Even as I write this, actress Deepika Padukone and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali have been forced to accept police protection after a fringe group in Rajasthan threatened them with physical harm, as it claimed to be outraged by their soon-to-be-released film Padmavati. One ex-royal has said he would do to Padukone what Lakshman, from Ramayana, did to Surpanakha — that is, cut off her nose and ears. “Rajputs never raise a hand on women,” was the caveat he added, before pronouncing the threat, implying that they did when it was necessary. His organisation has also accused Bhansali’s film — based mostly on a fictional 16th century poem — of inaccuracies, and has called for it to be banned.
Outrage, of course, is the national pastime, with everyone feeling entitled to it and frequently threatening violence if they are not placated. Films are an easy target for this anger. Even as the Padmavati row continues, a group of Brahmins in Maharashtra has called for the banning of National Award winning Marathi film, Dashakriya for allegedly showing the upper caste in a bad light (Really, now?). And, four days ago, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting withdrew Malayalam film S Durga and Marathi film Nude from the 48th International Film Festival in Goa. A bewildered Ravi Jadhav, the director of the second film, was reported as asking: “What do you expect a film on a nude model to be called?”
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 is even worse 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?
Bhansali’s film — at least its trailer and songs — undoubtedly, has a lot that can give offence to viewers. For instance, the representation of Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) as an Indian Khal Drogo, wearing a fur coat and gobbling meat. Historians were quick to point out that the sultan of Delhi who successfully stopped repeated attempts by Mongols to invade India would have been one of the most sophisticated men of his times and not a barbarian as he is shown to be, at least in the trailer. A Rajasthani friend was also scandalised to see Rani Padmavati of Chittor dancing the ghoomar with other women at the court. This would have been unthinkable, then as now.
One is reminded of a telling scene in Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa (2001), where the title character (Karisma Kapoor) — the junior rani of a Rajput princely state —joins a group of dancers in the palace, only to be reprimanded by the senior rani (Rekha) for ignoring the traditions of the palace. A little detour: In Sonar Kella (1974), Satyajit Ray uses Rajasthani folk music at two critical narrative junctures, to create moments of uncanny or alienation. Ray was also researching to shoot for a documentary on Rajasthani folk music in the mid-Seventies and, characteristically, got it absolutely right. Bhansali, of course, has never cared much about accuracies. Surely, he had budget enough to research the medieval traditions of ghoomar; surely his Padmavati could have done without performing it. His film deserves to be critiqued for all this, but threats of personal violence and vandalising of cinemas reflects how we continue to learn nothing from the mistakes of our past.
A not too distant past, either. In 1998, when Deepa Mehta’s Fire — arguably the first mainstream Hindi film to depict a homoerotic relationship — was released, Shiv Sena workers went about vandalising cinemas and attacking audiences in Mumbai. Some of them even landed up in front of Dilip Kumar’s house and stripped to their underwear, as he had supported the film by filing a petition in the Supreme Court in its favour. In a telling sequence in Fire, the two women, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), married into a dogmatic Hindu family, make a trip to the dargah of the Sufi Nizamuddin in Delhi. This is probably a veiled reference to Nizamuddin’s homoerotic relation with his disciple, Amir Khushrau. Legend has it that Nizamuddin did not allow Alauddin Khilji, the feared monarch of Delhi, admission into his humble dargah.
For now, it is a free for all as far as Padmavati is concerned. Shiv Sena has said it will not allow the release of the film in Maharashtra; the Uttar Pradesh government has written to the Centre, saying it fears a worsening of the already dismal law and order situation in the state if the film is shown there. Veteran film journalist, Shobhaa De, has humorously suggested in her column for NDTV website, that Bhansali should simply change the name of the film. “Bhansali can call his new film Leelavati or Amravati or Pushpavati, or any other vati. Even Chitor can be called Kitor, Bitor, Mitor. Who cares?” she writes in half-jest, reminding everyone that the true judge of the film will be the audience at the box office. That’s exactly how it should be. No one needs to kill anyone for a bad film — it usually dies a natural death in the cinemas.