Wednesday, August 15

Padmaavat: A Tragedy

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Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period-drama Padmaavat was set up to fail. The sumptuous shots of Rajasthan and the ravishing actors provide just enough cinematic lustre to distract us from its narrative mediocrity, at least for the time we are in the theatre.

The story of Queen Padmaavati has stirred emotions of people across India since the 14th century. The movie, however, is the tale of a stereotypically immaculate Rajput princess, Padmaavati, falling in love with an intensely chivalrous Rajput king, Ratan Sen, who then go to live their lives in a breath-taking castle; only to have their plans blocked by a rapacious villain, Allaudin Khilji. This villain is then bravely challenged, defeated–at least morally–and condemned to an eternity of shame, while the couple, and especially the queen, embrace death as the ultimate act of subversion. It’s tolerable, but such flawlessness against the ornate backdrop gets nauseating.

To be fair, Bhansali had to chop and sew the film several times. Each time caving in to the whims of bullies who insisted, for the sake Rajput pride, that no matter the reassurance, or how low the director’s genuflection, their sentiments were hurt. Members from the Karni Sena, an organization of mostly Rajputs desperate for political relevance, were adamant that the movie showed Padmaavati (played by Deepika Padukone) and the villainous Allaudin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) together intimately in a dream sequence. When the filmmakers reassured this wasn’t true (even releasing a video on YouTube to say there is no scene that would “hurt anyone’s sentiment”), they continued their hooliganism undismayed by their exposed foolishness.

Padmaavati and Ratan Sen. Source: Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Bhansali Productions.

They now insisted that Rajput pride was hurt because the movie showed their beloved queen, Padmaavati, dancing and baring her waist in public–a shameful act and a complete distortion of history. To pacify this charge, the Indian Censor Board asked for additional disclaimers to be added, clarifying once again that the film was a work of fiction and not an accurate portrayal of history. The board now asked the film-makers to change the name of the film from Padmaavati to Padmaavat, and cover-up Deepika’s waist for god’s sake.

For all of Karni Sena’s bravado about Rajput honour, what irked them the most was a question of history: the insistence that Padmaavati was a fictional character.

Bhansali pre-empts accusations Karni Sena would predictably lay on him: the glorification of the Turko-Afghan (read: Muslim) invaders at the expense of the brave Rajputs (read Hindu) defender. He over compensates and we get dialogues by Padmaavati’s husband, Raja Ratan Sen (Shahid Kapoor), like this: “One who accepts all challenges and emerges victories is a Rajput.” Or “One who continues to fight this enemy till the dying breath is a Rajput.” Or “History might change but Rajputs never alter their principles.” We are also shown a gross display of dishonor, rape, lust, torture, and homosexuality by the Khiljis to complete their uncouthness. Bhansali leaves us no nuance and nothing to interpret.

With this list of demands met, and the Supreme Court deciding to strike down a ban imposed by four states on the film and the movie finally released. It received mixed reviews and Karni Sena is reaping the political benefit that comes with the fifteen minutes of fame in India’s hectic news cycle.

For all of Karni Sena’s bravado about Rajput honour, what irked them the most was a question of history: the insistence that Padmaavati was a fictional character. The claim that the lack of documented history about her existence gave the filmmakers the right to portray her as they so choose. It is the changing of the name that speaks to the most insecure of Karni Sena’s vulnerabilities (and to their most genuine point).

Hinduism, especially in its avatar of innumerable folk traditions, has a beautiful habit of turning the extraordinary into an icon of reverence and even worship.

Padmaavat is the 16th century epic poem written by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammmad Jayasi, it is also the first documented version of the story of Rani Padvamaati. It was written over two centuries after Khilji attacked the Ratan Singh’s kingdom. Changing the name from Padmaavati to Padmaavat was an attempt to de-link the “historical” Padmaavati from Jayasi’s Padmini. Given the gross inaccuracies in Jayasi’s story, and that no other proof of her existence exists most historians agree that Padmaavati was a fictional character made up by the poet.

On the other hand, Rajputs point to their bardic traditions (even before Jayasi), the Chittor fort, and their own expressions of her glory as proof of her existence. Thus, while Jayasi’s story might be inaccurate, it is a version of the truth.

Karni Sena Protesting Padmaavat. Source: Indian Express.

Hinduism, especially in its avatar of innumerable folk traditions, has a beautiful habit of turning the extraordinary into an icon of reverence and even worship. To turn the unmanifest genius into a manifest symbol. For the Rajputs then it doesn’t matter whether the rest of us believe in the historicity of Padmaavati, to them she is a real and intricate part of their identity. Her sacrifice–self-immolation rather than be taken hostage by Allaudin Khilji–is a sacred act that reaffirms the imagination of Rajput identity and honour. And it was this that the Rajputs were miffed about and of which Karni Sena took advantage.

Padmaavat highlights a problem faced by the period-drama genre in India: how does one create character development while ensuring you don’t hurt sensitivities of people whose identity is linked to the story you are monetising? Padmaavat isn’t the first period-drama to undergo such scrutiny. Groups protested Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodha-Akbar, and Ketan Metha’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising. Indeed, some are already protesting the upcoming movie Manikarnika starring Kangana Ranaut as Rani Laxmi Bai.

It was the prospect of a Hindu icon being shown romancing a Muslim invader that was offensive.

Period-cinema gets even more complicated when it interacts with politics of patriarchy and political Hinduism. It was the idea of Deepika Padukone, as an empowered modern Indian actress, putting on the garb of the virtuous ancient queen that is deemed unworthy. It was the prospect of a Hindu icon being shown romancing a Muslim invader that was offensive. Lost in the discourse of sentiments is the long tradition to interpret, morph, and display these icons of reverence to further their stories.

In India the problem is not that an icon is being trivialized but that offended accuses the offender of not kow-towing enough. As such which “historical accuracy” do you maintain –the historians, the folks, or that blurted by average bullies. And what of your agency as an artist? All this in a country where political dispensation often supports the vandalizers and the offense-taker over protecting the right and property of the film-makers.

Those going to this movie for the escapism will get their money’s worth. But if you are there for an engaging story made with conviction prepare for disappointment. In the end, Padmaavat was cannibalised by having to compete against the drama surrounding its release. Bhansali’s telling of the story was affected by the gross violence he and his crew endured during the shooting of the film. Barring the dancing Deepika, we got a story that Karni Sena would like us to see. Padmaavat suffered from Bhansali’s inability to humanize the characters; a waste period-movie fans in Bollywood have long suffered and will continue to endure.

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