About free speech, ‘Padmavati’, and that scene in ‘Kaabil’

Posted on January 31, 2017


Dear liberals, if you think what happened with Bhansali was wrong, then you have to see ‘Kaabil’ for what it is, not what you want it to be.

It’s somewhat pointless to write something on free speech in a country where the right comes with an “if and only if” clause, but I’m going to give this a shot. First, the Padmavati fracas, where right wingers mauled director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for allegedly distorting history. Reports that came later hinted at the reason for the outrage: a dream sequence that shows Rani Padmini romancing Alauddin Khilji. How did they know this sequence exists in the screenplay? That’s not the point, which is that they thought it existed. Just like they thought Deepa Mehta’s Water was an insult to India even as shooting began.

At least the protests against Water made sense in a right wing kind of way. Read this quote from The Week (Feb 13, 2000): “They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the west. The west refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.” It’s ridiculous, but at least you see where the anger is coming from. The fact that the film was about Vrindavan’s widows was known before shooting began, as Mehta had to submit her script to the government to get permission to shoot.

But what about Padmavati? Who but the cast and crew read the script? How did they assume such a scene was there? It’s a scene right out of Minority Report, the dystopian Steven Spielberg film where cops, in the future, arrest criminals before they commit a crime. “Would you dare show these things if the film was about a Muslim or a Christian?” say those who defend what happened with Bhansali. It’s patently ridiculous. Bhansali and Mehta are Hindus. They are drawn to their milieu, their stories, just like a Catholic like Martin Scorsese is drawn to The Last Temptation of Christ, which reimages Jesus as a family man, consummating his marriage with Mary Magdalene. That film, too, faced protests prior to and after its release. It’s like Husain and his Saraswati paintings. Toy with the gods, and you can no longer take refuge under free speech.

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Around the same time the Padmavati issue exploded, there was similar outrage about Kaabil, the Hrithik Roshan starrer – and this time, the dissenters were liberals. The film tells the story of a blind couple, Rohan and Supriya. They fall in love, get married, but the honeymoon is short-lived. Supriya is raped by a couple of neighbours. And the scene that’s become controversial is the one where she tells Rohan that she realises she’s not the woman she was earlier, and that if he wishes to leave her, she understands. Shockingly, he remains silent. The scene ends.

I winced. I really did. Because every atom of my liberal brain was screaming out that he should have said something, offered support and assurances that he would not leave her, say it was not her fault. But Rohan isn’t me. Perhaps Rohan was too shell-shocked to speak. Perhaps he wasn’t even listening. Perhaps he was undergoing his own kind of trauma, rising from utter helplessness, from the fact that even if he’d been at home, he may not have been able to prevent the rape. The question is this: Should we expect characters on screen to conform to our world view? The answer is this: No.

It’s, again, free speech. If we say it’s okay to imagine a romance between Rani Padmini and Alauddin Khilji, then we should be okay with the depiction of attitudes like those of Rohan and Supriya. People who have undergone trauma say and do strange things. The point is what the film does with it. Look, I hated Kaabil. I thought it was ridiculous – but not because the characters behaved this way. Which is not to say I am endorsing what Rohan did. I’m just saying I empathise with the fact that Supriya felt shamed at that point, and that perhaps years of conditioning led even this independent, modern woman to feel this way. I wish Kaabil had found a less insensitive trigger for the hero’s subsequent revenge mission, but it is what it is and free speech covers the story it chooses to say.

Strangely, there was little controversy around the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Haraamkhor, which was released a couple of weeks before Kaabil. The film shows a consensual sexual relationship between a schoolteacher and a teenager, and the latter isn’t painted a victim. She comes off more like his wife – teasing, jealous, flirty – than someone he’s abusing. But we cannot say the film endorses this view. It’s just that these particular characters, these particular people, are this way.

Is this dangerous? Might Haraamkhor undo years of work by activists against child sexual abuse? Might Kaabil reinforce victim-shaming? Might  the depictions of stalking in our cinema lead to more such behaviour on the streets? Perhaps. But that’s the thing with free speech. You are either for it or against it. There’s no “if and only if.” You can certainly talk about it, or against it. But if you’re a liberal, you have to let others tell stories you hate with every fibre of your being. Otherwise, you’re just a right winger with a vocabulary.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.