I am willing to forgive and forget the historical inaccuracies of “Bajirao Mastani” and lack of social critique in “Devdas”, so my heart goes out or Sanjay Leela Bhansali right now – a lone man caught up in the whirlwind of controversy for a dream project.
The film Padmavaat (then Padmavati) was a subject to backlash by Karni Sena (a group which claims to represent the Rajput community) even as the shootings were going on, but perhaps Bhansali did not take the threats seriously. Then, when the grand trailer was launched, the inevitable happened, both in terms of the wave of appreciation and a flood of protests. What began as the vandalism of movie sets and physically assaulting Bhansali, continued with virulent forms of street violence, obnoxious threats and absurd fatwas.
In one, it was declared that if the film is released, women from the Khsatriya community would commit mass Jauhar on the same site where the Rani committed her Jauhar. In another, using a reference from Ramayana, threats were issued to cut off Deepika Padukone nose. And in the morning came the sickening news of protesters throwing stones at a school bus in Gurgaon, the result of which the adjoining schools had to remain shut. Such violent protests are raging in States like Gujarat, MP, UP and Dehli. These acts of ghastly cowardice where innocents are targeted and freedom of expression is throttled are all carried out ironically in the name of Rajput valour and courage.
And what indeed are the objections of the erstwhile Karni Sena, offshoot and extension of fundamentalist, right-wing groups that are suddenly so popular in India? As far as I know, the objections raised by them were never spelt out lucidly and point to point. What has come before us, are some vague assertions of ‘hurt pride’ due to what they believe is some distortion of facts. Well, here is a film that displays the Rajput grandeur to its best, glorifies their valour and sacrifice, all the while vilifying the Muslim community as sexual predators and invaders. It ideally has all the ingredients that should satisfy the Hindu revivalist groups in our country, and yet it is subjected to the strongest and the crudest of dissent from the same community it seeks to praise.
They started with the song “Ghoomar”. The song became so popular within days of its release, that no big fat wedding post the song release is complete without the women twirling on its music. “No Rajput queen would dance shamelessly before men, displaying her skin,” they said. I watched the movie day it was released, and in it, the only male figure present in the song is her husband. In fact, there is a dialogue which tells us that that men (even relatives of the queen) are not allowed to witness the dance.
Now let us also go back to Jayasi’s Padmavati. His story begins with how a feisty Padmavati donned men’s apparel and combated with her potential suitors, to choose among them the very best warrior as her husband. Why cannot one then imagine the same Padmavati, unconventional as she was, boldly and freely dancing in joy for her husband she finally chose to wed?
Noticing her uncovered waist amidst the heavy lehenga that virtually covered her entire body, and creating a ruckus around it only reflects the perversity of the protesters. And to what extent do we reduce a woman’s character to the clothes she wears? Does the mere display of midriff dismiss the dignity, the courage and commitment to her husband and the principles Padmavati embodied through and through in the movie? Have the protesters seen the movie in the first place to even comprehend this?
A controversy was also raked around Khilji and Padmavati’s alleged proximity in a so-called dream sequence. Such a scene is nowhere to be found in the movie. The movie, strictly sticking to the original “Padmavati”, and allows Khilji only one, fleeting glimpse of Padmavati in the mirror.
But my point is if Jayasi’s Padmavati is the story of Khilji’s lustful and uncontrollable infatuation of Padmavati’s unparallel beauty, why is there so much of outrage if at all they were shown in the same frame in Khilji’s dream? That too would have been on the right track of the plotline, and pardon me for hurting somebody’s sentiments with this.
Maybe the thought of Padmavati (a Hindu queen) and Khilji (a barbaric Muslim ruler) seen together, even in a dream, defiles the sense of purity we get when we imagine the women of royalty. There is no collective sense of shame, however, over the actual incidents of rape and violence against women in the nation.
It is evident that the objections are not so much over the distortion of facts but over the distortion of ideas that conservative sections of our society uphold. Notions that the film is feared to shake. It seems that it is unthinkable for all of us, that the legendary queen, who set the standard of the extent one should go to preserve ones’ izzat (honour) to be shown in any undesirable situation. We all want to hold on to the idea that it is dishonourable for women to overstep their boundaries shed their purdahs before outsiders. We want to justify honour killings, restrictions on women and other such violence taking place in Padmavati’s name.
In one of the scenes, when someone tells Padmavati that the war is the fault of her beauty, she retorts back questioning, “is it not the fault of the beholder’s sight?”. The direction which the protests are seen to be going to, this dialogue too might not go well with the Karni Sena. Much is said over Padmavati’s resolve to fight and end her life rather than face her self-respect being destroyed. Does anyone invoke Padmavati’s plight to prevent, redress and address the violence and crime against women that wars and riots bring?
Even the theatres in Mumbai, where the protests are a bare minimum, had police protection given to the screening. If those who oppose cared to watch the film, all their inhibitions would end. Contrary to the accusations, the film virtually celebrates the Rajputi aan-baan and shaan, in fact to a rather extreme level.
The Rajputs, for example, take their usools (ideals) of mehmaan navazi and dharma yudh to such a level that they keep on committing foolish mistakes that give undue advantage to the enemy. You cannot help but cheer for them, and shed tears when they fall into Khilji’s trap. Finally, the film venerates Padmavati’s Jauhar and showcases it in a poignantly disturbing scene. (Yet, I would say that I am grateful to the disclaimer that declares that the film does not glorify or support Sati – and that is the only good thing that came from the ugly protest)
The opposition, in the light of this, seems pointless and unprovoked, only meant to create ripples and garner attention.
Ranveer Kapoor as Khilji is simply brilliant; his lust for all that is nayaaz (unique) is terrifying. He will occupy the foremost positions among the antagonists portrayed in Indian cinema.
The palaces and the war scenes are both breathe taking, and the cinematography is so good that it does not allow a moment’s distraction. Malik Gafur’s character has shades of grey yet unknown to Bollywood. There is Aamir Khusrao in the film too, patronized by Khilji, though is not shown to be as independent as we like our celebrated poets to be.
It is sad that some people might miss such a gem of a movie because of the ban the states are insisting on keeping. In this regard, I am extremely thankful and appreciative of the Supreme Court for upholding cinematic liberty and freedom of expression and allowing its release. I wish the States would not succumb to the pressures of society and allow its release. At least I would be recommending it to more people from now on!