Opinion: Is Padmaavat turning into the Rani of controversy?

Is Padmaavat becoming more than a film? Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Kolkata, West Bengal, India Jan 19, 2018, 08.18 AM (IST) Monojit Lahiri

First a brief backgrounder. The legendary fabled Rani Padmini / Padmavati / Padmavat the breathtakingly beautiful Rajput Queen who gave her life defending her honour rather than fall prey to a zonked-out mesmerised Turkish Sultan Allaudin Khilji’s lustful gaze lives again this time courtesy Bollywood Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but with drama, passion and hi-jinks played out (both in reel and real life) unmatched in the 600-year-old event, narrated either in history books or folklore.

Bolly-watchers insist that director Bhansali and controversy continue to be made for each other & that it is a deliberate strategy to grab attention curiosity & excitement to trigger footfalls & zoom the film deep north. Both his earlier forays into historical fiction Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani followed a similar template to rake in big bucks. His modus operandi (state his detractors) is the way he leverages his presentation method: a spectacular canvas, scale, colour, grandiose and hit-pitched dramabaazi designed to dazzle the eyes and numb the senses. Big-budget extravaganzas starring glam and popular.

Bhansali pulls out the stops to re-define the willful suspension of disbelief-factor [such a critical aspect of the movie-viewing experience] for the dazed, chloroformed viewer. Historical authenticity or accuracy is usually sacrificed at the altar of entertainment, because it is history-as-fiction and popular bharpoor manoranjan that B-town’s latter-day Cecil B Demille is aiming for.

Not all buy into this grand plan as is clear in the way Padmavat played out, off-screen. Hysteria met histrionics in high decibel fashion blasting across every available media avenue to keep Bollywood junkies enthralled and others totally perplexed, disgusted and resigned to an uncertain fate for the creative community.

While fringe groups like the Rajput Karni Sena claimed that the cinematic narrative hurts the sentiments of the entire Rajput community and that the outrageous distortion of facts-love scenes between Khilji and their sacred queen as well as the blasphemy driven Ghoomar dance, to name only two—were unpardonable, other militant bodies jumped into the fray to add fuel to the fire, including some so-called members of Rani Padmini’s family, across generations. The harassed director’s plea—on TV—that the film had only saluted not humiliated the honour and valour of the great Rajput community fell on deaf ears & a total ban was demanded or else bodily harm was threatened to the cast and crew, with large sums of money and chopping of head grabbing headlines in a sensational manner!

Whatever happened to our celebrated and much—touted 5000-year-old civilisation redolent with a rich heritage, tradition and legacy of peace & non-violence? At another level, is this the way a tomorrows super-power behaves in the face of a creative piece of work? What is the Government doing about it? Is the creative community—Bollywood as the softest target—under siege, forced to listen to the diktats of goons & bullies & settle matters either when big money exchanges hands or toe the line drawn by the political big-wigs of the state?

Respected Veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal is both confused and upset at the way things have played out. “If you remember, I had two segments dedicated to Rani Padmini in my late 1980’s serial BHARAT EK KHOJ and no one batted an eyelid. Why this sudden madness and chaos? It has been cleared by the Censor board and if any state refuses to play it, it is unlawful. Law and order being a state subject, it is the duty of the authorities to maintain it to the best of their abilities.

It seems to be a clear case of politics coming into play, with the election coming up and appeasement, a seductive, driving force. The climate of intolerance—real or manufactured—is also not helping the creative community or right-thinking people who prefer to embrace confluence, not conflict. Reputed Film critic Saibal Chatterjee adds his evolved bit. “This is just hooliganism paraded as honour to fulfil a political agenda. It’s amazing that the loudest yells have come from people who have not seen the film & refuse to recognise the fact that Padmini was a fictional character & remain hell-bent on insisting that Rajput honour has been tampered with & is non-negotiable. While the supreme court has squashed all State nay-sayers & ordered it to be shown everywhere, the point is : What message does this Padmavat—even the name was forcibly changed—madness send out to the creative community? Beyond the Censor Board, do political parties, leaders, goons & activists have to compulsorily be in the framework before even starting any film or creative work? Are we a banana republic & not the world’s largest democracy?

As Padmavat gets ready to unspool its wares to a viewership curious and excited in equal measure, right-thinking individuals have much to ponder about. Why were the powers—that—are hemorrhaging with its power-packed rhetoric suddenly converted to the silent movies mode? Whatever happened to the basics of democratic rights and freedom of speech, and expression? Has it been hollowed out and emptied of all meaning? Are immediate, extractive, short-term gains to nurture avaricious and opportunistic thrusts, the new name of the game? Has our inability to live entirely in the present combined with our ability to see the future make us strange, in-between creatures—neither beast nor prophet? Are we—finally—railroaded to offer polite prosaic, factual precision when a feral howl is the need of the hour? Our time starts—now!

 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)  

Monojit Lahiri

Monojit Lahiri is a media commentator, specialising in cinema, advertising and popular culture.