Opinion

A Note of Historical Prudence for My Fellow-Audience of Bhansali’s Padmaavat

Drowned amidst the post-Padmaavat cacophony created by several Indian cinema-goers across social media, I’ve been collecting my thoughts over the past couple of days before writing this piece down. I sincerely attempt to express my views without giving away too many spoilers to my beloved friends who reside in states that joined the ban-wagon of Padmaavat. To my consolation though, the online ranters and bashers of both, the film as well as communal identities have already exposed the intricacies of the film without any disclaimers, for, despite belonging to the largest film-seeing audience of the world, they clearly seem to lack some basic discretionary ethics. For the lapse of their ‘usools’, I apologise to all those whose buildup has been wrecked by random flashes of cinematic details in a desperate attempt to prove some points that reside all too comfortably in certain bubbles of ignorance. For the sake of many of my friends who reached out to me discomforted by the ongoing social media outrage against their collective memory and identities, I write.

Nidhika Jija, Sarika Naheta and Abhishek Narendra Singh, this is specially for you.

Veer Bhogya Vasundhara.

Ho hum…. *a crack of knuckles* and *a quick rubbing of palms*

**********

My dear Fellow-Audience of Bhansali’s Padmaavat,

I wish the rubbing of my palms produced a djinn that would magically take you through a recap of yourself unveiling your cinematic experience of Padmaavat. Your reclined, seat-kicking, popcorn-spilling, air-conditioned guts booked movie tickets through an enhanced smartphone application at a meal-combo deal far too easily, to avail 2 hours and 44 minutes of Bhansali’s creative magic through a sensibility so distorted that it makes me cringe.

I’ll wait till you read that line a few more times to aptly grasp. If only Bhansali had run his already slowly-read disclaimer a few more times for the likes of you to muster.

Too bad.

Let me repeat it for you. I promise it’ll just be the basics, considering your limited attention span.

The film Padmaavat is introductorily and outrightly claimed by its filmmakers to be a creative work of fiction based on Padmaavat, the poetic works of a sixteenth-century Sufi poet, Malik Muhammed Jayasi.

When?

To your anti-climatic dismay, 224 years after the historical death of Alauddin Khilji. (Yes, the dude that Ranveer Singh portrays.) Thank you.

In other words, while Jayasi situates his poetic content within Khilji’s invasion of Chittor (circa 1303), in no way does his creative work claim to represent any factual intricacies of battle and conquest between the Delhi Sultanate the the Rajput battalion of fourteenth-century Mewar. It remains, at best, an imaginative story dominated by a specific historical context.

Oh, wait a second, did I just burst your bubble?

Yup, that’s right you tube light, although Rana Ratan Singh’s army was vanquished by Khilji, he didn’t factually die while urging Khilji to keep better ‘usools’ or principles with arrows stabbing his back. Worse still, there’s no way of historically verifying the slightest chance of this scenic precision because back in the day, em’ folks were thoroughly invested in their affairs unlike more contemporary ones such as yourself, who might witness accidents, thefts and even a zoo animal eating a man alive while recording, or worse still, taking a selfie of yourself within the frame of the respective spectacle.

Just spare a moment to self-analyse your over-entitled self as it enables you to make casual convictions of “fake Rajput valour” just moments after standing through the national anthem, an exercise that you had earlier complained to your friends as “fake patriotism”, but readily indulged in anyway, because of course, none of us want to get lynched. But hey, you sure make a handsome spokesperson to demarcate what is fake and what is authentic, in histories that your knowledge has barely strayed close to, let alone be a part of.

As I said earlier, I cringe at your unprecedented levels of hypocrisy and historical ignorance.

Scratching your scalp and straightening your smudged spectacles, you ask, “so did Padmavati actually exist or not?!”

This is hardly the point to be debated here, because what really matters is that Padmavati/ Padmaavat/ Padmini has known to and continues to not just capture but also sweep collective imaginations such as ours through a spectrum of situational discourses. As illustrated in the works of those such as Ramya Sreenivasan’s The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen, mythic heroines such as herself have displayed the constantly-shifting narratives of culture across the eras, just as the notion of Sita has, through the three hundred Ramayans that have been told and retold as long as India can remember. From portraying poetic love to heroic valour and sacrifice, more anti-colonial undertones in the past construed the cultural imageries of those like Padmavati and Sita to act as symbols of a blatant resistance against colonial supersession.

I sense your cinema-struck eyelids drooping at this brief sociocultural lesson, so I’ll come to the more practical aspect of this point without further haste.

