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Historical and Legendary Figures in Art

It's been a while since the tale of Rani Padmini and what was then alleged to be the cinematic portrayal (or, depending on how one saw it, distortion) of her story made waves. The Queen herself was believed to be a historical figure by some, whilst others thought of her as the creation of a medieval author's imagination. My own suspicion, based on very little given that there is a spectacular dearth of documentation, is that there was likely a real Queen based on whom the legend has been drawn.

Around the time the controversy about her being portrayed in a film arose, I'd posted a series of tweets based on what I either learnt  or believed of the Queen and the legend:

The controversy as it arose did not take long to become mired in allegations, counter-allegations, and wide-ranging denunciations of the various persons who featured in it, and, like most controversies, was extremely polarised: the Queen was either a fictional character or a revered historical personage, and one had to be either pro- or anti- free speech in relation to the film which portrayed her (never mind that, at the time, no one seemed to have seen the film). There was very little space to air the possibility that it didn't really matter what the provenance of the legend was, that it did (to whatever extent) matter how the Queen is (even today) perceived by the people who revere her, that the absence of documentary evidence proving her existence isn't necessarily evidence of absence, and that it is possible to have concerns about the portrayal of revered figures without necessarily being "against free speech" as that trite and convenient phrase goes.

Without getting into the specifics of this controversy, what it highlighted is that opinions in black and white are easy to form, and that they require very little engagement with detail or nuance. Our law, however, isn't entirely black and white. For better or for worse, it recognises and occasionally criminalises the publication or broadcast content which is incompatible with the maintenance of societal harmony, and it implicitly demands that we take a closer look at subjects without falling back on the easy accusation people are either "thought-free liberals" or "conservative sticks in the mud" when certain content makes them defensive or uncomfortable. The accusations are as easy to hurl as it appears the entirely unacceptable resort to violence and vandalism to make one's point can be. Neither approach, however, is particularly helpful, and neither one engages with the issue at hand: how to portray persons — historical, legendary, or living — in works of art in ways which are neither unlawful nor which amount to an impingement of free speech.

Looking at the broader picture, there is, likely, a case to be made for legal reform so that less content runs the risk of being considered to be unlawful but simply dismissing the concerns which many people air about content is unlikely to be the best way to achieve such reform. What is certain is that we need to find more productive ways to engage with each other which are not quite so insistent on othering and diminishing anyone who has an opinion that isn't aligned with our own. And it's high time we did that.

(This post is by Nandita Saikia and was first published at IN Content Law.)