Don’t Literalise a Mythic Story: Sunil Khilnani on ‘Padmavati’ 

Historian Sunil Khilnani speaks to The Quint about the debacle surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie.

4 min read
Don’t Literalise a Mythic Story: Sunil Khilnani on ‘Padmavati’ 
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While the Padmavati controversy blazes on with no release date in sight, historians across the country have offered their take on the story behind the mythical queen, whose ‘honour’ right-wing organisations have pledged to protect.

Sunil Khilnani, a scholar of Indian history and author of ‘Incarnations: India in 50 Lives’, spoke to The Quint at the Times Lit Fest, Mumbai, about the debacle surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie and why it is imperative for an artiste to be safeguarded in his or her freedom of expression in a democracy.

Khilnani, who is also a professor of politics and director at King’s College, London, said that political parties, who have become “self-appointed guardians” of particular sections of society, should not obstruct this freedom of expression, and it would be “undemocratic” of them to do so.


Difference Between ‘Historical Facts’ and ‘Myths’

The first thing that we need to take into consideration, said Khilnani, is the distinction between what we know to be ‘historical records’ and what is popularly considered ‘myths’ and ‘legends’, which are essentially works of imagination.

In terms of the story of Rani Padmini, or Padmavati as she is also known, the stories around her are those that are based on a work of imagination, he said.

It is the responsibility of the historian to tell the historical truth. But for filmmakers and other artistes, they have the right to tell a story the way they want, as long as people are, of course, aware that it is not based on solid historical facts, he added.

The film that has been made now, is a film. It’s fictional work, not historical work.
Sunil Khilnani, historian 

About Padmavati...

Speaking about the violent protests that have been breaking out across the country for a ban on Padmavati, Khilnani said Bhansali is in the right, considering that his film is a work of fiction and that as a filmmaker it gives him the license to tell the story in whichever way he wants to.

“Bhansali shouldn’t have listened to any crowd or audience objecting to the film, telling him that the film should be made in this way or another.”

If I’m a novelist, I tell the story the way I want to. If I’m a filmmaker, I tell the story the way I want to.
Sunil Khilnani

Role of Politicians in Padmavati Controversy

Since the Padmavati controversy broke out, right-wing organisations like the Karni Sena have managed to rope in the support of several powerful political leaders, who have also mostly sought a ban on the film. Chief Ministers of various states publicly announced that they would not allow Padmavati to be screened in their state, even if the movie did manage to officially release later.

The purpose behind this, said Khilnani, was an attempt to appease the masses and gather their support – especially in light of any local or national elections that may be coming up.

The surprising thing about the public stance of these leaders in question, is that it is “highly undemocratic” of them, said Khilnani. This is because in a democratic country like India, where freedom of expression is a basic right of every individual, there is room for putting out opinions which may not always be favourable to others.

We have a right to, in a nonviolent way, offend one another.
Sunil Khilnani

And sometimes in the process, one can end up questioning an idea or subject which another may swear by, and living in a democracy, we have a license to do so, provided, of course, that it isn’t causing physical harm to the other, he added.

That is what a democracy is about, to question other people’s beliefs and sometimes that questioning will be offensive, because it goes against a fundamental belief of one person.
Sunil Khilnani

So, when politicians state that a movie can’t be filmed in a certain way, or that a certain subject or image or idea can’t be added to the narrative of a film, book or otherwise, it isn’t very “democratic” of them in the first place, Khilnani said.


Need Laws to Protect Freedom of Expression

While censorship in films and books is a tendency that has been around for a long time, the situation has not been tackled and is, in fact, worsening, said Khilnani.

“States and governments are susceptible to pressures arising from different elements in society who are opposing these books, movies or other forms of artistic expression, and that is why it is imperative that there exists, a certain number of laws that protect the freedom of expression, that the constitution has given us.”

And it’s the function of the state or government to uphold those laws, not to give in to the merest pressure.
Sunil Khilnani

Thus, it is crucial that an individual’s freedom to express in a “democratic manner” is maintained by government forces, because otherwise, “our very democracy is in trouble,” he added.

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