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Making a song and dance of history

Noted Mumbai film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is under siege by Rajput groups across the country, has a habit of interpreting stories, whether historical or fictional

mumbai Updated: Nov 21, 2017 21:14 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times
Sanjay Leela Bhansali,Padmavati,Bajirao-Mastani
Now Rajputs are raising objections to the Ghoomar song in Bhansali’s latest film, Padmavati, with the argument — their queen would never have danced like that in full public view.(HT File)

Was Rani Padmini real? For the past week, doubts have been raised about her existence and opinion is divided on whether she is a historical figure or a fictional character.

Bajirao and Mastani, however, were for real. Noted film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who is under siege by Rajput groups across the country, has a habit of interpreting stories, whether historical or fictional. In the remake of the famed Devdas, he brought together the hero’s two loves — the courtesan and the childhood sweetheart — who never ever met in all other versions of this saga. But if he hadn’t got them to meet, how would anyone have got the famous song and dance sequence of Dola Re Dola?

The Devdas story, however, could have been distorted with no mean consequence. Who cared, when they got such a beautiful film at the end of it? But the same could not have been said about Bajirao-Mastani. Firstly, Mastani was not a courtesan, though she may have been the daughter of one. She was a royal princess, the acknowledged daughter of the Raja of Bundelkhand, who sought the help of Bajirao and his Maratha army to defeat the imperial Islamic powers who, time and again, kept breathing down his neck. Mastani fell in love with Bajirao, they married (those days, it was no big deal for rulers to marry princesses of kingdoms they had conquered) and had a son, Shamsher, who fought alongside his cousin, Sadashivrao Bhau, in the Third Battle of Panipat and gave his life for the Maratha empire.

In making the film on the Bajirao-Mastani romance, Bhansali distorted their history and it pained Marathas to no end to see the character of Kashibai, Bajirao’s first wife, who suffered from arthritis and therefore limped, do a song and dance with Mastani in the now equally famous Pinga number. At the time, Jairaj Salgaokar of ‘Kalnirnay’ fame, who is also a historian, had argued bitterly that Kashibai was a Peshwin who would never have danced — and couldn’t have danced, even if she had wanted to, given her arthritis. But no Bhansali film is complete without a song and dance sequence between two women competing for the love of the same man and so the protests of Marathas, including Bajirao’s descendants, went ignored.

Now Rajputs are similarly raising objections to the Ghoomar song in Bhansali’s latest film, Padmavati, with the same argument — their queen would never have danced like that in full public view. But, their protests are turning out to be more violent than those of the Marathas. I am now beginning to see posts from Maharashtrians all over social media, some lauding their own non-violence and others regretting they did not fight back as fiercely. But, I don’t see why the Marathas should be unhappy about their civilised protests.

Do they not know their history or see the irony of the fact that the Rajputs won very few battles (in fact, they lost most) while Bajirao and his descendants never lost a single war until the 1761 battle of Panipat? Even that war, against Afghan invader Abdali Durrani, would have been won if the Jat and Rajput kings had not withdrawn their support to the Marathas and allowed Durrani free passage through their territories. I have always insisted that had the Marathas not lost at Panipat, India may not have been partitioned in 1947— because the Maratha empire had spread up to Peshawar and Khyber Pakthoontwa in modern-day Pakistan which are territories they had to cede to Abdali after Panipat. After the Third Anglo-Maratha war in 1818, when the British vanquished the Peshwas, former British governor general Charles Metcalfe had admitted, “There are but two powers in India, the British and the Mahrattas. Every territory occupied by us is ceded by them.”

So the Marathas have no reason to be upset at their lack of ferocity over Bhansali’s distortion of their history. They do not compare poorly with Rajputs, who had once depended on the Marathas to sort out their own succession wars. But as Salgaokar told me before the Padmavati protests became so intense, the song and dance of Bajirao-Mastani earned Bhansali upwards of Rs400 crore. “That has encouraged him to do the same with Padmavati. He will earn even more with this film.’’

Well, Salgaokar, after all, is a jyotishbhaskar — a master predictor. The Rajput protests are truly all set to make Bhansali a much richer man. A little matter of history seems inconsequential to that.

First Published: Nov 21, 2017 21:12 IST