Social media has been abuzz since the day images of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali being slapped and assaulted by the members of Karni Sena flashed on television. Once again the urban ‘educated’ lot, having access to the internet, drew swords against each other -- some condemning the assault and some supporting it and some who condemned the assault but supported the ‘protest’ against Bhansali’s treatment of Padmavati.

Bhansali landed himself in that predicament because he ‘distorted’ ‘history’ in his film that was shot at the Jaigarh fort, the protestors alleged. The writer of this article found the assault on Bhansali petrifying and the reasons given by Karni Sena (the ‘fringe’ group), ludicrous.

Bhansali’s film is his take on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s allegorical poem ‘Padmavat’ -- a work of fiction, inspired by Khilji’s conquest of Chittor. While the original writer, Jayasi himself was writing a historical fiction and not documenting history, Bhansali was interpreting Jayasi’s acclaimed work in his own way.

Jayasi, being a writer and Bhansali, being a filmmaker, had the ‘creative licence’ to treat their work according to their creative sensibilities as both were not ‘documenting’ facts and history but producing a work of fiction, just like K. Asif did in his famed Mughal-e-Azam or Ashutosh Gowarikar in Jodha Akbar.

But we’re living in times where the self-proclaimed custodians of ‘Bharatiya Sanskriti’ can openly indulge in vandalism, physical abuse and harassment towards those playing the tune that doesn’t please their ear.

The episode in question here being of Rani Padmini begs what historians have to say about the historical significance and credence of Padmavati. Those who condemned the assault but supported the 'protest' against Bhansali pointed that Amir Khusrau made an allusion to the Padmavati episode in his Khaizan-ul-Fatah while Nehru also mentioned it in 'Discovery of India'. But historians and experts point at this erroneous notion.

"Amir Khusrau does not allude to Padmavati in any of his works. He does not even mention 'Jauhar' during his description of Alauddin's Chittor campaign. The first literary reference to the legend of Padmavati is as late as early 15th century, to be elaborately developed by Malik Muhammad Jayasi about a century later. Nehru is a secondary source. So really not an authoritative text. None of the contemporary accounts refer to Alauddin-Padmavati alleged encounter. It’s pure fiction" says Nadeem Shah, Professor of history and noted Dastango.

Like many experts on history he too feels aghast at the assault on Bhansali arising out of a baseless argument since those who accuse Bhansali of distorting history are not themselves aware that what they're angry at isn't history but "pure fiction".

"I am appalled and angered at the incidence of violent attack on Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It's a real low that our public discourse has taken. The civil society needs to take these concerns seriously and should stand with the film industry on this issue. Stern action should be taken against the perpetrators so as to give a strong message to such retrogressive elements in our society," adds Shah.

Despite these insights from eminent historians, verbal duels and bickerings were witnessed on social media. A fellow journalist invited the verbal wrath of those who weren’t necessarily supporting the assault but the ‘protest’ against Bhansali’s treatment of ‘history’. Some were quick to respond with statements like “what if ‘historical fiction’ projects Prophet Mohammad in bad light?” An important thing to point out here is that Prophet Mohammad or Jesus or Buddha are also religious figures and hence utmost care must be taken in their projection, in order to respect the sentiments of those who revere them. Historical figures holding religious importance cannot be equated with kings and queens.

A counter argument from an eminent journalist was that “where was this care when M.F Hussain drew objectionable images of Hindu gods and goddesses?” M.F Hussain had allegedly painted Hindu goddesses in nude art and thus invited the wrath of those who are role models for ‘fringe’ groups like Karni Sena. Everyone knows what followed. Hussain eventually had to flee for his life and live in exile till he eventually died, not as an Indian citizen. However, those familiar with the world of art would know that nudity is equated with purity and not vulgarity, just like it was used by umpteen artists like Raja Ravi Verma or the sculptors of many temples like Swami Padmanabha temple and those in Khajuraho etc. What Hussain didn’t gauge probably was that his paintings were not treated as an artist’s work but as a ‘Muslim’ artist’s work!

Of late, many television shows mushroomed which dealt with historical as well as religious figures but their makers took ample creative liberties. Shows like ‘Siya ke Ram’ initially started as 'based on facts' and showed Ramayana from Sita's point of view but later totally deviated from Valmiki's version (which many regard as historical). Another show, Ashoka, too showed episodes that were purely fictitious in nature and bore not an iota of semblance with recorded history. Yet, since it was a historical fiction, its' producers enjoyed the creative freedom that comes with the genre of historical fiction.

Ignorance begets hatred towards the unknown and it surely holds true for those who intimidated a filmmaker of repute through assault and threats. Karni Sena and their ilk however are not exclusive to a particular religion alone. Those who kill writers and artists in Bangladesh or threaten Taslima Nasreen belong to the same creed. Violence is not justified under any circumstance. If one has a problem with a writer, then one should reciprocate using the same means- a pen!

A befitting reply to a particular film that one doesn’t agree with would be to make a film that puts one’s own point across. Bullying, assaulting and killing the voices one doesn’t like is indeed setting a dangerous trend for the generations to come. One is often reminded of Tagore’s lines that appear more relevant than ever,

“…where the clear stream of reason hasn’t lost it’s way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever widening thought and action
Into that haven of freedom, my Father,
Let my country awake.”

(The writer is a freelance journalist and filmmaker and an avid lover of history and literature)