PANAJI—They don't know fact from fiction about fabled Rajput queen Padmavati, but the uproar over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Padmavati" has made visiting international movie talent here sit up and take note of how "autocratic" and "dangerous" voices and actions are infringing on freedom of expression in India's film industry.
Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi and Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) artistic director Cameron Bailey, who were at the just-concluded 48th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), were vocal in their support for Bhansali.
"Artistes face this kind of situations because of the talent and desire they have. That extends to filmmakers too. They should not stop innovation in their work because of adverse conditions," Majidi said on the opening day of the festival.
He was among a string of artists and filmmakers who visited IFFI, which itself was caught in a controversy over the exclusion of two films – “S. Durga" and "Nude" –from its Indian Panorama section. The brouhaha over these and "Padmavati" – which is under attack for alleged distortion of facts – became a crucial talking point throughout the fest.
Michael J. Werner, a film and media strategy consultant who attended the Film Bazaar here, told IANS: "I think it is a dangerous trend because you shouldn't have a government dictating history. What is happening with this particular movie ('Padmavati') seems to be a minister or a department or a state saying that we don't accept that representation of history.
"I don't know whether it is factual or not, but it is still a kind of an autocratic response."
"Padmavati," which sets out to tell the tale of the valor and courage of Rani Padmavati, whose historicity is in doubt, has been under the scanner since its shoot began. Its National Award-winning director was assaulted, and the set vandalized in Jaipur by Rajput organization Karni Sena over the conjecture that the movie will feature intimate scenes between the characters of Padmavati and the invader Alauddin Khilji.
After that, the Karni Sena has continued its protest and has been intense in its effort to stall the film's release, which has been deferred from its original Dec. 1 date as of now.
There were threats to burn down theatres if the film was released and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader announced a reward of Rs 10 crore for beheading Bhansali and the movie's lead actress, Deepika Padukone.
In the midst of this, "Padmavati" got a go-ahead from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) for release. But the makers are waiting for a decision by India's censor board.
French producer Ilann Girard feels a film shouldn't be held hostage by any conflict.
"I have been watching things on television and asking my Indian friends about the situation. I understand it touches some cultural element about a female character who is seen as a very important symbolic figure for Hindus," Girard, Managing Director of Online Film Financing (OLFI), told IANS.
Girard, who was visiting India for the third time, didn't want to pass any judgment as it's an "Indian topic," but said: "My perception is that film and the cultural industry should not be taken hostage of the conflicts."
Narrating his struggle with freedom of expression, he said: "I have produced a film in Israel about the war in Lebanon, and we are facing some embargo from filmmakers trying to pressurize film festivals not to take our movie. I think it is a wrong thing to do. Because, on the contrary, the film explains the situation. Filmmakers should remain free to tell the story that they want."
TIFF's Bailey said people must wait for censor clearance before drawing assumptions and conclusions.
"One of the small mercies with censor authorities is that they actually do watch the film before they pass judgment. So one hopes that anyone who hears about a film that they think that they might have an objection to, should first watch the film," Bailey told IANS.
Bailey feels the film should be given a "benefit of doubt before passing judgment."
"We can all have differences of opinion with any art form, but I think we live in a better world where we wait to actually see what the film is before we pass judgment. Also, we accept that other people have different responses to that. What I might not like to see on-screen, some others might. That doesn't mean I should prevent that person from seeing it."
Mike Dougherty from Radiant Films International, a worldwide distribution company, feels the controversy is unfortunate for "the filmmakers and for the audiences eager to see the film."
He, however, said the row would perhaps draw more eyeballs to the movie across the world.
"The issues causing unrest around 'Padmavati' here in India are not known in other parts of the world. If anything, I think controversies like this just increase a film's profile and its value internationally, making people more eager to see what the uproar is about," Dougherty added.
As dark clouds still loom over the future of "Padmavati," Ana Tiwary, a Sydney-based producer-director of Indivisual Films, hopes the controversy will die down soon.