Off-Screen Actors

Hindutva’s growing hold over Indian popular culture

01 March 2017
The Ram Janmabhoomi movement appropriated imagery from the television shows Ramayan and Mahabharat, which aired in the late 1980s.
Anil Kumr Shakya/Pacific Press/Lightrocket/Getty Images

On the morning of 27 January, while the filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali was shooting for his upcoming period drama Padmavati at the Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur, members of Shri Rajput Karni Sena—a caste organisation of Rajputs—barged into the fort. The horde ran amok, some smashing expensive film equipment, others breaking anything within reach and yet others forming a ruthless, agitated scrum around Bhansali. Footage shows them grabbing him by his hair and slapping him around, as the rest of the gang continued to vandalise the set.

Though the entire episode was caught on camera, and was repeatedly played across television news channels, not a single miscreant was arrested in the aftermath. In fact, there was no condemnation from the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled governments in the state of Rajasthan and at the centre. Instead, union minister Giriraj Singh showed support for the Karni Sena’s cited reason for the attack—the claim that the Hindu princess Padmavati’s story was being distorted. In parliament, a BJP MP from Rajasthan, CP Joshi, demanded legal action against the filmmakers. Prominent Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad also threatened to block the film’s release.

The grouse that the facts of Padmavati’s story have been distorted is ridiculous, since the story itself is fictional. The tale originates from an Awadhi-language poem, Padmavat, composed over 200 years after the reign of the fourteenth-century ruler Alauddin Khilji—who, according to the poem, heard about the beauty of the Rajput princess and attacked the kingdom of Chittor to obtain her. The legend goes that the virtuous Hindu wife committed jauhar—immolated herself—because she did not want to be violated by the invading Muslim man. However, there is absolutely no evidence that Padmavati even existed. The agenda of Karni Sena, though, is not to undertake a reasoned examination of the past in good faith, but to promote a vision of that past which aligns with their political agenda. The BJP’s own Hindutva origins explain its support for such attacks on artistic and civil liberties.

kamayani sharma is a teaching fellow with the philosophy programme at Ashoka University, Sonepat. She writes on contemporary art for artforumArt India and Take On Art.

Keywords: film censorship Hindutva popular culture fundamentalism film history hooliganism