Padmavati protests, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Bollywood's flippant tryst with history
Bhansali has taken refuge under the claim that his movie Padmavati is based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s imaginary literary saga titled, Padmavat written 200 years after Alauddin Khalji’s death.
There’s just no other way to say this: the fracas surrounding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming movie Padmavati marks the MF Hussainification of Bollywood.
To those who came late, the late painter M.F. Hussain seemed to have a special penchant for painting perverted images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, and then claiming victimhood when his “work” evoked outrage from Hindus. In the interests of space, I shall point to this piece by Arun Shourie analysing the Hussain phenomenon.
To give an instance, M.F. Hussain withdrew his 2005 movie Meenaxi from theatres when some Muslim outfits threatened to cause trouble. This time around neither he nor the vast network of the supporters of his “artistic freedom” claimed that he was a victim. When in doubt, radio silence seems to work best till the next controversy catches the headlines and safely buries this one underneath the latest cacophony.
The operating principle in both Hussain and Bhansali’s case is the same. Sample this:
Notice first that in the lexicon of those who are shouting for Hussein the point about not hurting religious sentiments manifestly does not apply to the Hindus: in their case the alternate principle of the right of the artist to paint as he pleases takes precedence. The Hindus notice this duality more and more… depicting women completely naked has for centuries been very much a part of European painting and sculpture tradition; but do the artists not stop at using this tradition for portraying Virgin Mary naked? It is not the freedom of expression these worthies are committed to. They are committed to their having freedom alone.
This was written in 1996 and as we notice, not much has changed in twenty years. If anything, over the past decade or so, the said MF Hussainification has only escalated most notably in Bollywood.
To be sure, the phenomenon of MF Hussainification occurs most visibly in creative endeavours—specifically in literature, painting, and cinema. Neither is it restricted only to MF Hussain nor to the choice of themes. The other celebrity purveyor of MF Hussainification is Girish Karnad who needlessly glorified the eccentric and cruel despot Muhammad Bin Tughlaq and later, Tipu Sultan. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has merely joined their ranks.
It’s nobody’s case that Bhansali shouldn’t make Padmavati as a love story or whatever his premise is but not at the expense of distorting and/or suppressing historical facts, which we shall briefly examine.
The first historical fact is that Ala-ud-din Khalji stands at the forefront of being one of the most cruel Muslim tyrants who wreaked boundless atrocities upon Hindus by his military campaigns, and his social and economic policies.
It was under Ala-ud-din Khalji’s rule that South India for the first time got the full taste of the true horrors of an Islamic invasion—Devagiri (today’s Daulatabad), Dwarasamudra (today’s Halebidu), Srirangam, Chidambaram, Madurai, and Rameshwaram were ruined to flaming wastelands. An equal historical fact is also that he captured a handsome Hindu teenager from Gujarat, rechristened him Malik Kafur and used him as a personal sex slave. It is telling that this Hindu boy was also known as “Hazaar Dinari,” meaning “(a slave) purchased for 1000 dinars.”
Ala-ud-din also joins the long list of Muslim invaders who destroyed the Somanatha temple and sent its Murti to Delhi “where it was laid down for the faithful to tread upon.” (History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 5, Page 19). In addition, he was responsible for reducing the Vaghela queen Kamala Devi to another concubine in his vast harem.
And so, a movie based on this historical figure must necessarily include some or all these facets. Yet, Bhansali has taken refuge under the claim that his movie is based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s imaginary literary saga titled, Padmavat written 200 years after Khalji’s death. In which case, if Padmavati is indeed an imaginary character, why bring the real, historical king Ala-ud-din Khalji into the picture?
And further, even if she is imaginary, why make her commit Jauhar as Jayasi has done even in his “imaginary” saga? And what does that tell us about the character of Ala-ud-din Khalji?
I won’t dwell too deeply upon the justified outrage and humiliation that the Rajputs in particular and the larger Hindu society have expressed at Bhansali’s wilful distortion but will touch upon a few key points that have led us to this pass.
The first concerns artistic freedom. We can examine this with a quote from Padmashri Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s preface to his bestselling historical novel, Aavarana:
Anybody who embarks upon writing a historical work essentially needs to do concrete research to support even the tiniest detail. The author's responsibility is towards the historical truth of the subject on which his/her work is based. When truth and beauty are put on a scale, the writer's fidelity must invariably be in favour of truth. A writer doesn't have the moral right to violate truth and take refuge in the claim that he/she is only a creative artist.
