Padmaavat: What women think of Bhansali's film and Swara Bhasker's open letter

Archita Kashyap

Feb,04 2018 10:07:37 IST

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat has audiences and the film fraternity polarised. As the film grows in popularity and finds appreciation, there has been fervent quasi-academic debate around its context, beginning with Swara Bhasker’s open letter accusing the film of being regressive.

While her letter touches upon the resurgent feminist reading of history and politics, it also employs linguistic violence of sorts with constant references to female genitalia. Her letter has gotten film writers Sidharth and Garima to react in what can only be termed as a reactionary tone. And then there is a tweet from Vivek Agnihotri, irrelevant filmmaker and insouciant online vigilante (of a kind).

Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone in a still from Padmaavat. YouTube

Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone in a still from Padmaavat. YouTube

Making sense of this conversation can be challenging. Yet, audiences, especially women who have watched the film, are largely unheard on the film’s regressive and offensive treatment. We spoke to women beyond cinema and the media to gauge their responses to Padmaavat, its so called historical context, its cinematic value and its overall impact. Women from varied backgrounds and cities across ages of 25 to 50 responded with interesting insights on how they received the film. The reactions show how hyper feminism is still many miles away from connecting with those it seeks to emancipate.

Some found the history in Padmaavat easy to connect with. Kiran Singh, an entrepreneur, referred to the film as entertaining and a piteous tale. “I liked the movie for its stunning cinematography and its entertainment quality. Unfortunately, it is through Padmaavat that my 12-year-old son got an exposure to medieval Indian history. I have read Ms Bhasker’s open letter and find it a tad bit boring. She is stretching the logic. Padmaavat is not worth fighting over. I do not find the movie regressive, I would rather call the story ‘sad and pitiful’. Padmavati died to defend herself against the marauding invaders and not because she was widowed.” Tales of women having committed Jauhar exist in her family and lineage, especially during the British rule.

Similarly, Rita Sinha remembers references to jauhar from her family’s oral history. “My mother had a book on brave women from history of India and Rani Padmavati featured in it. Since I have heard this legend as a child, I was keen to watch the film. I found that it shows pure Rajput pride. We grew up listening to legends of jauhar since our childhood. There were such incidents in our (family) history. My great grandfather fought with the king of Darbhanga and my grandfather was a freedom fighter. Protecting women and children was always first priority and sacrificing lives for that was considered noble.”

Beyond those who liked the film or found it entertaining, Swara Bhasker’s opinion felt extreme and disconnected from reality.

Vaishali Sinha, who runs a home décor brand VLiving, feels, “Let real people react to real issues. This letter sounds like another one trying to ride Padmaavat wave. It is a piece of history. Times and situations were very different and so (it) needs to viewed in context to try to understand how things were then, not now! Her (+Bhasker’s) obsession with the vagina makes me wonder as to how would she view the Ramayan. Sita undergoes a trial by fire and exile when Rama decides to test her purity. He accepts her later. Was all of this also about Sita’s vagina? I feel Swara Bhasker’s reaction is misplaced.”

Rachel Pillai, homemaker and mother of two daughters, feels circumstances have restrained the filmmaker from fully expressing himself onscreen. "While watching Padmaavat, I did wonder why Sanjay Bhansali chose this subject in the first place. It felt a little irrelevant. Having said that, the film is beautiful, like an artistic children's book. One could sense the filmmaker's fear in every frame...like his freedom of expression was being stifled. I don't think it glorified self-immolation. Such a point of view seems to be riding the prevalent neo-feminist wave.”

Similarly, Kamal Rukh Khan, a hypnotherapist, felt that Bhansali showed how life was like for women in medieval India, but did not necessarily glorify suicidal sacrifice. “It has been a long and tough journey to make and release the film. I'm glad that it was finally released as I am all for freedom of expression. I am also aware of Swara Bhasker’s letter to SLB. I particularly agreed with this one point, 'people should be able to make and release films and children should be able to get to school safely.' Having said all this, I don't think SLB endorsed jauhar and sati. He made a film based in the 13th century where unfortunately, women did live in a patriarchal and misogynistic society. Where women were unfortunately subservient to men and where women were unfortunately traded as commodities. It's like when a movie on the partition is made, the makers will have to show religious animosity and bloodshed. That doesn't mean they endorse these acts. It is also up to us as responsible audiences to view the film subjectively. As Swara rightly said, and I genuinely agree with this, 'every other person in this country has the right to say the story they want to say, the way they want to say it, showing how much ever stomach of the protagonist they want to show; without having their sets burnt, their selves assaulted, their limbs severed or their lives lost.' SLB, in his right to freedom of making his story, portrayed 13th century India with its flaws. For me it was a reminder of a horrendous past and the feeling that these acts have been rightly criminalized but in no way did I feel that the movie endorsed jauhar or sati.”

In an atmosphere where the issue of intolerance of dissent is often being raised, it is refreshing to see that irrespective of liking or disliking Padmaavat, every one of these women stood by his freedom of expression. As Niharika Mallimadugula, researcher with a human insight and design strategy firm, says, “I am conflicted about films constantly being read as socio-political texts. A filmmaker should be able to tell a story without moral burden. That said, what is portrayed on screen is also vulnerable to interpretation. The nature of visual language is such. Did Padmaavat glorify jauhar? Or did it glorify valour? It is important to embrace complexity over choosing what simply suits a stance.”

But then, it takes women to completely ‘get’ complexity in all its insightful, delightful variety; doesn’t it? Surely Sanjay Leela Bhansali will agree to that.  

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2018 10:07 AM