Karni Sena activists vandalise the set of Padmavati. Image Credit: IANS

Mumbai: Bollywood stands divided as the storm that engulfed Padmavati prompted the studio Viacom18 Motion Pictures to ‘voluntarily’ defer the film’s release from December 1.

While several industry stalwarts have opted to remain on the far fringes of the squall, veterans such as film actor and activist Shabana Azmi, along with Indian National Award-winning filmmaker Shyam Benegal, have joined the issue and called out the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for playing a role in the Padmavati controversy.

The organisation in question, meanwhile, maintains “incomplete paperwork” by the filmmakers led to Padmavati failing to obtain a certificate for release, while reportedly turning down the application to expedite the certification process.

In a hard-hitting statement, Azmi questioned the political motives behind the move, saying: “CBFC sends film back because some paper formalities [are] not complete. Only after 63 days, will the film be screened for CBFC when the Gujarat election is over and done with. Are we fools to not see through the design of fomenting unrest and polarising votes? I am very angry.”

Benegal also weighed in, saying: “The CBFC is behaving very strangely in the matter of Padmavati. If the film did not carry a disclaimer it could easily be corrected. Why send the film back? Again it seems very suspicious.”

Period film on a Rajput legend

Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the period film stars Deepika Padukone in the titular role of Queen Padmavati and is based on the legend of the Rajput royal who committed self-immolation to protect her honour when facing the armies of the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Alauddin Khilji.

Actor Ranveer Singh essays the role of Khilji, while Bollywood actor Shahid Kapoor plays Maharawal Ratan Singh. The story itself is reportedly based on a historical poem dating back to 1540, which was penned by Malik Muhammad Jayasi.

Protesters have cited the film distorts history, while critics have blamed the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections playing a pivotal role in the decision to stall the film’s release after right-wing groups in India raised concerns.

Political play

Benegal questioned the political play behind Padmavati’s release, adding: “How can the protest against a film become so rampant when no one has seen the film? I am sorry, the protests make no sense, unless we judge them against the current political climate in the country.”

When contacted by Gulf News, a spokesperson from Viacom18 Motion Pictures declined to comment further on the issue, citing their official statement, saying: “We are a responsible, law-abiding corporate citizen and have the highest respect and regard for the law of the land and all our institutions and statutory bodies, including the Central Board of Film Certification.

“We always have and are committed to continue following the established procedure and convention. We have faith that we will soon obtain the requisite clearances to release the film. We will announce the revised release date of the film in due course.”

War of words

Over the past several days, key players have emerged in the war of words with the recently-appointed CBFC Chief, Prasoon Joshi sharing his “disappointment” that special screenings of Padmavati had been held for certain media outlets in India, which compromised the “role of systems and balances that are part of a functioning industry.”

He defended the board’s actions to refuse Padmavati a clearance certificate, stating: “In this specific case, the film’s application came up this week only for review. The makers know and admit that the paperwork is not complete. The very disclaimer whether the film is work of fiction or historical was left blank and not stated.”

While the filmmakers in question have chosen to stay mum, Tumhari Sulu and Neerja film producer, Atul Kasbekar of Bling Entertainment Solutions, told Gulf News: “It’s a filmmaker’s birthright to make his or her film as they deem fit. Don’t like it, don’t watch the film. Want to show another version? Then, please do make your own film and may it be a blockbuster.”

Actor-filmmaker Arbaaz Khan also weighed in on the controversy, saying: “India is a democratic country where we have the freedom of speech and expression. If anyone has any objection with anything, then there is a lawful way of doing it.”

He continued: “You cannot release a film without CBFC certificate. They decide which film is proper for public consumption, so we should let them decide first and after CBFC has passed the film, it’s up to the audience whether they want to see it or not. You can’t take the law into your own hands.”

Bounty on director's head

Khan’s words came even as a bounty was issued for beheading director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Padukone, which was later doubled despite a person being arrested for issuing death threats.

Vir Das, actor and stand-up comedian who performed in Dubai over the past weekend, stated: “Someone threatened to behead a woman on national TV. They offered a cash reward for it. Picture any other country in the world where something like that happens. Ask yourself if that is a civilised place. Then ask yourself if we are.”

Film actress Swara Bhasker also condemned the statement, saying: “The row, death threats and public display of violent abuse over the fictional story of a fictional queen would be funny and ironic if it hadn’t been a dangerous sign of how normalised communalism has become in our public consciousness.”

While it remains to be seen whether Bhansali and Viacom18 will buckle under pressure, actor-filmmaker Farhan Akhtar presents a middle ground saying: “I am totally against anything being banned. I genuinely believe that we should stop treating our audiences as children. It is important for the development of any nation that there are viewpoints, which are not always in agreement with the majority.”

- With inputs from IANS