Padmaavat: Dear Indians, why harass and intimidate what is truly India’s soft power?
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Padmaavat: Dear Indians, why harass and intimidate what is truly India’s soft power?

The manner in which Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone have had to face the wrath of a section of public over Padmaavat makes one wonder how vulnerable Bollywood is.

Padmavati Row Updated: Jan 25, 2018 11:29 IST
Nivedita Mishra
Nivedita Mishra
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Padmaavat,Alauddin Khilji,Rani Padmini
Deepika Padukone in the titular role of Queen Padmavati in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat.

I was too young when Gulzar’s Aandhi released in 1975 to know how the then government tried to scuttle its release. It was reportedly based on the life of the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The film was banned and released only when the Janata Party’s Morarji Desai succeeded Gandhi. Was it as bad as things are today? The manner in which the film Padmaavat and its team have been harassed, intimidated and threatened, it is hard to imagine anything like that happening back then.

Based on an episode from medieval Indian history about the attack by Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, on Chittor (Rajasthan), Padmaavat was expected to be a visual extravaganza, as visualised by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and a tale of valour, bravery and sacrifice. The film, which was to release on December 1 last year, is finally set to release on January 25. However, the opposition to it has been stiff and often very intimidating.

The manner in which its director and its leading heroine have had to face the wrath of a section of public, not the mention tension to the producers, makes one wonder how vulnerable Bollywood is. The government, which should ideally have been a mediator between the two parties, sits on the fence.

The irony is that Bollywood remains the single most potent force and flag bearer of India (after, of course, Gandhi and yoga). From Brazil to Russia and Canada to New Zealand, people recognise the song and dance routine. Our stories are universal and touch a chord everywhere. Raj Kapoor still enjoys a cult status in Russia, Amitabh Bachchan has an avid fan following in Egypt while Indonesians drool over Shah Rukh Khan. Not to mention, how popular Rajinikanth is in Japan. And Afghanistan would love to believe that Hema Malini is actually an Afghan! Such is the clout of Bollywood and look how we bring them to the knees.

Soft power

At a recent visit to Uzbekistan on work, my brother experienced first-hand, the power of Bollywood. Wherever he travelled, people would great him with words “Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan…” In fact, at a local eatery, the moment one of the girls working there came to know he was from India, she rattled of her favourite stars and songs. She even sang songs, one from SRK-Kajol starrer Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and other Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.

Listen to the Uzbeki girl sing lines from Mehendi Lagaa Ke Rakhna and Bhole Chudiyaan here:

Many years ago, I recall reading Amitabh Bachchan’s blog where he had narrated an incident which took place sometime after the release of Sholay. On a holiday to Paris in the mid-’70s, while strolling by the banks of Seine, he heard someone whistle a popular tune from the film. He looked around to see where the sound was emanating from but couldn’t locate it. Soon, he saw a man go past him whistling the tune. The person was, of course, completely oblivious to the fact that he had gone past one of the two men on whom the song had been picturised. No points for guessing, the song in question was the iconic Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Chhodenge from Sholay.

Deepika Padukone in a still from Ghoomar song in Padmaavat.

One is more than certain that there must be more than a zillion such examples that prove that there is something truly universal about our films. Yet, the kind of opposition Padmaavat is facing is staggering. My hunch is the main anger stemmed for the depiction of Padmini as a breathing, sensual being. The fact that it is touched by a certain degree of sexuality might have been infuriating. But wasn’t Padmavati (if you believe in the lore) a human being? Did she not have these emotions? Besides, Bhansali as an artist has imagined his heroine in a certain way. The point is – is it vulgar, profane and derogatory? Well, no.

So is Bhansali wrong? At least, here he is not. What he can be accused of is taking liberties with many of the mores and practices shown in the film – like Deepika’s midriff in the Ghoomar song. Have you ever noticed how even today, the women belonging to the erstwhile royal families wear their sari? Invariably, it is draped right around both the shoulders and gathered in front. Sometimes even the head is covered. And we are talking of a queen who lived and died in 1303 AD.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali and creative liberty

One of chief grievances against the portrayal is that it distorts history – that there was supposedly a dream sequence featuring Alauddin and Padmavati and that the Ghoomar song shows a Rajput woman in an undignified manner. The fact is, Rani Padmini, revered by the Rajputs as a goddess, and hence to show her a ‘regular’ woman, is seen as an affront.

Then, inaccuracies galore – Ghoomar is never performed in front of such a large audience; it was and remains an intimate family affair. For the uninitiated, Rajput brides supposedly perform the said dance on their arrival at their husbands’ homes.

The kind of opulence shown in the film is just not true. Listen to Arvind Singh Mewar, the 76th custodian of the Mewar dynasty, explain why Mewar was never a rich state as they were constantly fighting and had to maintain a huge army.

