Millennial Lessons from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat

How could I not have a Padmaavat post on this blog? Even if it is the 3000-word rant that you have come to expect on this blog, even if it is a commercial Bollywood, pseudo-historical film with its standard share of songs and violence, even it is a subtle nudge towards reigniting the fire that consumed women of honor in the 13th century, a post was in order.


The run up to Padmaavat and the content of the film itself has a lot of lessons for those who are going to run the world the next few decades. This run up did not start a few years back, but can be traced back to the early days of Independence. It is one that validates and justifies intolerance and hatred in the name of identity. It is one that drowns out the equality, of nations, ideologies, classes and gender that should be the beacon of our times. The recent years have only seen a growing acceptance and institutionalization of this rabid movement. Everybody who is anybody now has an identity that needs to be defended. The parallels of the religious and gender levels of this oppression is frightening when not sickening.

This is not a review of the film. With everybody posting reviews, I have little new to add. I believe films, like all art, has the ability to profoundly influence our worldviews and the beliefs based on which we make choices. Very often, especially with popular cinema, this messaging and learning is unconscious.  The unquestioned objectification of women ties in with the gender violence we are seeing today. The nationalist films of the 70s and 80s have shaped our collective understanding of Hindu-Muslim dynamics and the attitude towards a land that was once a part of India, Pakistan. Along with this, there has been the rise of voices that object to art that opines on matters in a way that is not comfortable. Whether it be Hussain with his Hindu deities, Rushdie with his Satanic Verses, or lesser known painter who get their exhibitions vandalized because of nude subjects, freedom of expression is limited to the convenient and the universally acceptable. Step out of line and the baton comes down.



Sanjay Leela Bhansali (the guy who gave us Black) has been in this kind of trouble before, and there has been speculation that the protests might have been engineered to boost publicity for the film. The last time, he offended Ram-worshippers by naming his film Ram-Leela. The workaround seemed just as absurd as the dropping of the letter i in the case of Padmavati. I like his work (not that the guy who gave us Hum Dil De Chuke and Sawariya) and after Ram-Leela and Bajirao-Mastani, I was looking forward to Padmavati. The controversy and the hype took away a lot of the fun of waiting, but there we were on its first weekend, catching a late, late show on a large, large screen, 3D glasses and popcorn in hand.



It is difficult to watch a film about which everybody has had their say, some even before the film was released, with any measure of objectivity. Thankfully, the pace of the film made up for that. There were a few things that one could not ignore, but everybody has already made note of that. So I am not going to write about Jim Sarbh, about the relevance of sati or jauhar, or about the lack of chemistry between Shahid and Deepika. I enjoyed the film immensely, start to finish, and there is little I could find fault with. The directors cut might actually have been less appealing.

As a story and a cinematic experience, there are a few things that I felt were important lessons for young people of today (I am an apple too, albeit a bad one). The first is the two men in the film who are in love with the Ceylonese Buddhist Lady P.

One of them, on an expedition to fetch pearls for his wife, meets her after a hunting accident and brings her back as Maharani of Chittor. This is the first deviation from the Malik Jayasi version of the legend, and from there, the deviations become the norm. Dad kept clamoring for his copy of Jayasi's Padmaavat that was on the third shelf on the right in the living room in Kolkata, and when I looked for the book online, it was hard to find. Looks like the censor board also could not find it as they bought into Jayasi version explanation. But that is another story.

So this man, a Hindu Rajput king, falls in love with Lady P in the course of healing from a wound inflicted by her. In those days, one did not discuss political views, morals, ethics, value system, likes, dislikes, etc., before deciding to spend life together so it makes some sense. In some ways, this movie can be seen as a comment of marriage, regardless of the era or how it came about, and how it responds to a crisis.



The second man to be smitten by her in the film is the Delhi Sultanate ruler, Alauddin Khilji, a man depicted by history to be prone to excesses, living in a time that was the nadir of ethical governance and the peak of the sufi movement. He "hears about" the beauty of Lady P, and decides he has to have her. This was the time when you took as wife the women of the kingdoms you invaded, so he decides to invade the fort of Chittor. Once again, it is her beauty, or the description of her beauty, that drives this man. He has not met her or seen her, and has no knowledge about her as a person.

The woman (women, if you take the jauhar gang into account) is not a person, she is an object - of beauty, sensuality, lust, and virtue or honor. She is a possession, and if threatened, she self destructs. This model of desire is so similar to what we find in today's consumer goods, looks, sensuality, virtue, honor. Think about the latest iPhone and its planned obsolescence and you will know what I mean. Who knows why the Samsung phones went up in flames really?

While on the surface, this attitude towards women is validated and celebrated, at a subconscious level, we are encouraged to feel this way about things (they are things after all) without any guilt. All the three lead actors in the film perform brilliantly to put this message out. The bad boy is not just irresistible, but is preferable to the good, since the good guy gets stabbed in the back and you, for having chosen the good guy, are stuck with your flames, ex or otherwise. It is also about whether the ability to face adversities with fortitude and calmness are relevant any more. Given the rapid progress we have made as a civilization, adversities are best avoided, even if that means a life of stagnation and decadence.



