An interview with Saif Ali Khan in the Mumbai Mirror seemed innocuous enough when it came out earlier this month. In it, the Bollywood actor spoke about the usual kind of fluff you expect to find in a celebrity profile: his upcoming baby with wife Kareena Kapoor Khan, the prospects of his children in the film industry, and his ongoing projects. Unfortunately for Khan, he made the blunder of discussing a forthcoming film, Adipurush, where he will be playing the demon king Raavan. His comments about trying to essay the humane side of the Ramayana’s chief antagonist irked religious conservatives. And as is the norm these days, a case was filed against Khan for “hurting religious sentiments” in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh.
The offending line in the Mumbai Mirror interview saw Khan say, “It will be quite interesting to play a demon king. But we will make him humane, justify his abduction of Sita and the war with Ram as a revenge for what was done to his sister Surpanakha by Lakshman, who cut off her nose.” This was enough for BJP leader Ram Kadam, among others, to come after Khan as well as Adipurush’s director, Om Raut. This reactionary response – where a film or TV series is hounded even before release over hurt religious sentiments – is becoming familiar.
Only a few days after the interview was published, Khan issued an apology amid the backlash. In his statement, he made assurances that the film would present the epic Ramayana “without any distortions”. However, withdrawing his claims did not spare him from becoming the subject of a case in UP. Another high-profile instance of right-wing groups attempting to derail the production of a film was Padmaavat, in 2018, when members of the Rajput Karni Sena stormed onto the set and assaulted director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for supposedly disrespecting the legend of Rani Padmavati.
In 2020, from web series to big Bollywood films, hurt religious sentiments have loomed over any new project.
What happened with Padmaavat was a forerunner to the entertainment industry’s current climate. In 2020, from web series to big Bollywood films, hurt religious sentiments have loomed over any new project. This clampdown on all artistic interpretations of Indian myths and legends only creates a stifling cultural atmosphere. It’s reached a point where even a tenuous link to religion can be enough to jeopardise a project’s chances of success. Akshay Kumar, a normally dependable star at the box office, saw his latest release Laxmii fizzle out after a controversy over the film’s name being disrespectful to the Goddess Laxmi.
Certain self-appointed gatekeepers of Indian culture would be happy if the old-school Doordarshan versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata were the only adaptations of the Indian epics to exist. The obsessive need to control the narrative surrounding religion by conservatives is counter-productive, as every instance of censorship or rebuke will discourage others from joining the dialogue. Bollywood celebrities are often ridiculed for staying silent on socially relevant issues despite their large audience and outsize influence. However, the quickness with which a controversy can be generated from even the most mundane of statements offers some explanation for why things are this way.
Khan has had a career spanning decades in Bollywood, but this year he learned a new lesson: in 2020, religious feelings are more easily hurt than ever before.