treated to the right-wing’s satisfaction and yet became commercial hits. Read a review of Buddha in a Traffic Jam to understand what I mean.
Although the Hindu right-wing has been going after the film industry for decades, from Bombay to Raees, the attempt to successfully influence films has been reactionary, and effected through thuggery.
They have the muscle power of the Bajrangis or the Sainiks to storm film sets, tear down posters and threaten to physically hurt film producers, but they don’t have the intellectual capacity or artistic capability to create blockbusters which further their agenda. Whether online or offline, on Twitter or in court, they are just variants of the average street hooligan, looking to intimidate the adversary into submission.
Even a director like Rohit Shetty, who has to his credit "great" works of art like the Golmaal series and Chennai Express, managed to get right-wingers angry with his representation of a Hindu sadhu as a villain in Singham Returns. It is a shame then that what ticks us off the most is the right-wing’s agenda to appoint Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of FTII, not his work.
Their failure to influence cinema and use it as a propaganda tool is linked, among other things, to two aspects of their politics –contempt for the liberal arts and reverence to ‘tradition and culture’. To produce great art, one needs talent and the audacity to question established narratives. Modern Hindutva’s obsession with professional degrees and treatment of Hindu culture wearing kid gloves makes it incapable of creating impressive, inspiring cinema.
And that’s why, the Hindu right-wing will continue to viciously attack film producers and fail at attempts to influence people by embracing art.