Another aspect the film tries to depict is Rajput valor. A lot of reference to Rani Padmavati talks about her courage, but who can satisfactorily deny that she wasn't  just living out a script written by men, and not just from the higher classes. She was a Buddhist, and that comes with its own peculiar version of courage, not one that is violent or vengeful. So you have the Muslim lover who believes all is fair in love and war, and the Hindu husband who wants to play by the rules of fairness and honor. The labels and stereotypes are interesting, especially in our times of Hindu resurgence. Very curious what the resurgent Hindu feels about fairness and honor or even the basic Hindu value of tolerance. I digress. What I found interesting is that the Ceylonese Buddhist found it wiser to free her husband using any means, fair or otherwise, while the Hindu husband had to pay a last minute visit to the devout Muslim to keep the fire stoked.

The climactic fight sequence between the two lovers gets eclipsed in the elaborate detailing of the story arc, but it is easily one of the finer cinematic moments in recent times. It felt like a tribute to Tarantino and Nihalini in its gritty realism and willingness to hold the moment.

I would not have written this post if it were not for the bad press Shahid Kapoor has been getting for his performance and for the lack of chemistry between him and Deepika. I am not sufficiently an insider to comment on it, but I do know that chemistry, even millennial chemistry, has more than fifty shades.  As far as performance goes, I would rate this not only as one of Shahid's personal best (I have not seen Kaminey or Udta Punjab but I have seen Haider and the terrible Jab We Met with a fine performance from him), but also as a remarkable lesson in restrained acting. If Mom were alive, she would surely have said that he acted with his eyes.

It cannot be easy to perform with restraint if you are portraying a King confronting a powerful opponent openly lusting after your wife to the point of waging war, but Shahid Kapoor gets there. It would have been so easy to turn this into a Shatrughan Sinha versus Shakti Kapoor showdown, but all three actors made sure it stayed on this side of the line of reason. Deepika is a controlled actress, a joy to watch, and she has a lot of atonement to catch up with for her Xander Cage episode. This seems like a good starting point, but other than a few films, I have always felt she hasn't found roles written for her - as in the actress in her. Most of her outings remain in the glamor doll zone. Ranveer Singh is easily one of the finest actors of our times, so good that one sometimes wonders if he is acting at all. His portrayal of Khilji, halfway between Mogambo and Heath Ledger's Joker, puts him right up there with the gods of the baddies. Half the power of his performances comes from the fact that he enjoys himself so much playing these obsessed, blatantly in your face, animal roles.

Finally, there is the decision of Lady P to undertake jauhar or sati, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali makes it look like a wedding video, albeit for a marriage that would be a horror story. In this age of #MeToo and Fifty Shades, I am not sure a woman should not have the freedom to decide what she wants to do with her life, who she wants to partner with, or the quality of life that she insists on. I revisit the question from earlier whether it was her sense of honor or the social pressure of a patriarchal system that compelled her to slo-mo her way along the sandy stairs of the fort of Chittor into the waves of flames that she is portrayed as having accepted as her destiny. Indian cinema has repeatedly tried to bring the question of women's empowerment to the foreground, but mostly staying within the boundaries of the acceptable.



Even in this day and age, women are not free to make choices that go against the norm. Divorced women are lower down in the morality rung than divorced men. Men in relationships outside their marriage are acting out what is in their nature, while women in similar situations are sluts and homebreakers.  While the film limits the issue to the compulsion or freedom of choice with regard to submission to an invading man, one wonders whether this was much of a debate in those days. Meherunnisa, Padmavati, Devala Rani and Jhatyapali are symbolic of how women were seen in that era. Patriarchy could not have survived without the opt-in of women, as people, as daughters, as wives, and as mothers. This holds true for all ages. Today, we are living in a world where opting out is just as much of a lifestyle choice as choosing to remain in a stifling, abusive relationship. If the film makes one in ten of its viewers, regardless of gender, question this aspect of personal freedom, it will have contributed greatly to the world we are creating in the present.

3 comments:

  1. I was really looking forward for your take on this and as usual excellent examination and analysis. I always found Bhansali lacking as a storyteller which he compensates with dazzling colours, lighting and choreography. He should work with a good editor as I feel the long run time takes away underlying themes and the message that I feel he's trying to convey. Shahid Kapoor is and was always an enigma to me though.

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    1. Shahid Kapoor has that WTF am I doing here look all through this film as well. I agree with you on Bhansali's weakness and strength. Not all filmmakers can work with large canvases, and he seems to have got used to it. If you were to doze off in the middle of this one and wake up, you would need a moment to figure which of the last three films you were watching.

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  2. Being a Rajput, let me tell you that this honor thing is the proverbial albatross around our neck that we sometimes keep dragging around.

    Having said that, Padmavat is a poor cinematic representation if considered a historical feature. At best, only 10000 BC, if you know what I am talking about, and you have mentioned your reservations very aptly. I wish we have filmmakers who can stick to facts when they make a "historical" film.

    The film raises some important questions (unintentionally). But it will not be prudent to judge the deeds of a distant past with the standards of today...

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