Just the way Rana Ratan Singh played the male-custodian of Chittor and his dynasty, so did Rani Padmavati, as his female counterpart. Where one defended his kingdom with a sword, the other did with a blatant and ferocious act of personal resistance. While this stands unacceptable and a crude denunciation of human rights in our times, may I remind you of its historical placement in a situational era wherein one stood outnumbered and overpowered at the mercy of their merciless enemy, with their fate lying in between the devil and the deep sea of burning embers. Surrendering to the enemy meant perpetual enslavement and endless exploitation. In this terrifying confrontation of one’s eventual peril, self-immolation sufficed as a less devastating alternative. To my liberal sensibility, the historic cases of sati and jauhar resonate with the dire need to protect oneself when all other means of defence have given way. And in that narrative moment, the agency that actively exercises self-immolation over surrender is as powerful as it is gets in the artistic vision of a filmmaker such as Bhansali, who is known to romanticise death through his various directional works such as Ram Leela, Bajirao Mastani, Guzaarish, Devdas, Black and Khamoshi. Indeed, it’s a pity that in the very moment that Bhansali dispensed his artistic creativity with a mandatory disclaimer, your responsibility elapsed you.

I must confess that contrary to my flamed curiosity vis-a-vis Bhansali’s Padmaavat, I was slightly disappointed after watching it. In my opinion, Padmaavat fails to find its place amongst Bhansali’s finest works, with his recent makes such as Bajirao Mastani and Ram Leela far outdoing it in terms of script, technique, music and direction. However, for the sake of Padmaavat alone, I must marvel the relative unease with which you conveniently and almost unflinchingly mock it as a historical gospel of sorts to validate Rajput honour, valour and pride. On the contrary, to me, Padmaavat depicted, in good intention, an epic clash of two contrastingly personified moralities, strung together in a thematic portrayal of love, seduction, deceit, courage and undying resistance.

Too bad that your myopic sphere of vision only delved as far as Ranveer Singh’s toxic masculinity (I give him full-points for his path-breaking performance).

Too bad that Shahid’s usools didn’t spring out of the screen and expose its midriff to you.

Too bad that Deepika’s agency was too medieval for your confused modernity.

Coming back to the Ramayan, go ahead and ponder over why Sita holds two blades of grass (as Ram and Lakshman) that are powerful enough to defend her from Ravan’s wrath. Those two blades of grass were metaphorical indicators of the boundless resilience that an unarmed Sita bore against Ravan’s seamlessly draconian powers, which were rendered hollow despite his numerous victories, similar to Khilji’s in this equation.

Without doubt, the personifier of evil in Bhansali’s narrative, namely, Khilji might have attained forceful victory over Chittor, but he could never muster enough power to conquer Chittor’s people, because such power in the face of their courage and morality did not exist.

Before I wrap this up, spare a moment for a small exercise. I promise it’ll barely last a minute and costs just one matchstick.

That’s right.

Ignite a match-stick, bring your pinky finger close to it. Close to it. Now hold it over the flame, let it touch you.

*sigh*

Your reflexes made that pinky retract faster than Ranveer’s lunge in Bajirao’s Malhaari. As a matter of historical privilege, your fortified, first-world-problem-ridden-self is only far too displaced to even remotely fathom an act of self-immolation. No, I am not quoting some fancy historian from Oxford. Take that from someone whose very own family bears historical records of sati.

In my ancestral home, there is a gate or prol (as it is called in our native language) that is dedicated to the numerous occurrences of Sati that took place through our ancestresses during war-stricken times. It is believed that women undertaking the act of self-immolation had to often be intoxicated with the help of opium and frenzied by beating drums and chants to create a compelling façade that aided the ghastly act of self-effacement in the name of pride, honour and strategically speaking, defence.

Let’s go down a few generations to India during partition.

My grandmother, who belonged to present-day Kashmir’s Poonch locality, tragically recounts having spent a part of her childhood with a cyanide pendant around her neck. During their summertime refuge in war-torn Lahore, she and her siblings were strictly instructed by their elders to hastily down the venomous contents of their pendants should their then-communal rival break into their domestic confines. “To choose a death more honourable than at the hands of your enemy was the utmost responsibility that we spent relying on, every breathing second”, she expanded. Why am I citing these examples to you?

Because, living in relatively peaceful times, it becomes increasingly convenient to forget where many of us came from. We came from wombs that bore the good fortune of being spared the enemy’s sword and flames of sacrifice. I am not trying to put a convenient conclusion by saying that I/ my family knows greater suffering than you/ yours. Suffering is suffering at the end of the day, and a superficial attempt to out-victim the other is a tool of the logically-weak. In my view, humanistic contingencies, especially those exuding suffering, foster our utmost historical prudence.

Even though your good judgement might have gone on a democratic joyride short cutting to free speech and expression (and for your sensationalist self, why not), my humble prudence urges me to delve deeper into a liberalism that is as appreciative of artistic freedom as it is skeptical of narrative kitsch. And yet, neither does that make me morally superior to you, nor intellectually. Neither does it make me a proponent of feudalism, nor an opponent of democratic dissent. It just makes me a little less entitled, is all.

So to your opinionated polarity and sad disappointment, I don’t justify the occurrence of present self-immolation by any means. But I do, nevertheless, pay a deep thought to the endless acts of suffering and sacrifice that historical contingencies might have countlessly created, and pay mindfulness in my gratitude for being spared that fate because truth be told, I, too would instantaneously withdraw from that glistening splinter, knowing just too well that my intolerance towards a mildly flickering flame isn’t a matter of preference, nor prudence even, but that of unprecedented privilege.

Good night.

Sincerely,

Urvashi Singh

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