Should creative freedom be faithful to history?

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The controversial film ‘Padmavati’ has already received much hype, not just socially but politically as well, that it needs no opulent pre-release promotion.  The producer has only to thank the anti-Padmavati campaign groups, as the film could soon become the biggest blockbuster.

The issue: Certain scenes in the movie are alleged to have distorted historical facts. Opinions galore even before the film certification. Historians and scholars have thrown their weight behind the filmmakers and actors, terming it absurd that fiction in a movie has evoked such violent reactions.

Historian Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University has reportedly said that “Padmavati is not a historical but imaginary character”. When existence itself is point of contention, how to ascertain accuracy? Is there not a censor board?

Interpretation of history not uncommon

What is it at stake is freedom of creative and artistic expression. The misgiving and intolerance with creative works is increasingly becoming rampant. If you don’t like a movie, simply boycott it. If every now and then violent protests are unleashed under the pretext of “sentiments hurt”, debate on any issue defuncts. Alas, fiction itself is deemed as real and sought to be protected in the name of honour.

Ramayana, for instance, is told in different versions that vary widely from the basic Valmiki Ramayana.  William Shakespeare’s historical plays, such as Henry V, Richard II…., are reportedly gross historical distortions, but nevertheless lauded as outstanding literary works. In terms of historical truth, Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” is not fully compatible with records. Historical films cannot escape it. Controversy, that is.

Proving the historicity of a particular version, or disproving the same, remains an academic concern. Treat Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati as mere fiction, and not an academic claim.

Part of the craft

History — Whether in books or movies, it is always someone’s story. Every movie based on a story has condensed, simplified content with created explanatory characters, modified timelines and details.

Why shouldn’t a filmmaker, like the novelist, have the licence to use material history selectively in the destination of entertaining, and creating a good dramatic product? The artist is an interpreter, not a reporter. So, the invention or rearrangement of details is part of the craft.

It is plain that movies and television are our most powerful media. The difference between movies and novels is the fundamental illusion of photography. Even when you know something didn’t happen, the animations and graphics give the illusion that it did.

Ask an economist or a mathematician for an explanation and you get statistics and equations. Ask a historian and you get a story, an account of experience, because of those many elements which are at play in every human event, and obviously you may not necessarily produce a defined outcome or an established formula.

Objectivity itself is myth — What is the underlying truth in the first place?  History is a story we choose to tell about persons or events. Events undoubtedly occur: India became independent on August 15, 1947; Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on Jan 30, 1948; Last week it rained; had a nice dinner……  But to be construed as ‘history’, such facts must be selected and arranged on some kinds of sequences, made to resolve some sort of questions which can only be asked subjectively and from a position of hindsight. Thus, all history writing requires an imaginary representation of the past.

Documentation of any large, complex human event is never fully adequate or reliable, and when attempts to account for the motives and beliefs that govern human action, information become even trickier.

There comes a moment, therefore, when historian must choose between knowledge and understanding, between telling the whole story as he/she understood or only what can be proved, with evidence and argument. If freedom of expression applied only to non-controversial expression, constitutional cover doesn’t arise.

Popular education, if responsible — So, is it ever possible to have successful cinema and good history at the same time? Whether in ancient time or in the modern era, art has challenged the strongly-held beliefs of any society, creating pressure for censorship. The viewers have a freedom to comment.  The artists should also have the freedom to produce what they conceive, sans any external interruption in his/her creativity. The work can become a subject of debate, be it good or bad. What may not be acceptable now could be a normal thing, perhaps in future.

Historical fictions/films, if reliably executed, can be an effective instrument of popular education. Decisively banning them is not good, because art and other forms of expression represent intellectual aspirations of our society, apart from the message that the artist tries to convey across. After all, “facts are sacred, comment is free”.

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)