In this light, the question is not whether one community is shown in good or poor light but one of basic integrity and fidelity to facts. In the case of Bhansali, it’s apparent that his so-called “historical” love story is being filmed at the expense of Rajputs. One could even say that it’s sadistic because it’s hard to believe that Bhansali isn’t aware of the reverence that Maharani Padmini evokes among Rajputs, and that such perverted depictions of her character will most certainly hurt them.
Indeed, Padmavati is in the same league of the other distortionist 2008 movie Jodhaa Akbar, which took an imaginary character named Jodhaa while whitewashing Akbar’s massacre of about 30000 Hindus in his barbaric sack of Chittorgarh. In Salman Rushdie’s words,
Even the Emperor succumbed to fantasy. Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, Rajput and Turkish sultanas...One of these royal personages did not really exist. She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the Emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real. He gave her a name, Jodha, and no man dared gainsay him.
And so the second point, tied to artistic and creative freedom is the contemporary reality that in the name of democratisation of arts, any semblance of any standard has been abandoned, and critics are silenced with—we’re seeing this unfold as I’m writing this—shouts of “creative freedom,” “regressive,” “intolerance,” “fascism,” “right wing fanatics,” etc.
The third point is the history of Bollywood itself. In the early days, the industry was significantly populated by the victims of Partition and barring very few, the flavour of movies mostly included tragic love stories, dark melancholies like Pyaasa, socials, rare comedies, and over-dramatised patriotism.
The 1970s decade pimped socialism on a gigantic canvas apart from giving us those mindless masalas. The post 2000 era’s takeover of Bollywood by the Karan Johars of the world gave us movies that were far removed from reality, characterised by a mindless aping of Western lifestyles, a normalisation of liquor consumption, and hedonism in the name of individual choice.
Or to put it bluntly, these movies and their makers are culturally as far removed from millions of culturally-rooted Indians as say, Kim Kardashian is from Rama Navami.
But the marked factor underlying this entire history is a near-complete absence of a good number of movies with mythological and classical themes.
When we contrast this with South Indian cinema’s history for the same period, we see how (mostly) the Telugu, Kannada and Tamil mythologicals (Pauranika) and historicals (Aitihasika) have continued to remain classics witnessing re-releases even today. And how, even today, there are talented filmmakers who make stellar movies using these themes. If a regional movie with limited markets can make a super-expensive and hugely successful movie like Bahubali, what prevents Bollywood from doing something similar with its seemingly endless budgets? A partial answer can be found in this “review” which sees only the “rape of Avantika” in Bahuali, and concludes that a movie rich in (Hindu) mythological references is “dangerous.”
Which brings us to the fourth point. If movies are art and are a form of creative expression, what explains the recent slew of agenda-based films like say, Mumbai Meri Jaan, which shows the Bhagavad Gita as being responsible for the Hindu character named Suresh (played by Kay Kay Menon) for developing hatred towards Muslims.
One can add Haidar, PK, Black Friday and Parzania to this list. On the other side of this coin, why hasn’t there been a single Bollywood movie on say Chandragupta Maurya, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap or even the Gupta Empire? Even if one reduces this to a Hindu—Muslim argument, the fact still remains that these are truly fantastic themes to make compelling movies.
From this flows the fifth point, which is fundamentally about the absence of a level-playing field in Bollywood regarding specific themes—be they historicals or mythologicals. And the total lack of a general sense of openness. Could we for instance, imagine Bollywood making a movie like Agora, which heart-rendingly and artistically details the tragic fate of Hypatia at the hands of Christian imperialism? Or the brilliant Spotlight, which is an expose of pervasive paedophilia inside the walls of the Catholic Church? One can go on listing many more such excellent films.
But the fact that such films don’t ever get done in Bollywood is because of the selfsame lack of openness: creative freedom must essentially be accompanied by courage especially when dealing with sensitive subjects, both historical and contemporary.
So the easier way out is to do what Sanjay Leela Bhansali seems to have done: paint an imaginary love story between a proven plunderer of women and his potential victim who preferred to die than submit.
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