Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali would have had no idea that a rumour about a dream sequence in his movie Padmavati would turn out to be his worst nightmare.
The Rs180-crore film, based on the life of 13th century queen Rani Padmini, has been dogged by controversy since it went into production late last year.
Padmavati is a fictional film about the fictional tale of a Rajput princess written by 16th century Sufi poet Malik Muhamad Jayasi.
According to the rumour, which spread rapidly, the dream sequence allegedly contained intimate scenes between Rani Padmini and Khilji dynasty ruler Allauddin Khilji.
Bhansali, who has denied the rumour, was attacked and the sets were vandalized by activists of an organisation called Rajput Karni Sena in Rajasthan in January. Now that the film is nearing release, troubles are mounting for producers Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Bhansali Productions with allegations of distortion of history and “dishonouring" Rani Padmini.
The list of states adding to the woes of the makers of Padmavati is growing fast with Uttar Pradesh being the latest entrant. The state government has written to the information and broadcast ministry, saying the release of the film may cause unrest in the state. This adds to continuing protests in Rajasthan, among other states.
All this, despite repeated assurances from Bhansali’s team that none of these allegations are true.
The issue though exists not just for the makers of this one film.
In the last couple of years, India’s film industry has been the biggest laggard in terms of revenue growth in the media sector. Compared to other media avenues, films recorded a mere 3% increase in revenue to Rs14,230 crore, which is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.7% through 2021, according to the Indian Media and Entertainment Report 2017 by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and KPMG.
The film industry is facing an existential crisis and needs to find a new direction. Apart from creative paucity, film producers in India are unable to deal with theatrical distribution challenges, dropping footfalls, increasing Internet disruption and tax burden.
Visual spectacles of S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali kind are said to be the way forward. Directors down south are consistently raising the bar with huge budgets and cinematic splendour, Shankar’s upcoming 2.0 being the latest example.
Mumbai filmmakers are unable to respond to this. This year’s biggest Hindi success turned out to be the dubbed version of Telugu language Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, with net collections of well over Rs500 crore, according to trade website BoxOfficeIndia.com. The nearest contender from Bollywood has been Golmaal Once Again, with collections just over Rs200 crore (and counting).
After an extremely rough year for them, film distributors and exhibitors have been eyeing December for the two biggest releases—Padmavati and the Salman Khan starrer Tiger Zinda Hai. If either fails, adding to some other big-budget failures this year, 2017 will turn out to be one of the worst for Bollywood in recent memory.
The central government, which is pushing ‘Make in India’ to encourage domestic manufacturing, has been consistently asked to come to the film industry’s rescue, but hasn’t shown any interest yet, apart from backing the regular film festivals and conferring national awards.
Every time a group protests in the name of “hurt sentiments", state governments throw up their hands in the air, citing law and order risks. Be it Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam in Tamil Nadu (2013), Aarakshan in Uttar Pradesh (2011) or Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in Maharashtra (2016), they stay away from the troubles faced by movie makers.
India’s Constitution doesn’t guarantee absolute freedom of speech. There is a censor body, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), with outdated mores and guidelines. There is zero movement on an amendment to the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The last committee to recommend changes to it, headed by veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, submitted its report earlier this year, but no action has been taken on it.
Any film that may present even the slightest of provocations in terms of ideas is immediately quashed by either the CBFC or the state governments. Films set in particular eras, like the Emergency or historicals, or the ones dealing with socio-political or religious issues are immediate targets.
Ease of doing business, which the central government promises, seems distant to the film industry. The film industry is confronting enough internal challenges, and the government must step up to solve the ones not under the industry’s control.
Padmavati is a big investment, not just for its own makers, but Mumbai’s film industry at large. It’s a business opportunity for the trade. It has an international distributor in Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures, one of the biggest in the world.
Information and broadcasting minister Smriti Irani spoke on record last month that the state governments will meet any law and order challenge to ensure a smooth release for Padmavati. It remains to be seen if she keeps her word.