Abrar Ahmed Khan is a Bangalore-based commentator. He can be reached at abrarkhan351[at]gmail[dot]com.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat is minting moolah. It’s got what cinema aficionados expected from it after all—vibrant visuals, OMG-inducing sets, Ranveer and Deepika together (well, not quite, but still), clever use of VFX, impressive screenplay, a “paisa-vasool” feeling at the end of the day…Bhansali played to his strengths yet again.
However, the movie, which is gaining a rapid reputation as being the veteran director’s “masterpiece”, hasn’t been received well by many. While members of the Karni Sena ran amok before the movie’s release, the Muslim community had also seen the writing on the wall, albeit in silence. The trailers did give a sense of what was coming—another of those attempts to use history (although doubts remain over Padmaavat being a slice of history at all) and demonise the Muslim identity. A disclaimer at the beginning about no intention of harming any community notwithstanding, Bhansali’s portrayal of Alauddin Khilji in this fictional potboiler does appear to reinforce a few dogmas about Muslims that members of the Sangh Parivar would have us believe—“foreign invaders”? Check. Barbaric? Check. Deceivers? Check. Oppressors of women? Check. Merciless meat eaters? Check. Bhansali did tick almost all of the boxes there.
Many have opined that Muslims have a right to feel offended by what Padmaavat does to them in the current socio-cultural scenario in India. The movie appears to be another of those attempts to cash in on things that “sell” these days (“love jihad”, Hindu nationalism, and other issues that a section of the media keeps harping on claiming that those are what helps it get the number of eyeballs it needs).
The issue isn’t with Bhansali taking creative liberty. The issue’s got to do with the larger socio-political context of “othering” Muslims and relegating the Muslim identity in India. The Sangh Parivar does not shy away from admitting that it wants to rewrite Indian history and hence the attempts to saffronise school textbooks and play politics over Indian history. At times, you wonder if the days of giving cultures and people their due are behind us. When someone like Mughal emperor Akbar, a man who is known to have had immense respect for the Hindu culture and whose religious and administrative policies attracted praise from historians generation after generation, does not survive the bile attack from Yogi Adityanath, you know that all’s not well. Somewhere in this whole Hindu nationalism narrative, a subtle message of there being a problem with all things Muslim is being disseminated and the Muslim identity is being singled out.
A lot of the developments in the recent past appear to be telling us that a section of the media and entertainment industry is buying this vitriolic “nationalist” narrative. Bhansali’s previous movie “Bajirao Mastani” also appeared to ride the Hindu nationalism wave with the protagonist striving to oust the Mughals and establish a Hindu Rashtra. Akshay Kumar has managed to build himself a reputation for being a “nationalist” actor and the national award that the Modi government conferred on him did not actually come as a surprise. For most news channels, Pakistan bashing, triple talaq, and Tipu Sultan are more important than farmer suicides and the impact of GST and demonetisation on the common man. See things in the larger context and you can connect the dots. With “Padmaavat”, Bhansali appears to have jumped on the bandwagon and dished out a movie tailor-made for the reinforcement of the Sangh Parivar’s propaganda of “foreign” powers wreaking havoc in India and their exploitation of the “locals”.
The other side
It can be safely deduced that this whole hullaballoo about foreign invasions and attacks on Hindus and the Hindu culture has hypocrisy written all over it. For most people, especially those in the Sangh Parivar, history begins and ends with the advent of Muslims in India. What hardly ever comes to light is that all was not hunky-dory in pre-Muslim India. For instance, several tales lay buried in the saga of the growth (and decline) of Buddhism and Jainism in India, the very place they originated from (yes, long before “foreign” powers had set foot on Indian soil). Historians cite references of religious violence being carried out against Buddhists and Jains by Hindu rulers and how Buddhist and Jain places of worship were either destroyed or replaced with Hindu temples. There have been conflicts between Shaivite and Vaishnavite kings and places of worship have been attacked, desecrated and looted. A reading of Dr BR Ambedkar’s works on India’s past reveals several of the wrongs that were committed which not many would dare talk about in today’s times.
Padmaavat itself has some moments that make you go “aha!”. Deepika Padukone is a Buddhist to begin with (a Buddhist who hunts, wow!). A Hindu king marries her and in no time, she knows all about Rajput and Hindu pride and is a proud Rajput woman (“love jihad” anyone?). “Jauhar” (or Sati as we know it) is the ultimate victory of good over evil (whatever happened to triple talaq and women’s liberation).
True, the celluloid version of Padmaavat is Bhansali’s fictional ode to Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem. The plot makes for great drama and on-screen representation. But there’s enough food for thought for Bhansali to dramatise Chinese traveler Huen Tsang’s description of a Hindu queen’s influence on her husband who killed thousands of Buddhists in Madurai. There’s ample scope for drama in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, which talks about the treacherous killing of Graha Varman Maukhari by Sasanka (who is notoriously known for destroying several stupas and uprooting the sacred Bodhi tree at Gaya). Will Bhansali, a period film expert, make movies on these themes? Probably not. The singling out of the Muslim identity and attempts to leave it battered are not likely to come down anytime soon. Don’t be surprised if Bhansali jumps on the bandwagon yet again.
As I write this, Padmaavat has raked in more than Rs. 500 crores at the box office and is not off the screens yet. It pays to join the anti-Muslim rhetoric in these “nationalistic” times after all (ka-ching!).