Pride and prejudice

Bollywood abounds with examples of politically expedient films, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat is yet another—a casteist and communal saga that reinforces stereotypes of female submission and the male ego.

Published : Feb 14, 2018 12:30 IST

Karni Sena members protesting against the release of film "Padmaavat" in Patna.

Karni Sena members protesting against the release of film "Padmaavat" in Patna.

THE year 1975 was critical not only for the state of democracy but also for the state of cinema in India. It was the year that the noted film-maker Gulzar made Aandhi , a Sanjeev Kumar-Suchitra Sen starrer that was promoted as “the story of a great woman political leader in post-Independence India”. In April 1975, a poster in south India even did away with the euphemism and declared: “See your Prime Minister on screen.”

The buzz around the film compelled the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to ask two members of her staff to watch the film and find out if it was fit for public exhibition. Faced with the prospect of the film being banned despite the clean chit given by the staff, Gulzar himself clarified that it had nothing to do with Indira Gandhi’s personal life. However, for all his disclaimers, the similarities were too stark to ignore: Gulzar’s heroine wore saris in the manner of Indira Gandhi. Her hair, too, had a streak of silver. She walked briskly as well.

If the film-maker had hoped for easy interest in the film with such an uncanny resemblance, he had not reckoned with leaders of the opposition in Gujarat who went to town with scenes and images of Aarti Devi, the heroine of Aandhi , smoking and drinking. With the lines between fact and fiction blurring, the film was banned, but by then it had already run for 20 weeks. Later, a disclaimer stating that the film had no biographical elements was introduced, and in the said drinking scene, Gulzar used a photograph of Indira Gandhi in the background, with the heroine even calling her an inspiration. Problem solved, Aandhi went on to complete a silver jubilee run at Rivoli cinema in the heart of Delhi. Gulzar’s film wavered between politically expedient cinema and one that challenged the aura of politicians. He lost no brownie points with the film, and probably smiled all the way to the bank.

While Aandhi was a beautiful, engaging foray into the life of a politician who was not allowed the luxury of love, no such nuances marked Anil Sharma’s Gadar : Ek Prem Katha , an unabashedly jingoistic saga. Released in June 2001, on the same day as Aamir Khan’s undoubtedly more laudable Lagaan , Gadar was not only a blatant attempt to capitalise on the political mood prevalent in the country but also one that made the social schism deeper. In many ways, it was a cinematic equivalent of ‘“us” and “them” politics, so often propagated by the practitioners of Hindutva. Pertinently, Lagaan was greeted by calls of “Hindustan Zindabad!” while it was not uncommon to see moviegoers raising the slogan of “Vande Mataram!” during the interval at cinemas playing Gadar . Ostensibly a love story between a Sikh man, played by Sunny Deol, and a Muslim girl, played by Amisha Patel, Gadar did great disservice to Indian Muslims by associating them with Pakistan—much like many Bharatiya Janata Party politicians keep asking their detractors to go to Pakistan. In a particularly chilling scene, the hero goes to the heroine’s home in Pakistan where he is told by the girl’s father to first say “Pakistan Zindabad!” (Hail Pakistan!). The hero complies. Then he is asked to recite the kalima , the first tenet of Islam. He does that as well.

It is what he is asked to say after that that leaves the hero all agitated, and a large section of the audience betrayed. The hero is then asked to say “Hindustan murdabad!” (Down with India). All hell breaks loose. With a single scene, the marriage of Muslims with Pakistan, as also their divorce from India, was shown to be complete. For all its tokenism, Sharma’s film shamelessly kowtowed to the hard-line Hindutva lobby, much like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-talked-about Padmaavat in 2018. Both Sharma and Bhansali were rewarded with box-office hits for their attempts at political appeasement. If Sharma openly advocated a division between Muslims and India, Bhansali’s plan, it seems, is to show a Muslim king as a barbarian.

Gadar , though, is not the sole case of politically expedient cinema or of times when Hindi film directors have acted as the handmaidens of political bosses. A few years after Gadar , J.P. Dutta directed LoC , a film based on the martyrs of the Kargil war. A multistarrer, it is the story of 27 valiant soldiers who died fighting Pakistan during the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Yet, Dutta did not include a single Muslim soldier in the film, not even those Muslims who had sacrificed their lives in the same Kargil war. Their exclusion was probably necessitated by their religion. Again, without a word, it was conveyed that a Muslim might die for India, but he could not be a martyr for the nation. That privilege was reserved for the majority community.

Unlike Gadar , LoC failed at the box office. Much like Maa Tujhe Salam , yet another film that aroused jingoism in the name of patriotism. Again, despite the opening disclaimer, like in Bhansali’s film, it had a crushing one-liner, “ Doodh maangoge toh kheer denge, Kashmir mangoge toh cheer denge ” (Ask for milk, we’ll give you pudding; ask for Kashmir, we’ll tear you apart). The film took the portrayal of Muslims as villains, under the guise of border infiltration, to a new level, and the masses responded by whistling, clapping and cheering.

