Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s highly controversial film Padmaavat has found itself in the middle of a raging new controversy. This time it is not the Karni Sena or its lookalikes that are up in arms against the magnum-opus. But, those who stood by Bhansali and his team and supported the film’s release even when a handful of state governments and fringe elements tried to trample freedom of expression.
After we watch the film and return to the senses from the Bhansali high, which is caused due to the insane visual ecstasy that the director supplies profusely through his imagination, we’re most likely to be in a state of confusion as we ponder over a few questions: Did I just root for Jauhar? Did I just feel at ease with hundreds of women running into the raging fire because their husbands were killed in the battlefield? Was I really comfortable with the ending?
You may argue ‘come on now, let’s cut Bhansali some slack as he has simply based his film on a fictional poem that was written some 700 years ago.’ Yes, Padmavaati along with other Rajput women jumping into the fire after Alauddin Khilji defeated the Rajput army is the story. And Bhansali showed the same on the big screen. It is not what story he narrated but how he narrated it that has led to a new wave of backlash against the film.
Bhansali puts an old woman, who is dressed very unfashionably for a Rajput woman, in the spotlight more than once to register in the viewers’ mind that she is a widow and did not jump into the pyre of her dead husband. We can confidently agree that Bhansali did make his statement against sati in the film.
He portrayed Jauhar, however, as an act of courage, valour and empowerment of women. I think he wants us to make peace with the idea that it was not the Rajput men who pushed those women into burning fire to protect them from invaders. But, the Rajput women did so by their own will.
Not long ago, Malayalam superstar Mammootty came under heavy fire for acting in a film called Kaasab. In the film, he played a cocksure cop, who grabs a senior woman police officer by her belt and says some horrible things to her face. Not just this one scene, the entire film reeked of male chauvinism and regressive ideas of treating women.
Here the real issue was not that Mammootty played a torchbearer of misogyny. But, the filmmakers’ attempt to show that treating women with contempt was part of his heroism. And making his fans root for him while he goes on piling up insults on women. Is it that difficult for the filmmakers to understand that misogyny is a bad quality and they should not make it look like something to desire for through their films?
The sticking point in the Bhansali controversy is not that he made a film on Jauhar. He stands accused of glorifying the saddest practice of our history that deprived women the right to live after the death of their husbands. And he’s so very guilty of that.
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For instance, in Thevar Magan, Kamal Haasan’s Saktivelu accidentally beheads Nassar’s Maya Thevar. Saktivelu becomes inconsolable and overcomes with the guilt of killing someone. The emotional breakdown that this character suffers depicts the kind of damage that it inflicts on our society. And let’s juxtapose this scene with the interval sequence in Baahubali:
The Beginning, where Amerendra Baahubali beheads Bhallaladeva’s son Bhadra. There is thunder, followed by heavy rain, drum rolls, trumpets blow in the backdrop as Baahubali strike a hero’s pose after decapitating Bhadra. The same kind of violence here is glamorized. We clap, whistle and celebrate the violence in the scene because of the way it was presented to us. It was packaged by filmmakers to elicit such positive reaction from us for such a gruesome violence.
After watching the ending scene of Padmaavat, I should have felt shocked and sorry for the cruelty that had been meted out to women by such evil practices. I should not have felt relieved that hundreds of women embraced a gruesome death to avoid being captured by the Khilji army.
A single line gist of the film may read like this: Hundreds of women in a kingdom choose death over the risk of being enslaved by the invaders. But, what the film missed to show is the fact that they had been the slaves of the system their entire life.
The poem Padmavat was written in the social context of the 13th century. When a big motion picture is made on this piece of literature, the least Bhansali could have done is not to glorify a medieval-age practice that was designed to condition women to believe that they had no life beyond their husbands.
Above all, as one of the distinguished and influential filmmakers of the country, Bhansali also has the moral responsibility to his viewers. Selecting the darkest stories of our history and packaging them with glitz and grandeur. And presenting them to us without any insight and relevance to the day and age we live in, is not a desirable quality of an artist of his stature.