Padmaavat: Failure Of Law And A Nation’s Conscience

Posted by Neha Singh in Culture-Vulture, Sexism And Patriarchy
January 29, 2018

Due to the passionate campaigns of Raja Rammohan Roy and other social reformers of the time, the practice of sati was formally banned by Lord William Bentinck under the Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829. As per this regulation, the people who directly or indirectly abetted sati were declared guilty of “culpable homicide.” In my opinion, the movie “Padmaavat” failed the efforts of our social reformers by glorifying jauhar and sati in the name of honour.

Later, Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 was enacted by the Government of Rajasthan in 1987. It became an Act of the Parliament of India with the enactment of The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 in 1988 under the Ministry of Women and Child Development (Government of India). The objective of the Act was to prevent the practice of sati – the voluntary or forced burning of widows, and to prohibit glorification of this action through the observance of any ceremony, the participation in any procession, the creation of a financial trust, the construction of a temple, or any action to commemorate or honor the memory of a widow who committed sati.

Keeping aside the problems with the film’s direction, I really don’t understand why a present-day director would want to glorify sati? Why would a director want to misdirect Rajput pride and valour? Also, why are right wing fanatics and so called ‘fringe elements’ like the Karni Sena opposing the film then?

A lot has been already written about the controversy and I never thought I will get into it but after watching the movie, I couldn’t help writing this. Contrary to the objections raised by the fanatic Rajput groups, the movie validates all the folklore surrounding Rajput pride, valour and honour which has shaped their social identities. The movie also reinforces Islamophobia and gender biases.

It is also important to underline the provisions under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution which gives all its citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Whether one likes it or not, Bhansali has the right to speech and expression but we often forget that the rights can be restricted by reasons provided under Article 19(2). Article 19 (1) (a) cannot be read in isolation with Article 19 (2). I have not gone through everything that has been written about the controversy or the film but to the best of my knowledge, I am yet to come across anyone who speaks about the legal provisions surrounding the act of the glorification of sati.

The entire debate came down to the female protagonist and her waist being shown in the movie. Have the pride and honour of a community really come to that? That dropped ‘i’ in “Padmavati” got more attention than the most crucial question in the entire episode. Neither the judiciary nor the state governments banning the movie could come up with any concrete reasons to justify their actions. The entire controversy was about the wrong people fighting for the wrong reasons.

Coming back to the movie, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has always been a phenomenal director as far as the visuals are concerned. The larger than life portrayal of characters with grand representation is a visual treat in the best way possible.

But I always thought one wants to tell a story because they want to convey something – something that they believe in and want more people to know about. Somehow, I have never understood what drives Sanjay Leela Bhansali to make movies like “Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela”, “Bajirao Mastani” or a “Padmaavat” and take huge risks. His movies are no different from the quintessential 70s film but with great costumes, jewelleries and spectacularly regal backdrops.

All his films try to portray the female lead as the protagonist but fail to do so when she’s made to succumb to the rituals of the society. All his movies have a love triangle where lust, love and sacrifice are overplayed and exaggerated. His films try to depict the female lead as the most beautiful creature, with unnecessary praise showered on her looks and features. This has nothing to do with the plot of the movie. It tries to showcase the fake standards of beauty and gait a woman should have which I find unreal. Hence, it is unfair to judge his movie based on historical facts or call it some historical or period drama; it is just another movie with good visuals.

“Padmaavat” is no exception and in fact, it is worse due to the glorification of sati at the end. The last few minutes of the film, where Rajput ‘honour’ is saved when the female protagonist commits suicide, is magnificent and vacuous at the same time. The entire jauhar part – especially the cinematography – looks stunning on screen but what’s the point of having that depiction at all? The scene is shot in a way that it can convince the audiences that jauhar is something we should be proud of, which I found regressive. The director has his rights to express himself but that glorification was not required, and in fact, it is a punishable offence.

It is ironic to see the Karni Sena behave like hooligans when the entire movie is an extension of their thought process and the purpose of their very existence. “Padmaavat” is a wonderful propaganda movie to show the orthodoxies surrounding Rajput women.

Much like our politicians, the movie has a message for girls: the only value you have is in your ‘honour’, in your body. Bhansali and the cast received so many threats even before the release when nobody knew what exactly the plot was about. On the contrary, I see no one talking about the regressive portrayal of women after the release. This movie is nothing but a reiteration of regressive social conditioning that women have been brought up with since time immemorial.

We are a nation where we care much more about the interpretation of a text like “Padmaavat”, whose historicity itself is questionable. At the same time, we don’t really care about the regressive message the movie intentionally or unintentionally tries to deliver. Here, it is unfortunate that we are fighting over a fictional character and not the real issue. The question is – what purpose does this romanticisation of a social vice with the help of the methodological fallacies of literature serve in the 21st century?

We, as a nation, have failed to raise the right issues at the right time while the authorities and the law failed to take their recourse to set things right when we failed to do so. And if they thought the movie was justified to do so, the government machinery still failed to maintain law and order. Or rather, they didn’t have the political will to do so. A nation’s conscience failed when the states could not safeguard the orders of the Supreme Court of India itself. Maybe they don’t really recognize the importance of having an apex court in the first place.

The Supreme Court in 2011 ruled that the state governments cannot ban a film which has been cleared by the Censor Board for public screening, on the apprehension that it could cause a law and order problem. The Court had said“It is for the state to maintain law and order effectively and meaningfully.” The bench had also added, “Such discussion on social issues bring about awareness for effective working of the democracy.” It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court had to pass a similar order yet again when there are so many other important cases pending before it.

All the State had to do was to execute the order of the Supreme Court and use its powers under Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code to issue orders in urgent cases of nuisance and apprehended danger. They could have easily arrested them before they indulged in public nuisance activities under Section 141 of the Indian Penal Code (unlawful assembly). It was so convenient and irresponsible for the states to go for the ban instead of taking care of the situation.

The entire row has been a great waste of energy and resources. It is a failure of law and a nation’s conscience when we indulge in rhetoric rather than try to achieve something real. We are a nation that defends the modesty of a fictional woman by threatening a real one who portrays her.

This article was first published here.