‘Padmaavat’ and the question of artistic licence

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Somewhere in the confused debate, fans of Sanjay Leela Bhansali seem to forget that ‘Padmaavat’ is popular cinema. And popular cinema inevitably colours social discourse and can never exist in the art-for-art’s-sake vacuum.

Art is no longer contained within private cloisters. Popular cinema glorifying regressive themes risks setting social progress back dangerously. | Reuters

Let’s assume a film is made about Auschwitz today. It is a historic fact that a set of people zealously believed in the concept of Aryan supremacy and racial purity. It is a historic fact that they tried to achieve racial purity by eliminating large segments of people from Jews to gypsies, the sick and the disabled.

Choosing to make such a film or depicting the genocide is not the problem. The problem arises if such a film ends up leaving any lingering doubt at all in the audience’s heads about the absolute wrongness of ethnic cleansing. If audiences cheer during a scene when people are pushed into a gas chamber rather than be stunned by shock or moved by grief, then something is seriously wrong with the film and the filmmaker. In effect, the film would say, “Sure, we are not endorsing pogroms, but hey, they were okay for those times and those people”.

No. Pogroms are never okay. They are never about a certain time and a certain people. Crimes against humanity are always wrong. Rape is wrong. Assault is wrong. Sati is wrong. Jauhar is wrong.

 

 

Granting all the glorious uncertainties and greys of life, there are yet some broad ethical frameworks we have set up in order to make life liveable — the Hobbesian social contract — wherein we agree that people in a society cannot indulge in murder, burglary, rape or arson. In this list are other crimes like ethnic cleansing and paedophilia, sati, child marriage, and yes, jauhar. If any of these crimes are treated with an indulgent shrug or with anything less than complete opprobrium, it’s a nod for complicity and anarchy.

So, essentially, there is no revoking of ‘artistic licence’ in not allowing a film to glorify, for instance, a concentration camp.

And this is the whole point about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. That its subject matter is a fictional queen who committed jauhar is fine. The practice did exist and any filmmaker has the right to take a historical fact or crime and depict it in his own style for present-day audiences. But let’s not confuse the style or genre of a film with the point of view of the film.

Padmaavat can be a costume drama about kings and queens. It can be lush, luxurious and gorgeous, with grand dialogues and posturing. It can even make the point that these kings and queens believed entirely in the rightness of jauhar, which is absolutely factual. The problem arises when the film too ends up believing in the rightness of jauhar. And, except for an official disclaimer, Padmaavat does not distance itself or turn the tiniest questioning gaze upon the practice.

A film’s point of view might not be obvious, but it’s constantly at work — ensuring that the audience sees and responds to and empathises with the world of the film through the director’s lens. Everything contributes to this: camera angles, where the camera dwells, how long, how lovingly, the clothes, mood and colour of a scene.

 

Now, here’s a film that bludgeons you on the head in every scene to tell you who is good and who is bad — Bhansali is not exactly a subtle filmmaker — but when it comes to establishing that jauhar is bad, we are suddenly told that we should listen carefully to the soundtrack. The scene itself is allowed to unfold like a beautiful wedding or victory parade with slow motion and thrilling music, swirling costumes and beatific smiles. Is it any wonder that the crucial scene has evoked applause in audiences across India?

As people rush in to absolve Bhansali of trying to glorify jauhar in the film, let’s see what the director himself has to say about jauhar. “I feel it’s [jauhar’s] an empowering thought,” he said in an interview, “It was a victory of dignity and honour.”

This is the director’s lens, through which the film is made. That is why the act evokes not horror but adulation and celebration. If the film is a tragedy, then it’s almost axiomatic that it should invoke emotions of ‘pity and fear’ in the Aristotelian way, but the director’s vision is not tragic, it’s triumphal, and that’s the mood of the film.

Something worse has happened. In the wake of Padmaavat’s release, people are once again rooting for jauhar. They are again calling it the “woman’s choice”, saying that it is a “feminist” action because nobody forced her to do it. This is a terrible step backwards for a country that took ages to abolish misogynistic horrors like sati and jauhar, and where child marriages are still conducted on the sly and dowry still changes hands.

 

To hear modern audiences reiterate, without the least bit of reflection or questioning, that jauhar was justified is to realise how scarily primitive we still are. Jauhar was social conditioning, it was women being brainwashed into believing that their chastity would and should always matter much more than their lives. That the entire responsibility of a society’s honour was to be borne by them. It was not a moment of glory in our past but a moment of deep backwardness.

When it’s an issue like murder or ethnic cleansing, it’s easier. The wrongness of it has been absorbed so thoroughly into mainstream narrative and discourse that cinema doesn’t make many mistakes here. But the mainstreaming is far, far less when it comes to crimes against women. So cinema still gets away by winking-nudging at stalking or being fondly indulgent when a Honey Singh raps out rape lyrics. It makes scenes that demean women or endorse medieval ideas of chastity look commonplace or normative, so that when women now demand that the narrative be changed, they are met with disbelief and a ‘What happened to your sense of humour?’

We hum along with the song ‘Keh doon tumhe ya chup rahoon’, paying little attention to lyrics that have the man saying:

Socha hai ke tumhe rasta bhulayen

Sunee jagah peh kahin chhede darayen

(I think I would like to kidnap you / take you to a lonely place and frighten and molest you.)

Objections to such lyrics are met with the response that “it’s just a song”. The song could have well said that the man would like to take her to a lonely place and make love to her, but no, he must frighten her.

Objections to depictions of stalking are met with the response that ‘art imitates life’. Voicing one’s discomfort with Woody Allen’s films that show older men in relationships with teenage girls is met with art-for-art’s-sake arguments, but one’s queasiness only increases in the light of real-life accusations against Allen of having molested his adopted daughter when she was a child.

Yes, fighting against racism or misogyny is primarily a political position and not an artistic one. Directors are not obliged to take up cudgels for causes. Films that rally against a social evil are ‘message’ films, and might well fall under activism and not art. But even as we are being told to not view Padmaavat through the lens of feminist politics, let us take a quick look at the other political subtext that colours the film.

 

The extreme care with which good and bad have been delineated: Good is fair, clean, light clothes and Hindu. Bad is dark, wild-haired, dark clothes, Muslim. Khilji as played by Ranveer Singh is not just bad, he is evil personified, a sort of manic, no-holds-barred villain. It cannot be mere happy coincidence that this treatment fits pat into the discourse of divisiveness that is being so religiously nurtured today. This retracing of past Muslim conquerors in order to revive visceral hate against a community might just be the ‘new age’ cinema for a certain section of Bollywood, and it is not belied by some of the trolling that Swara Bhaskar has received from industry colleagues for her open letter to Bhansali. It would seem that one stream of cinema or ‘art’ is quite happy to be co-opted into the ‘politics’ of regime-pleasing by disseminating a ghetto mentality among audiences.

In other words, popular cinema cannot and does not exist in a vacuum. It constantly feeds off, mirrors, reacts to, concurs with, disputes, or questions the politics of daily life. It might engage overtly or discreetly or just subconsciously, but of course it engages. That’s why we notice a film’s stance. Sure, cinema does not have to mount a campaign against jauhar, but it does not have to be tone-deaf either.

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