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Please don’t go to watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which released on Thursday amid widespread protests. My statement might seem contrary to opinions I have expressed on this subject earlier; I have written that those calling for a ban on the film, especially the criminal outfit called Karni Sena that has made itself the sole custodian of Rajput pride, are in contradiction with the Constitution, particularly the fundamental right to expression it enshrines. That is still an opinion I hold dear; Bhansali and Co have every right to release their movie and no one has any right to call for it to be banned. Having said that, however, I see no reason why cinema goers must be subjected to another acutely sexist film, especially one that aestheticises a practice as regressive as jauhar. One argument in the favour of the film is: The custom of Rajput women immolating themselves when faced with imminent capture in war, and consequent rape and enslavement did exist. This is a spurious argument. Many practices existed in the centuries gone by — monarchy, religious taxes, slavery, and sati (closely related to jauhar). That’s no reason why a contemporary film would have an uncritical — indeed, a celebratory — representation of it. In fact, the horrific ritual was hardly ever a celebratory one, and its relation to Rajput pride was always at best tenuous. According to Abu’l-Fazi ibn Mubarak, who left behind an account of Mughal emperor Akbar’s campaign against Chittor, the Rajput women, who committed jauhar when the fort fell to the invading army in September 1568, were unwilling participants. The celebratory, and the performative, nature of the ritual is similar to sati: multiple accounts report that women forced to commit suicide on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands were usually drugged or sedated; their screams were drowned out by drums and cymbals. The body of the woman being the site of a power struggle between men, and the repository of their honour, is as old as history itself, and manifests itself in contemporary times through a toxic rape culture and practices such as honour killing. Armies — medieval or modern — have used rape as a tool of subjugation. In recent times, women have rightly resisted being forced into suicide by such reductive notions of honour and have fought back with unique protests of their own. For instance, on 15 July 2004, 12 middle-aged women stood in front of the Kangla Fort in Imphal with a banner proclaiming: “Indian Army Rape Us”. The image became symbolic of the excesses committed by the Indian army under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the troubled Northeast. Historians, too, have started documenting such aspects of war, which reveal the true human cost of conflict.
For instance, Bina D’Costa’s Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia: it focuses the light on the widespread rape of Bangladeshi women by the Pakistan army and their Razakar collaborators during the 1971 war. D’Costa’s thesis is somewhat indebted to the groundbreaking study of war rape, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975) by Susan Brownmiller.The orgy of outraged violence unleashed by Karni Sena goons to protect the honour of a fictional queen is, as I have argued earlier, is ironic at best. A look at Rajasthan’s social development statistics reveals, quite starkly, how incongruous it is for Rajput men to pretend to be the defenders of the honour of the women of the state. According to the 2011 Census, the sex ratio in Rajasthan is a dismal 928 women per 1,000 men, earning it a poor 23rd rank among 35 states and Union territories. The child sex ratio is even worse at 888. The literacy rate in Rajasthan is 67.06 per cent, keeping the state among the bottom few. Kerala, which tops the list, has a 93.91 per cent literacy rate. The female literacy rate in Rajasthan is even worse at 52.66 per cent. According to a 2016 report by Al Jazeera, 674 infants, mostly female, were abandoned in the state between 2007 and 2011, “highest only after Maharashtra”, forcing the state government to create a budget in FY16 to look after these children. Wouldn’t Rajput men be better occupied improving these statistics than defending the honour of a fictional queen? Of course, good sense is not a virtue we can expect of a mob. But, in this hullaballoo, my greatest source of disappointment has been Deepika Padukone — an actress whom I otherwise deeply admire. Padukone has, in the past, claimed to be a feminist, especially in 2015, when her video on women’s empowerment, My Choice, was released. The previous year, she had rightly reprimanded The Times of India for carrying a front-page picture highlighting her cleavage. One wonders what prevented her from refusing to act in this film — or at least expressing her opinion on jauhar, which is the climax of her film? On the contrary, in a tweet on Wednesday, she said: “The jauhar scene is by far my most special and challenging moments as an actor!” What’s so special about it, Deepika? Care to explain?