Padmaavat: PR Stunt Gone Wrong?

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A botched-up marketing strategy, a sneaky manner of garnering approvals for the creation, a snobbish disregard for the indigenous people and a patch-up are together likely to see the work of art tank at the box office

Padmavati-turned-Padmaavat is releasing this 25 January after the filmmaker, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, dodged the Central Board of Film Certification to screen the film before a select group of journalists about two months ago. The endless debate over the historicity of the subject on the cover apart, the fact that controversy started raging over it in mid-2016 — when the film was barely conceived — raises eyebrows. Whether the Shri Rajput Karni Sena represents the Rajputs or it doesn’t is not the point. How did they come to know of the content of the film at the stage of scripting, much before the shooting of the scripted scenes? In all probability, Bhansali Productions had taken recourse to an age-old exercise in Bollywood where a dispute is deliberately brewed to provoke audience interest in a film. They, in all likelihood, spread the rumour of a dream sequence involving the part-historic-part-legendary Rajput queen and invader Alauddin Khalji. Having aroused their clan, however, the Karni Sena — which is now split into two groups, one of its origin, Rajasthan, and the other that claims it stands for the caste across the nation — cannot now plead with their confraternity to calm down. If Padmaavat is indeed fiction, as the filmmakers have claimed in full-page advertisements in the newspapers of 15 January, why should there be any allusion to Rani Padmini whatsoever, the activists ask quite plausibly. Why should there be a reference to Chittorgarh, they question, asking the certifying authority further as to why Ratan Sen and Khalji must be retained, whose historicity is established.

Even if it is plain speculation that the eruption in mid-2016 was of Bhansali’s own making, it was stupid of him to not take the community that felt offended by the rumours into confidence. Making an Arnab Goswami here and a Rajat Sharma there endorse the film was an elitist and snobbish approach. As staunch advocates of liberty, सिर्फ़ News would certainly have supported the idea of releasing the film under all circumstances. However, as we had, in November 2017, explained in details how Padmini could not be dismissed as a wholly fictional character, Padmaavat, with contents as rumoured, made a case of slander, defamation or libel — or all of these — rather than that of freedom of expression. It is superficial to compare the developments with The Da Vinci Code and ask why Christians did not feel offended by insinuations about Jesus Christ. It is like saying that, since Vikramaditya is historical but Betal is not, one should protest a contrarian interpretation of the phantom as well. The similarity between Christ and Padmini ends with the fact that both Christianity and Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s work emerged centuries after their central characters were dead, making legends easier than truthful commentaries. Thereafter, it’s a considerable difference. The American mystery thriller whose plot begins at the museum of the Louvre is completely fictional, which left a scope for believers to dismiss the story as bogus. The Hindi costume drama is but as close to the Rajputana of early mediaeval epoch as one can visualise. This month is beyond the phase of history-versus-tradition debate, though. Activists are now a lesser challenge for Bhansali.

Unimpressed by the fact that the producer-director had mostly stayed right-of-centre in his narratives, quite a few governments of large States, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, have declared the movie as unwanted in their respective territories. This has cast a shadow on the commercial prospects of the film, which otherwise had all the elements to make it a blockbuster. Among the people who follow the language Hindi, Maharashtra, Delhi and West Bengal cannot pull it through when Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and other BJP-ruled States have red-flagged it while ally Nitish Kumar’s Bihar is tentative about advocating its release. Hindi films have never had too much of a reach in southern India beyond Hyderabad, anyway. A convoluted marketing strategy, a sneaky manner of garnering approvals for the creation, a snobbish disregard for the indigenous people and finally a patch-up can together make the work of art tank at the box office.

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