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Controversies surrounding Bollywood movies based on historical events circles the news often these days. The most recent controversy circling the news is the movie ‘Panipat’ directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar. The film depicts the story of the Third Battle of Panipat and is facing massive criticism from the Rajasthani and the Jat community.
The Jat groups in particular and its political leaders have expressed their grievance and have criticized the portrayal of the infamous Jat ruler, Maharaja Surajmal. The displeasure expressed by these political leaders has resulted in protests and questions have been raised on the censor board’s certification.
People have also expressed their disapproval regarding the use of Harayanvi as a language used by Maharaja Surajmal in the film istead of Brij. The screening of this film has been taken off the theatres in Jaipur and other places such as Bikaner, Nagaur, Ganganagar, Jodhpur and Hanumangarh.
In theatres that still had shows lined up saw massive protests being held at various places including Faridabad, Ballabhgarh and Kaithal Haryana. The Rajasthan Tourism Minister, Vishvendra Singh, who is also a descendent of Maharaja Surajmal, has gone to the extent of demanding a ban on the screening of the film across North India to avoid law and order situations. He has asked the government to form a committee to ensure that films about historical figures are approved by their descendants as well as their community.
Background: Portrayal of Surajmat in the movie
Maharaja Surajmal, born in 1707 was the son of the Jat Chieftan Badan Singh. He ruled during the 18th century. He is popularly known in the Jat community as the estmeed Raja who wore the clothes of the people and spoke the language of the people.
The Third Battle of Panipat was fought between the Marathas and the Afghan King, Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1761. When the Marathas lost the Third Battle of Panipat as well as their prominent position in North India and created a path for the British to take over.
However, the politics of the time paints a different picture as suggests that Maharaja Surajmal provided food and shelter for the wounded soldiers after the Battle of Panipat. It is also believed that Maharaja Surajmal already had control on the Fort in Agra at the time of the Battle.
In the film, the Jat community leaders and political leaders have criticised the role of Maharaja Surajmal. According to them the portrayal of Surajmal as the one who denies the Maratha army help during the Battle of Panipat and his demand for the Red Fort in Agra depicts him greedy and self -serving.
The film has also been a point of discussion in the Parliament of Afghanistan and questions have been raised as to whether the gruesome portrayal of Ahmad Shah Abdali would have a detrimental effect on Indo-Afghan relations.
Similar instances in the past (‘Padmavat’ movie)
Period dramas such as Jodha Akbar and Padmaavat have also faced similar criticisms in the past. In the film Padmaavat the portrayal of a Hindu queen and her relationship with Alaudin Khilji was severely criticized by the Karni Sena, Rajput leaders and supporters.
The criticism of the characters depicted in this movie led to wide-spread protests, burning of effigy and death threats to the actors and director and demanded to ban the screening of the film entirely. The Censor Board reviewed the certification and suggested a up to 15 modifications including changing the name of the movie, before exhibiting the film.
The Supreme Court however did not support the ban on the screening of the film. The reasons given by the Supreme Court was as Justice Dipak Mishra said, “Cinemas are an inseparable part of the right to free speech and expression. States cannot issue notifications prohibiting the screening of a film.” The Court also directed the States to ensure that law and order is maintained after the screening of the film.
Legal principles involved and the role of censor board
Films are said to be an effective medium of mass-communication and contribute significantly in the social and cultural development of a country. Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution of India guarantees the fundamental right of freedom and expression.
This right also includes the right to screen films. However, this is not an absolute right and the State can impose restrictions on the same if it finds that the content is against the interest of public policy, foreign relations, integrity of the State etc.
The Cinematograph Act of 1952 was introduced to keep a check on the content of the films to be released. The Act provides for the constitution of a Censor Board consisting of not less than 12 and not more than 25 members appointed by the Central Government. Any person who wants to exhibit a film needs to get a certificate from the Censor Board.
Role of the Censor Board:
- To sanction the film for un-restricted public exhibition, or public exhibition restricted to adults.
- To direct the applicant to carry out modifications in the film as it thinks necessary before public exhibition.
- To refuse the sanction of the film if the content is offensive or against the public morale and order, decency or involves defamation or contempt of court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.
- To give equal and fair opportunity to be heard by the applicant.
- Suspend or revoke a certificate.
Probable solution and conclusion
After over a week of protests across North India the makers of the film have decided to delete a 11-minute scene which seem to have offended the Jat groups. It is the responsibility of film makers while making films based on historical dramas to make the film as close to historical facts as possible to avoid hurting the sentiments of certain groups.
Films are a great way to make the public conscious and aware of their own history. Similarly, it is important to understand that there is no ‘correct’ way of interpreting history and that just because the dialogues or scenes are created a certain way, it does not mean that the intention was to defame an entire community.
The duties and functions of the Censor Board should clarify further in order to understand the modifications and security measures like to deter audiences voluntarily choosing the watch the film with the mala fide intention of breaking order.
It should keep and proper account of the reasons behind certification of period dramas. Meanwhile, the producers are to submit a report of the details of the books consulted to script the film. However, it is important to realize that period films such as Panipat are dramatized historical facts and since they have a significant impact on the society’s awareness enough measures should be taken to ensure the accuracy of the facts for the benefit of the community as a whole.
Author: Aulina Pandey from School of Law, Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru.
Editor: Anna Jose Kallivayalil from NLU, Delhi.