The Padmavati controversy was raging on its own, but many leaders, from across the political spectrum, stoked it further for clichéd political gains. The merits of their arguments aside, Punjab CM and Congress leader Amarinder Singh called the film a “distortion of history” and said “those feeling hurt … had a right to protest” while Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan said that the release of a film that dishonoured “Rashtramata Padmavatiji … will not be allowed in Madhya Pradesh.” The chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat and even Union minister Thawar Chand Gehlot have all made more or less similar statements, denouncing the film and various personalities associated with it. Even before it has been certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)—let alone released—the film stands banned in four states.
Meanwhile, Opposition chief ministers, too, haven’t shied away from looking at the controversy as political opportunity. While Karnataka’s Siddaramaiah invoked Deepika Padukone’s (who plays the title role) links to the state for some easy sub-nationalist brownie points, Bengal’s Mamata Bannerjee has used it to launch a broadside against the ruling party at the Centre, claiming the controversy was reflective of a “super-emergency” prevailing in the country. Amidst all the din, the Supreme Court has some sage words. While it turned down a petition to ban the film’s offshore release, it criticised those holding public office for their comments, saying that this will prejudice the CBFC which is yet to take a call on the film’s certification.
A three-judge bench that included the Chief Justice of India observed, “We are governed by the rule of law. When the matter is pending before the CBFC…nobody holding a responsible position should comment as it would amount to a violation of the principle of the rule of law.” On November 20, hearing a petition to block the film’s release, it had observed that its interference in the matter “will be tantamount to pre-judging the matter.” Given the Padmavati matter is not a question of mere historiography—like Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja, it is one where freedom of expression has clashed with public sentiment—the political class would have done well to refrain from propping either extremes and let the appropriate authority decide. It is good that the apex court has reminded it of this.