My Punjab is Not So Weak: Kanika Dhillon on ‘Manmarziyaan’ Row

I want to share my feelings in the wake of recent outrage by some groups over a specific scene in my film, Manmarziyaan.

I feel decidedly strange. It feels like in the year 2018, I have been visited by an officer who lived in Rome in 443 BC. He is the officer who conducted the census, and regulated the morals of the citizens, counted and classified. And now he is back with a golden hunter!

I would like to believe it’s the same officer who objected to my scene in Manmarziyaan where a woman remembers her lover! This guy from Rome objects because he still lives in 443 BC and because I want to give way more credit to my fellow Punjabis, who would not be offended merely by a woman’s feelings!

But the dangerous and sad truth is that there is no officer from Rome regulating our morals, it’s us… holed up in a darkened room, showing signs of creepy cultural fascism or perhaps it is our political correctness gone wrong.

In which world do the sentiments of a religious group get hurt because a woman thinks of her lover while she is getting married to her current husband?! Since when has my Punjab become so weak and vulnerable that a woman’s thoughts and desires – and specifically the place where she happens to be going through an emotional angst – is perceived as a threat to a community’s morals?!

Taapsee Pannu as Rumi in a still from Manmarziyaan.

As a daughter of Punjab, I have grown up in the land of revolutionary poets like Pash, who taught me that poetry can be revolution – ‘Sab toh khatarnaak hunda hai saade sapneyaan da marjaana!’

Sahir Ludhianvi, Warish Shah, and Amrita Pritam, who always challenged patriarchal values, redefining gender roles – they were all loved and revered, and that’s the Punjab I know and I want to belong to. I come from a Punjab and a community that has taught me that art is meant to be challenging, infuriating and thought provoking.

Manmarziyaan’s writer Kanika Dhillon with the film’s director, Anurag Kashyap. 

Hence, I chose to write this story Manmarziyaan, and set it entirely in Punjab, to celebrate its spirit, its colours, its ghee-laden aromas, its heady love, its sufi soul!! That is my Punjab and Rumi, my character just flowed – unabashed, unapologetic and glorious! And I was sure my Punjab won’t let her down or judge her till an ugly giant rose its head to cut her spirit and mine! I saw a man protesting on TV, screaming at the top of his voice, that my characters were harming a community.

A specific scene was unacceptable and needed to be edited, where a young woman is thinking about her lover!

Censorship, by definition, is suppression of objectionable material that can be harmful or inconvenient. Since when has it become inconvenient or dangerous for a young woman to be confused in love?

My team was held to ransom, demanding the scene be cut from the film else it will not be allowed to run in any cinema hall across the country.

Here I want to ask: just because my character Rumi is bidding her lover adieu, as she begins life with another man amidst heart-wrenching confusion and emotional angst – how can her state of mind hurt the sentiments of a religious group because she is in a holy place – and getting married? How can it be blasphemous to think about her lover at this critical juncture in her life?

Abhishek Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu in a still from Manmarziyaan.

My question to dear Punjab and the Sikh community is: who is on trial here? By getting a sequence removed from my film, can you remove the desires from a woman’s heart or memories from her mind? The complexities of her life? Or are you just scared that a woman who desires will destabilise your social order?

Just because she challenges you, she is not a threat, she is flawed…. she is human! By holding my film to ransom, you are holding a generation to ransom, a generation that just wants to be, to make mistakes and make their own choices!

Kanika Dhillon on the sets of Manmarziyaan.

I want to be a proud daughter of Punjab. Celebrate my roots – fly, flourish, write stories, characters. Don't hold me and my voice to ransom. Enable me, don’t disable me!

I am proud of the fact that I come from the same land that has lauded Amrita Pritam, known for her feminist writing and open discussions on sexuality. Her quest for liberation and self-realisation are actively tied to her identity as a woman. She was acclaimed and celebrated. She was unfettered when she wrote about unrequited love and suffering, clash of wills between men and women, between social prescriptions of femininity and masculinity and individual definitions of identity and desires.

I am influenced by this daughter of Punjab, loved and revered by the same community that is condemning my character Rumi. So don't be afraid, there is nothing threatening about a woman making choices, or being confused in her choices, or asserting her individuality. My aim was never to hurt the sentiments of any community… I was just exploring a woman’s heart.

While sitting on the scooter one day, Amrita’s fingers wrote Sahir on Imroz’s back. While taking her vows, my Rumi bid farewell to her lover in Amrita Pritam’s words... ‘Main tainu pher milangi’. You can ask me to delete that scene, censor it brutally, but how will you censor Sahir written on Imroz’s back?

Because it’s not just a scene that you can brutally cut, it's a feeling, an emotion, a desire, a yearning. For it's a woman’s heart and how in the world can you censor a woman’s heart?

(Kanika Dhillon is the screenwriter and creative producer of Manmarziyaan)

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