Filmmakers Need Freedom To Tell Stories, Says Studio Behind ‘Padmaavat’

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As “Padmaavat” completes 50 days in theatres, the studio that produced the controversial Bollywood film called for an environment where filmmakers are free to tell stories based on Indian history and mythology.

The epic was the target of right-wing fringe groups which claimed it distorted history by portraying a Muslim ruler as the lover of Queen Padmavati of the Hindu Rajput warrior clan. The film’s release dates had to be changed twice before it finally screened for the public on January 25 amid violent protests. The film has gone on to earn more 3 billion rupees ($46 million) at the box office.

“We have a treasure trove of such subjects and it will be unfortunate if we have to be so apprehensive when we approach these subjects. We have to think about how we can make a more enabling environment,” Ajit Andhare, Chief Operating Officer of Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, said in an interview.

The Rajput Karni Sena, a group that claims to represent the Rajputs, assaulted director Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the sets of “Padmaavat” in January 2017. Later, the group threatened to “cut off” the nose of actress Deepika Padukone, who played the role of Hindu queen Padmavati.

Andhare also said some of the studio’s actions in the days leading up to the film’s release, such as showing it to TV anchors and prominent spiritual leaders, were misconstrued.

“Our concern was how to quell this controversy because it was very disturbing. We wanted to show it to everyone who was debating this on TV because they were doing it without having watched the film. But what happened is…. people thought we are seeking approval from them, or seeking validation, which was not the case,” he said.

Viacom held several screenings for top anchors in December before the film had received its censor certificate. In January, spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also watched the film and called it a tribute to the valour of the Rajputs.

“This (screenings) upset several people, because they thought this is selective showing or that it is trying to undermine the established norms, which it was certainly not. What was happening to us was so unusual that we had to do something different and something to clear the air,” Andhare said.

Dealing with threats and misconceptions about the content, while gearing up to release what was a very expensive film by Bollywood standards was an unprecedented problem that no one had anticipated, he said.

“It is like you are going to a massive war and you have to realign troops at every occasion. This is not how you do film launches. It was releasing in 80 countries worldwide, so you are talking multiple distributors and censor boards in several countries.”

The studio also had to approach the Supreme Court to overturn a ban on the film in four states, and put out full-page disclaimers in newspapers stating that there was nothing in the film that was offensive to the Rajputs. None of this did anything to placate the Karni Sena, whose members attacked movie theatres and ransacked a school which played a song from the film. But two weeks after the film released, it did an about-turn, saying the film in fact glorified Rajputs.

Andhare refused to indict the government for failing to stop the violence, maintaining that they had received all possible assistance from the law and order machinery. He, however, said he “hoped nobody goes through any of this again.”

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