Arvind Singh Mewar speaks on Padmaavat:

He also explains how many students today do not read history and whatever understanding they have of the past is through films. Hence, it takes great responsibility to make a movie on such a subject.

Is it the first time Bhansali has done such a thing? Not quite. He did a similar thing with Bajirao Mastani too. The song Pinga was criticised by the descendents of both Peshwa Bajirao and Mastani. Pinga shows Kashi Bai, wife of Bajirao, dance with Mastani, the lover and later the second wife of the Peshwa. To jog our memories, Mastani was the daughter of Maharaja Chhatrasal of Panna, Bundelkhand from his Muslim concubine. In the film, there are shown dancing together. This is clearly unimaginable in 18th century India.

Listen to Shri Uday Sinh Peshwa, descendant of Bajirao, talk about the inaccuracies

We aren’t done yet – as back as 2002 when he re-made iconic Devdas, based on the famous novella by Bengali writer, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, he again distorted the story when he made Parvati (Paro) and Chandramukhi dance together. In the book, they never meet! Also, the film was a far cry from Bengali ethos.

A common thread is the manner in which the commercialisation of stories has taken place.

Listen to Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal, the daughter of Mahendra Singh Mewar, also a descendant of Rawal Rattan Singh, speak about how there has been a commercialisation of this story. She also asks if Padmaavat is a historical or a film based on Mallik Mohammad Jayasi, the Sufi poet who wrote the famous poem of the same name.

Listening to these people, it is more than evident that Bhansali has taken liberties with plot and overall depiction of historical characters. However, despite all these inaccuracies, the quantum of punishment being meted out to a work of fiction is disproportionately huge.

So many ‘Padmavatis’

Which then brings us to the question -- who was Padmavati? The first time I read about the story was from Amar Chitra Katha, a fascinating and emotionally draining story of a Rajput queen who chooses to die rather than being taken a ‘slave’ by an invader. Subsequently, I would see a TV serial, where the iconic Bollywood beauty, Hema Malini played the fearless queen.

Soon one would also come across Annals and Antiquity of Rajasthan by James Tod, which documents the history of the Rajputs. There is a story of Rani Padmavati there too.

However, there are many historians who contest the very existence of the queen. For them, the story is just a piece of fiction, conjured up by Jayasi.

The Rajputs, meanwhile, firmly believed in her cult. The Chittor Fort has a Jauhar Kund (pond) and a temple dedicated to her.

Then, there is another account of her in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India. What’s more, when the celebrated book was televised by Shyam Benegal (Bharat Ek Khoj), an episode dedicated to it. It’s depiction of Allaudin, played by the late Om Puri, is different – he isn’t obsessed with the beautiful queen and his motives seem cold and calculative.

Soon after the controversy broke out, Trivikrama Kumari rubbished any suggestion that the queen never existed. She cited a family record book on Mewar’s history called Veer Vinod, which mentions in detail about Padmini. However, she also adds it was never as sensational as people would love to believe.

She said: “If you go as a tourist to Chittorgarh Fort, you’re taken to Padmini’s Palace, and you’re shown a couple of mirrors. The tourist guide tells you about it and he points out a little pond and says she stood over there and Alauddin Khilji saw her face. But that is just packaging culture to sell to ignorant tourists.”

Speaking about Veer Vinod, Trivikrama further said. “It’s a historical record that shows yes she was there, she was the wife of Rawal Ratan Singh and she was only an excuse that Alauddin Khilji used to invade Chittor. The real reason was a very calculated military decision to invade,” she said.

Evidently the story of Rani Padmini and Alauddin Khilji is a complicated one and there is no one account.

Listen to the history of Chittor, as narrated by academic and historian Dr Pushpesh Pant.

Westernised Vs Orthodox India

So, did you find Deepika’s Ghoomar vulgar? Hardly. In fact, when one first saw the song, one couldn’t help wonder at the beauty and grace of Deepika Padukone. Had the legendary queen seen it, she too would have felt flattered at her engaging presence, one would reckon. There’s absolutely no denying that Bhansali is a magician – his women have always been beautiful and strong. What’s more is that Bhansali is a mainstream filmmaker – he will always tell stories that will appeal to the middle class Indian. He is a filmmaker who entertains, not disturbs. His films will hardly be critical of society, they will celebrate their Indianness.

This issue has laid bare the gap between two different Indias – one that is westernised and the other that is rooted in age-old mores and values. The confrontation is hardly welcome.

Future of historical genre

At this rate, can historicals ever be made in India? Netflix has been running a very successful series on the British royals – The Crown. The series dives deep into the lives of Queen Elizabeth II and family, many of whom are still living and shows what happened, warts and all. What’s more, the depiction of one of Britain’s most popular prime ministers, Sir Winston Churchill, is hardly flattering.

Indian history is studded with remarkable people. Can we ever hope to see them onscreen? Seems unlikely.

The author tweets @mniveditatweets

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First Published: Jan 25, 2018 08:26 IST