Maa Tujhe Salam was succeeded by a horde of interfaith love stories in the first decade of the 21st century where it was always the Muslim heroine in love with a Hindu/Sikh hero. The films reinforced patriarchal stereotypes and brought alive notions of women as items of conquest, of subjugation and absolute dependence on the male.

Willy-nilly, it paved the way for Bhansali’s Padmavati, a Rajput queen first heard of in 1540 in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s sufi masnavi . Jayasi’s poem, on which Bhansali’s film is said to be based, was written over 200 years after the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate Alauddin Khilji breathed his last. Jayasi, who hailed from Jayas near Amethi in modern Uttar Pradesh, was in the employment of a Rajput chieftain. His hosannas to Rajput pride were probably inevitable at that point of time when the monarch’s word made or ruined many a life. Interestingly, Jayasi himself came up with a sort of disclaimer at the end of the allegory, calling it a story, a figment of his imagination, in what was otherwise a philosophical take on matters of life, death, soul and salvation.

Gender depravity

The films of the early years of the new millennium were often much like Padmaavat , where Padmavati is desired by Alauddin Khilji, even as she remains the proud possession and property of Ratan Singh. Yet again, a woman is coveted by one man and protected by another. Her honour is a question of respect for a man, not her own self. Her life, too, is valued with respect to her husband. So much so that even when she wants to end her life by committing jauhar (self-immolation) in order to avoid the advances of Khilji, she first has to seek permission from her husband, who nods in approval. Bhansali’s heroine has no right over her life, indeed none over her death either. She lives to please her man, assuage his ego, and she dies to avoid bringing infamy to him.

For all the fulminations of the Karni Sena, and the vandalism that preceded and accompanied the film’s arrival at the box office, Bhansali’s film is a lazy casteist and communal saga, one that reinforces stereotypes of female submission, of the Rajput male ego that believes in protecting women, not educating them, an ego that is satisfied if a woman burns herself on the husband’s pyre, committing jauhar . Bhansali turns a tragic part of our history into a celebration and, worse, a case of gender depravity. Padmavati may or may not have committed jauhar —after all, her very existence is based on a poem—but the director makes sure that the age-old stereotype of brave Rajput women ending their lives to avoid rape and murder is given a kiss of life. At a time when more and more women are beginning to name and shame men with the #MeToo campaign, Bhansali takes the discourse back by a few decades and seems to suggest that it is all right to die rather than fight back.

Flawed portrayal

Further, Bhansali panders to bad politics by showing Khilji as nothing but a barbarian, a rugged man with kohl-lined eyes, who eats meat and makes mincemeat of his opponents without any scruples. He has no values, no principles, nothing but an endless desire to conquer all. Blood and gore are what define him. That in doing so he was doing a great disservice to Khilji does not strike the director as being flawed both in intention and in execution.

It may be recalled that Khilji repulsed the Mongol attack twice and is probably responsible for saving the country from the Mongols’ scorched earth policy. He is also known for his revenue administration and is given credit by historians of repute for his drive against black marketeering and hoarding. He was a rare sultan who did not go by the shariah and preferred to grant justice on the basis of his understanding.

All that was obviously not enough for Bhansali to avoid projecting him as the villain. Thankfully, as the events since the film’s release have proved, Bhansali’s villain was no hero for Muslims either. They did not stand up, fight and complain. They merely ignored him. But Bhansali, a director blessed with an eye for both visual poetry and geometry, was guilty of toying with history. Notwithstanding the disclaimer, in the public mind he deliberately reinforced the Hindutva stereotypes—those of Muslim kings being barbarians, ruthless plunderers, driven by lust, unhindered by any value system, and by extension, in today’s surcharged times, the contemporary Muslims. For proof, he does not need to look beyond the Karni Sena and realise how the events of the past may colour contemporary opinions. Again, despite the disclaimer, the Karni Sena, the self-appointed body upholding Rajput interests, took grave objection to the portrayal of Padmavati, even before they had a chance to see the film. Remember, how at the time of shooting itself, in early 2017, its members attacked the sets and manhandled the crew, forcing Bhansali to leave Rajasthan for the safer climes of Mumbai? Muslims, fortunately, refused to rise to the bait, choosing restraint over rebellion.

Some day, when Bhansali sheds the director’s mantle, he will, doubtlessly realise, that he failed all of us. Not just Padmavati, real or imagined. Not just Khilji, real or projected. He might even try retrospective course correction. But truth be told, he let down millions of simple moviegoers who failed to discern between history as it was and history as it is often shown on the big screen under the guise of fiction. He proved to be a poor student of history. Worse, he failed the test of a responsible film-maker. His freedom to project what he wants, the way he wants, cannot and should not be questioned. His final product, of course, needs to be dissected, criticised, even assailed.

Political expediency can get you only thus far. The appeasement of political masters and the propagation of contemporary prejudice can get the cash registers at the box office jingling, but it comes at the cost of the artist’s dignity. Bhansali tried his luck with Bajirao Mastani earlier. He got away with that. Padmaavat may well seal his fate. Here, he is guilty of some of the sins that he accuses Khilji of: he bites off more than he can chew.

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