India’s turbulent past with its innumerable alien invasions, rampant religious devastation and incredible material predation is a fertile ground for perpetual polemics: differing interpretations of history find favour with the descendants of the perpetrators and the victims. Accordingly, the resurrection of antiquity, the recreation on the silver screen of historical characters and the era that they thrived in becomes a dicey proposition; a daunting exercise fraught with unseen dangers and with the uncanny potential to evoke animus from the unlikeliest of quarters. Needless to say, that story-telling must toe a fine line and scrupulously match historical reality with the volatile sentimentality of current political correctness.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic film Padmavati lies trapped in this dilemma hovering at a crucial intersection wherein creative licence supposedly collides with the traditional sentiments of a community; strident protests have erupted all over the country, from Bengaluru to Jaipur, with erstwhile Rajput royalty taking to the air and common folks commandeering the streets.
It would be intellectually crass to comment on a movie without seeing it. Expectedly, I will refrain. However, it is imperative that we scrutinise the antecedents of this cantankerous melee for edification.
To dismiss the protest as an exposition of overheated Hindu nationalism or an outpouring of right wing fringe elements is naïve, pedestrian and a classic example of vacuous virtue signalling. For an intelligent genesis one needs to delve deeper and unearth the root cause.
Is the remonstration by the Rajputs a de novo phenomenon: an isolated blip in an otherwise tranquil radar? Or is it a continuation of a prevalent pattern of behaviour? That is the million- dollar question.
Censorship has a notorious track record in India, with proscription of books and films going back to a period when the Congress party reigned supreme and Hindu nationalism was but a nascent force. In 1988, the Satanic Verses was banned in India for hurting Muslim sentiments. The release of The Da Vinci Code in 2006 was met with violent protest by Christian groups, who vandalised several stores including the famous Crossword bookstore in Kolkata: predominantly Christian Nagaland led the way in banning the film, with other states including Tamil Nadu following suit.
Clearly, we have fostered this unhealthy environment that considers banning of books and films as fair game and condones strong-arm tactics. To subscribe suddenly to a new set of rules to target the Hindu Rajput community as retrogressive and to invoke lofty notions of free speech in this particular setting is nothing short of hypocrisy and reeks of double standards. Expedient standards of propriety militate against an egalitarian society. An impartial, uniform code of conduct is vital.
Feeding into this fracas is also the sustained efforts in recent times to whitewash Indian history by painting villains as heroes and vice versa.
Audrey Truschke’s championing of Aurangzeb as a paragon of virtue via her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth has been widely publicised in our media. And there is justifiable concern that Padmavati may be similar exercise to salvage the tainted image of Alauddin Khilji by giving him a human face.
Lending credence to this perception is the rumour of a romantic dream sequence between Deepika Paudukone and Ranveer Singh. Right or wrong, the casting of a popular hero Ranveer Singh as Bhansali’s Khilji sends out a confusing message: a current hero acting as a proxy for a notorious lecher of medieval history.
It is altogether possible that the actual film may prove these misperceptions unfounded. Sanjay Leela Bhansali avers, “I have always been inspired by Rani Padmavati’s story and this film salutes her valour and sacrifice… I am reiterating that in our film, Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji have no such scene together…”
Sanjay Leela Bhansali must be given the benefit of doubt. To be fair one needs to wait for the film’s release to pass a valid judgement on this quasi-historical depiction.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s suggestion that a committee of historians, film experts and members from the Rajput community review the film to edit out controversial parts so as not to hurt the sentiments of any community is sage advice that Bhansali must heed. It can put to rest a needless controversy.
Vivek Gumaste is a US based academic and political commentator.