Commentaries, Opinion

Lions & an Insecure Herd of Sheep: My Views on the Padmavati Film Controversy

Earlier last year, when I launched my public response to a generalising and historically uninformed post over the contemporary Rajput community (which also served as the trigger post to have started Rajputana Collective), I was reminded by several commentators that “lions didn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.” I hereby make a gentle re-iteration of the same in times when we need to urgently preserve the wise difference between self-assured lions and an insecure herd of sheep.
To begin with , I have shared the link of a well-documented and historically- sound argument made in #Firstpost about the consequential results of Rajputs being on the unfortunate side of history across the various eras of time. Playing on similar nuances as my Masters’ thesis that was based on mythified anxieties triggered by fundamentalist politics (link pasted at the end of the article), Ashraf pays due acknowledgement to externally-triggered complexes and anxieties that are levied onto present-day communities in order to advance political motives that have little to do with them.
Being what I determine as a reasonably informed and educated person of the Rajput community, it has taken me much time and deliberation to voice my opinion on the Padmavati issue. Not because it wasn’t my responsibility or that I belonged to a distanced lot of spectators, but because it is too much of my responsibility to guard my people against rapid anxieties and sensationalism, neither of which belong to us.
The manner in which the Padmavati film controversy has played out over the past few weeks raises two very simple questions : –
a) Since when did we, as an ethnic community require external warranting for our valiant histories?
and
b) Are our perceptions of Self so fragile that they could be dislodged by the creative imagination and commercial exaggeration of a Bollywood film crew?
As a film-loving 90’s kid in India, I have grown up obsessing over the classic list of Bollywood’s over-the-top dramatisations (historical and otherwise)- be it Bharjatiya’s stifling family dramas that my naive pre-adolescent self once swooned over; or Johar & Chopra’s commercial rom-coms that are responsible for most of my romantic misconceptions; or the man in question- Bhansali’s overtly artful narratives of history and/or drama. What I can commonly say about Bollywood’s versatile genres is that I enjoyed their characters, filmy songs, dance numbers and dramatic quirks (and may I add, kitsches) that fortunately & unfortunately belong to Bollywood as some of its key characteristics.
To put it in simpler words, my blatant appreciation/ acknowledgement of Bollywood’s limitations & excesses are attributed to one overarching paradox- the political economy of commercial film-making, a.k.a. ‘the box-office success’. Which simply means that commercial film-making is focally dependent on the numbers and eventually, what sells at a larger level is all that really matters (aren’t all commercial enterprises about what sells at a larger level?). This fact is neither new nor surprising to a populace that has bred the largest film-making industry of the world.
Recent cinematic trends display the irrespective and often even thematically irrelevant addition of a Badshah or Honey Singh-led number as a deliberate strategy to gain greater ratings from their tremendously populated and monied fan belts. The same principle applies to voyeuristic fantasies of Sheila, Munni, Jalebi Bai & Baby Doll (I’ll let a new age item song in a horror movie do all the talking for you). Several endorsements and counter-litigations, such as Fevicol, Jhandu Balm (and the list goes on), again point to the unparalleled importance dominated by the commercial success of a film. Speaking of Bhansali’s films, the creative maestro has skills that bear far too much sophistication to bank on cruder instruments such as these. That said, even with a director of Bhansali’s stature, his films’ central dependence on commercial success could be moralised at several levels no doubt, as is the case with Padmavati.
Sure, even I pointed out the aesthetic inaccuracy of the film’s Ghoomar song video, which fundamentally contradicts the customary restraint that Rajput queens exercised in their discretion against joining dance ceremonies, especially in the presence of menfolk. Further, several ghoomar experts would argue against the choreographic inferiority that Bhansali and his crew have accredited to the dance act. Even in general, Padmavati’s official movie trailer aroused my curiosity towards the manner in which Bhansali would depict Khilji’s obsession towards Rani Padmavati. In opposition to Khilji’s ruthless deceit and plunder of her kingdom, Rani Padmavati’s legendary act of inspiring and conducting a mass self-immolation/ Jauhaar ceremony made her go down in Rajput history as the epitome of honour, courage and dignity, and rightfully so. Rani Padmavati is, has been and shall remain an immortal legend for all of us. Which, once again reinforces my questions: “since when did we, as an ethnic community require external warranting for our valiant histories?”; and “are our perceptions of Self so fragile that they could be dislodged by the creative imagination and commercial exaggeration of a Bollywood film crew?”
