CINEMA V/S POLITICS? After needless brouhaha, the re-christened film `Padmaavat’  is screening in Goa…stellar roles played by Deepika Padukone as Rajput queen Padmini (or Padmavati), Ranveer Singh as Sultan Allauddin Khilji, and Shahid Kapoor as Ratan Singh. Must see film to understand women then and now!

IF you’re asking me my dears, this film Padmaavat or Padmavati is a politically dangerous film for it incites the mind insidiously! On the other hand what a lot of fuss over a film which is an oddball mix of Mills & Boons and Barbara Cartland melodrama (albeit purporting to be a historical one for it exploits historical names, allusions and events real or un-real to spin a seductive modern-day take). Shades of hilarious comedy here too courtesy the 12th/14th century’s Alauddin Khilji/Khalji (second sultan of the Delhi Sultanate) whose main hobby was to engage in warfare to grab wealth and other petty spoils of warfare, not to forget the women of a defeated king’s zenana! Hindi or Muslim history in the sub-continent, royalty liked to have many wives to fool around with, women were more or less toys to lust after or ill-treat at whim and fancy, respect occasionally I suppose depending on the sensibility of men.

My friend Elizabeth and I had gone to see the film together and we got into irresistible laughter watching the film unfold and especially over Khilji’s lusty junoon for Rani Padmini which was so contrived. Was the real flesh and blood man really like this, no matter the grapevine of his bisexuality and bloodthirsty ways …also, is there something like a Hindu, Christian, Muslim male gaze vis-à-vis women?  

Perhaps all the controversy and mayhem preceding Sanjay Leela Bansali’s latest magnus opus release is manufactured…and look how the film is running all the way to the bank! All these Rajasthani groups marching in protest and even throwing stones and targeting school buses to express their displeasure over a film they imagine insults Rajput history (the ramifications cannot be anything but political) need to see the film.

Do filmmakers really have to drum up controversy to rake in the moolah? Personally, I won’t be one bit surprised if the seeds of controversy were planted with deliberate intention to make some folk go berserk protesting on conjecture and instigation.  Hey, the best one can say is that Padmaavat is yet another one of our Hindi potboilers seeking to commercialize a half-baked  grand romance of the past vis-à-vis the male gaze.

Men helped themselves freely to women quite simply because in those times they could do so easily…really a case of you Tarzan, me Jane, or something like that. With the law of the jungle operating  men and women lived fixed roles which they lived up or  down to. Historically, there was a queen Padmini, the second wife of Rajput ruler Ratan Singh of Mewar kingdom. In the film a splendid Deepika Padukone plays the role of Padmini while Shahid Kapur steps into Ratan Singh’s footwear and Ranveer Singh plays Alauddin Khilji.

Funny, Elizabeth next to me whispered that for men “women are nothing more than holes to get in and out” until they tire themselves out in the quest for sons, it’s a primeval thing! Well, there’re some bizarre scenes. Like the women throwing wave after wave of glowing embers on invading soldiers. It reminded me of the Mirch Masala scene when village women threw freshly pounded red chili powder into the eyes of the revenue collector — a narcissistic role played by Naseerudin Shah, a gem of an actor) — for lusting after a married village woman (a role played by Smita Patil). I enjoyed the jhoomar dancing in Padmaavat and the rest of it is so much lah di dah pass time…you can lap it up vicariously or let it go easily.

But make a note of this, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film is  based on an epic poem of the same name written in Awadhi by one Malik Muhammed Jayasi in 1540, that is 200 years after the life and times of the real legendary queen Padmini, from all accounts a beauty from the Singhal kingdom (Sri Lanka) who became queen of Chittor kingdom. Imagine a 13th century woman who  must have been quite a woman to have inspired so much literary interest and caught the imagination of latter day poets,  writers, including one Englishman James Todd.

First poetry and literature, then cinema steps in to weave a film tossing around historical fact with fiction….the result can be volatile, especially in our politically diabolical times when one school of thought says history as we see it and not as you see it!

Padmaavat tries hard to entertain us with a glorious love story but there’s so much “mirch masala” thrown in that it’s all déjà vu for me. Why present a Muslim sultan as a meat-loving barbarian fancying a Hindu queen….between fact, fiction, literature and presentation we have an entire Indian state up in arms and that too for the wrong reasons! Even if Alauddin Khilji is depicted fancying a Hindu queen, so what??? All kinds of men fancied all kinds of women through the ages of history and to this day.

The film actually glorifies Rajput bravery, sense of honour, and their women who committed mass suicide in the ritual of jauhar (prevalent in those warring times of life being nasty, brutish and short). The film’s finale is so surreal that it surely transcends the real life episode in Rajasthan’s history…a testimony to times when women had few choices before them in matters of life and death.   

(Sigh) I’m sorry to say this but our filmmakers can’t make historical films with sensitivity! Taking creative liberties with historical characters and events is fine but the only Indian filmmaker I know who can make a historical film come alive is …yes, Shekar Kapur! See his film Elizabeth (life and times of England’s first Queen Elizabeth). Count the historical films coming out of German and European history….at least they don’t glamorize or trivialize historical events to appeal to modern ignorance of times past and seek to educate in the best sense of the words.

I mean, my dears, think Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, more recent historicals (the films of the German holocaust history)…in comparison our Padmaavat is a damp squib. Also, in stoking the political embers of this sub-continent’s history so irresponsibly, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is doing a singular disservice to his own country! Even if he is rolling all the way to the bloody bank.

By all means go and see the film for some fairy tale entertainment of what royal lifestyles were all about once upon a time. Enviable as well as unenviable! On that note it’s avjo, poiteverem, selamat datang, au revoir, arrivedecci and vachun yeta here for now.

– Mme Butterfly


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