A scene from the controversial film Padmavati (Inset) Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali
By Sameer Manekar
My first experience of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB) film was that of Goliyon ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. I entered the cinema hall bearing in mind the extravagance and magnificence of his films. Although the story was pretty familiar and the emotional drama too mushy for me, the grandeur of the sets and song sequences made a lasting impact on me. I made sure I checked out his next, Bajirao Mastani, not only for my newfound love of Bhansali’s sets but also for the love of period dramas.
I was likewise attracted by the announcement of Padmavati. The legend of the Queen of Chittore incinerating herself along with thousands of other Rajput women to save her honour (called johar) from a lustful sultan intrigued me. Subconsciously, I hoped for historical accurateness in the movie; fallacious characterization of historical figures can be ideologically difficult to withstand for me. However, only a week ago the news of Shri Rajput Karni Sena (SRKS), a Rajput caste organisation, vandalising the sets of the movie and physically harming the director flashed across televisions.
Every single being regardless of association with the film industry verbalised his/her anguish one way or the other, and another controversy joined the company of several others, some of them still burning in the hearts of a few. It is shameful that physical violence is preferred even in today’s world to solve problems capable of diplomatic solutions. Hence, it will only be prudent and genteel to understand the reason behind this.
Bhansali’s latest period drama draws its script heavily from Padmavat, a 16th century Awadhi poem written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Many historians such as Irfan Habib disregard the queen as a fantasy of Jayasi, while Gauri Shankar Ojha, another prominent Rajasthan historiographer, and an authority on Rajasthan History James Todd affirm her existence with varied sources. Amir Khusro, a chronicler who accompanied the aforementioned sultan, Alauddin Khilji in his campaign to destroy the kingdom of Chittore, records no occurrence of a johar but that of it happening during a previous expedition concerning the kingdom of Ranthambore.
Subsequently, filming an intimate sequence between Queen Padmavati and this sultan, albeit in his dream, can understandably be offensive to the faction that idolises her, and frankly, to everyone regardless of sects and castes. As the tales go, Khilji was a villainous, barbarous and bisexual administrator who murdered thousands of Hindus and forced a number of male juveniles into sexual activities. Portraying a savage sultan in a positive light and blemishing a revered female figure in the history only to acquire commercial profit cannot be called creativity but only the disintegration of it.
I find it extremely ironical that the honour for which Queen Padmavati burned herself up would be tarnished by the very film being made to portray her beauty and valour.
It should not be misunderstood, however, that I consider violence resorted to by the SRKS justifiable. With due process of police investigation and justice, convicts should be put behind bars and made an example out of to prevent further occurrences of this nature. Nevertheless, what I find more interesting are the reactions of a few people, like Anurag Kashyap, who believes that Hindu terrorism has now materialised out of being a myth, branding the entire right-wing community as terrorists based on the actions of a few.
Likewise Sushant Singh Rajput, Kashyap too is ashamed of his Rajput descent; the former even dropped it off his twitter handle. What fails me is the sudden origination of the need to “guard” the artistic freedom of these self-styled custodians of art. These people who now feel threatened about their autonomy are surprisingly impassive towards the attacks of a similar kind on the sets of Haider in Jammu & Kashmir.
The systematically planned banning of Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam failed to attract them, and even the death threats issued to Dangal actress, Zaira Wasim by Kashmiris went unnoticed. Perhaps their freedom is threatened only by the Hindus and not others. Just as it is excruciating to experience such incidences, it is similarly terrible to hear absolute silence from these people when it comes to speaking out against an extremist group of a religion other than the Hindu. That secularism and creative freedom is evoked only on selective instances are disgraceful and condemnable.
What happens to the film, whether the sequence is retained or snipped off is an entirely different issue. The important aspect that the Padmavati row brings into the light is the ideological dissension between those that strive to protect the valiant history of our country and those that portray it in a distorted way under the pretext of “creativity freedom”.
Artistic autonomy is of paramount importance, especially in the film industry. However, exercising it at the expense of history and its revered figures can only prove detrimental to the values and traditions prevalent in our society and consequently, to our nation as a whole.