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On Thursday, a parliamentary panel summoned Padmavati director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Central Board of Film Certification chief Prasoon Joshi to discuss the ongoing controversy over the film. The members of Parliament — with seemingly little to do after the postponement of the winter session — grilled the hapless director over whether he had distorted history and if he had fuelled the controversies to promote his film. Already, chief ministers of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have declared that they will not allow it to be released in their respective states, earning a rap on their wrists from the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Originally scheduled to be released today (Friday), the future of the film now hangs in uncertainty. Last week, inspired by the claims of some Rajput groups that the 13th-century queen, Padmini, was like their mother, and a fictional depiction of a love affair between her and Alauddin Khilji was somehow an insult to them, I had watched Mother India (1957) — the original film that combined the myths of nationalism and motherhood in post-Independence India. This week, I followed it up with Deewar (1975), released barely a few months before the Emergency started and reflecting its contemporary mood of listlessness and political turmoil.
Like Mother India, the narrative of Deewar, too, revolves around a mother (Nirupa Roy) and her two sons (Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor), who find themselves on the opposite sides of the law — but more importantly, engaged in a moral conflict. (Some have even argued that the latter is a remake of the former, albeit in an urban setting.) The family — as the smallest unit of the nation and the economy — is at the centre of the drama and the source of the melodrama in the film. But it is not the ideal family of four: The father, a maligned union leader, is missing; the mother, though not a widow, is the celibate single parent. (Remember the superbly melodramatic scene where Ravi snatches the sindoor out of his mother’s hand before telling her about her husband’s death?)
A short detour: Speaking of mothers and sons, one can hardly ignore the most important such relationship in India in the 1970s — that between prime minister Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv, in some ways, reflect the mother-and-two-sons structure in the national imagination. But the kind of influence that Sanjay exerted over his mother could be somewhat alarming. One of the more sensational reports that came out during the Emergency was how Sanjay slapped Indira five or six times at a dinner. The person who reported it was then Washington Post India bureau chief and Pulitzer winner Lewis M Simons. In an interview with Scroll.in in 2015, the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, he recollected how the incident had actually occurred before the Indira Gandhi government suspended civil rights in the country. Soon after his report was published, Simons was put on a plane and thrown out of India.
Simons — as well as others such as senior journalist Coomi Kapoor — remember how the story spread like “wildfire through word of mouth”, all over Delhi. Such rumours and stories would not have been uncommon in the collective consciousness of the audience that watched the film. Cinema scholar Stuart Hall in his essay “Encoding/Decoding” argues that meaning in text is not imposed or passively accepted, but rather “arrived at” through negotiation between various strands of the narrative. For Deewar’s audience, the moral didacticism that drives the film would have been filtered through their experience of a country reeling from debt, joblessness, and food riots. So while Shashi Kapoor’s Ravi is the keeper of the film’s consciousness, the more attractive character has always been Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay, the quintessential outsider, the angry young man, the Karna to his brother’s Arjun.
A lot is made of the most famous — and much ridiculed — scene of the encounter between the brothers under the bridge. Here the brothers don’t exchange arrows but the verbal duel is no less poignant than any description of the battle of Kurukshetra. Vijay first advises his brother to stop investigating his murderous gang of smugglers, but failing, calls into question Ravi’s ethics: “All your principles cannot be made into rotis.” He questions what his brother might have gained by sticking to his principles: A pair of uniforms? A service jeep? Police quarters? Look at all the wealth I have amassed, declares Vijay. In response, Ravi reminds him: “Mere paas Ma hai! (I have mother with me).” At once it is a reminder of how the mother has chosen to be with the more moral son, and also a comment on the son’s duties for his mother and motherland. But the source of his morality is not the mother alone.
On discovering that his brother is a smuggler, sub-inspector Ravi Verma refuses to take up the case, citing conflict of interest. The police commissioner advises him to think for a day. Immediately afterwards, out on the streets, he chases a thief, and unable to catch him, shoots him in the leg, only to discover that it is a teenager who has stolen bread for his hungry family. Overcome with guilt at the injustice of the situation, Ravi arrives at the shanty where the family of the thief, named Chander, lives, with a packet of food. When he reveals that he is the officer who shot Chander, the mother abuses him: “Policemen only shoot the poor like us. No one dares to catch the smugglers and hoarders.” But the father, a retired schoolteacher, delivers the didactic lesson of the movie: “Thousands of people are dying of hunger in the country. Should all of them become thieves?” (On the dirty walls of his house hangs pictures of Hindu gods and Rabindranath Tagore.) After this, he will not hesitate on the path of duty, even when it requires him to shoot his brother in the climax.