Bhansali’s depiction of the historical drama that is inspired by the legend of Padmavati is most likely to default vis-a-vis the accuracies that we demand. In what measures, remains the question. In owing my cinematic sensibilities some reason and patience, I sincerely believe in the common-sensical practicality of forming a more concrete opinion of the film once I have watched it. After all, how long can we go on arguing over visual and theatrical content that we are yet to fully access? With the legal (and sometimes dubious) existence of a supposedly-accountable apparatus for film censorship (the CBFC), my optimism lends their faculties the due wisdom of balancing freedom of expression & creativity with the protection of heritage & culture.
Moralising creative imaginations and commercial exaggerations of Bollywood, however, isn’t even the issue here. Open but uncompromisingly peaceful dissents (hear hear, our dearest Karni Sena brethren) are paramount features of a democratic society just as much as freedom of expression & creativity are. The issue that disconcerts me is that my community is falling prey to overarching political agendas, whose hegemonies fundamentally depend on reactionist sensationalism and collective anxieties. Over the past few days, as the admin of Rajputana Collective’s Facebook page, I have received several videos made by fundamentalists vowing to hack off Deepika Padukone’s nose, break down halls screening Padmavati and what not, in bids to join their angry voices. The defenders of these violent protestors would justify their actions based on comparisons by fringe elements of fellow religions, hence validating their anxieties by similarly-triggered anxieties. But here’s the myopic catch- in playing out simultaneously, violence does not become right. Rather, it serves as a multitudinous reminder of the same political manipulation being carried out through different religions, sects, factions and communities.
Through what was an erstwhile issue of censorship over creative accountability at best, we as the Rajput community are presently contending with a direct verification of perceptive communal identities. Sure, protestors bear every right to express their disapproval vis-a-vis the graphic representation of their histories. Online and offline media reflects some very interesting and constructive debates over the matter. However, the indirect sanctioning that this issue is providing fringe elements with to outrightly vandalise their surroundings and threaten their fellow-citizens; and the silent leniency of the higher order makes me shudder a little bit. As much as I hope against it, I see my community getting enveloped into the advancing Saffronisation of democratic India. In situating a virtuous Hindu kshatriya kingdom against an ultra-virile and licentious Muslim aggressor, Bhansali’s film has already done the homework for the vulturine instigators to trigger the anxieties of mensfolk who possess little historical or academic familiarity to begin with.
By the virtue of bearing greater educational and informative privilege, we as a readership are levied with a burdensome, yet vital imperative of sanctioning our voices with utmost responsibility and awareness. Whether or not Bhansali’s film diverges from our historical legends is by no means a yardstick of communal virtue. It is, at best, a dramatic re-telling from which we can enjoy taking as much, or as little as we wish. That, in my humble opinion, is the power and beauty of being a cinematic audience. And for the time-being, keeping in mind the highly limited cinematic content of Padmavati that I have had the opportunity of accessing, I take away what Deepika Padukone as Rani Padmavati re-iterates at the end, “Rajpooti kangan mei utni hi taakat hai jitni Rajputi talwar mein.” Bearing strength and resilience in every grain of our existence is a claim that is believed to have been promised by the shero herself. Her posthumous valour deserves more dignity and discretion than we are presently accrediting it with.
(courtesy: Aanchal Singh)
To read my bridged Masters’ thesis https://wordpress.com/post/urvashisingh.wordpress.com
To view the official trailer of Padmavati, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_5_BLt76c0
To view the song video of Ghoomar, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cKErCWrb44
To contribute your opinion on the Padmavati issue for the Opinion section of our upcoming edition, kindly write to mail@rajputanacollective.com, we’d love to hear from you!!
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