The ‘Padmaavat’ Controversy

Cutting Off The Nose To Spite The Face


The protesters rallying behind politically-motivated groups calling for a ban on the movie -now called- ‘Padmaavat’ are really a misguided lot!

The very first question to ask these protesters would be, if they find the story so objectionable, why din’t these same people protest all along, over the past centuries against Malik Mohammed Jaisi’s work, the primary source of the legend?

I personally dislike this personage, Bhansali, and am critical of his directorial finesse and film-making abilities, characterised by phantasmagoria and melodrama than sensible story-telling, but…

This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right to make a movie on a topic he chooses, provided his portrayal is not downright derogatory and/or grossly misrepresents facts. This charge, in case of ‘Padmaavat’, is not true.

Minor factual inaccuracy, e.g. whether the ghoomar style existed in the relevant time period or not, may be criticised at a content level, but cannot become grounds for summary banning. Also, unlike lavani which was/is strictly performed by professional performers (which ridiculously the Peshwa’s wife is shown doing in Bhansali’s work, ‘Bajirao Mastani’), the ghoomar, even if one might claim anachronistically portrayed, is a very respectable dance form performed by ladies of well-established households, incl. royal ladies! (We have seen ladies of Sirohi (my nanihal) Raj-gharana, which was mostly an independent state unlike some other Mughal Rajput vassalages, doing the ghoomar, albeit strictly in close family circles, with only male family members allowed to witness it) on special occasions, e.g., Gangaur Puja. To say that this dance form is shameful for ladies of respectable households to do is, I’m afraid, not an authentic opinion and in fact born of Islamised mindsets which has shamed every, the most sacred, of Hindu art forms.

The Jaipur royal family’s contention on the point of costumes that ‘the bared midriff of the actress portraying the character of Padmavati insults the queen’s memory since Rajput women dress more conservatively’ too is, I’m afraid, flawed.

There’s a mention in contemporary Mughal sources which say how the Princess of Amer, Empress Mariam-uz-Zamani, some years after her marriage to the Mughal emperor Akbar, altered her dressing style to conform to the more conservative, fully-covered style of the Mughal ladies. Though she did not opt for the fully-covered mode as of Muslim ladies, she evolved a sartorial style considerably more ‘modest’ than typical Rajput ladies in those times. Still, the clear difference between present-day couture of Rajput women, and that in the era of their first interactions with Islam, is too evident to miss.

Clearly, the Jaipur royal house is conveying their present-day conservatism outlook towards ladies’ dressing in line with the altered Hindu awareness post contact with Islam, rather than giving an authentic Hindu viewpoint. A look at depictions in miniatures of that era of Rajput women belies their position.

The allegation of some dream sequence between Khilji and Rani Padmavati is clearly a baseless rumour which refuses to go way. This is not to say that Bhansali’s incapable of such egregious misportrayals – one can see it in the director’s cuts of the movie ‘Bajirao Mastani’, where he had (the audacity) to portray the Peshwa’s son, Balaji Bajirao, as having been so dissolute as to have made a lewd overture towards Mastani.

Considering the background of ‘Rajput Karni Sena’ (a state outfit of the Congress party), which is the prime instigant and motivator behind the protests and rowdyism against the movie, it would be silly for well-intentioned Hindus to play along and get trapped more in the ‘rising Hindu extremism’ story that the Congress has sedulously worked to build by creating disturbances all over India. I think the Rajput community and Hindus at large are being blind and naive playing into their hands with their mulish stand.

While the Rajput community may be justified in asking for a pre-screening before select representatives of the community (esp. given Bhansali’s penchant for misportrayals to the detriment of Hindus), their objections should be factually correct and not laced with conservatism that presently characterises Hindus post one millennium of contact with Abrahamic ideologies.

It is essential to be authentic about our objections, failing which we stand to be labelled as the same yelling propagandists, albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum. This ‘right wing’ label foisted upon Hindus must be shed. Irrational knee-jerk reactions will only be counterproductive to the cause of correction of the historical narrative against Hindus.

Another aspect of this issue to be considered is the impact on India’s cultural capital in the world, very ably described in the words of a friend and a young writer, presented here unaltered.

“I have been observing the agitation against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, Padmavati, and to say that I am disturbed would be an understatement. If the harassment against the film’s makers ramps up, there will domestic and international implications for India that will be nothing short of a nightmare.

Constructive criticism is an absolute must for any mature society, and Padmavati – like every Bollywood movie – does have its flaws, but the self-proclaimed ‘Hindu’ men raging against the film have abandoned all norms of decency, and have started behaving like the Islamist Jihadists they purport to hate. Threatening to behead Deepika Padukone a la ISIS style? Slandering her womanhood? You cannot proclaim to uphold the honour of a Rajput princess if your methods of protest involve extreme misogyny. You are insulting the very Rani Padmini you claim to represent. The craziest thing about the whole saga is that they have not even seen the film. They have somehow assumed that the film will offend Rajput and Hindu sentiments when Bhansali has said ad nauseam that there is no misrepresentation of the relationship between Rani Padmini and Khilji in the film.

However, the domestic agitation is just the tip of the iceberg. These misguided fools have done far more damage by committing another cardinal sin. They have abandoned all consideration for India’s greatest asset in the modern era – Soft Power. Over the ages, India’s soft power has historically been the single most powerful tool in its arsenal. Indic philosophies, like Yoga, Buddh/Sanatana Dharma, Sanskriti, Ayurveda, amongst many others, are some of Ancient India’s most successful cultural exports. Many Indians think that is all there is to it, but there is more: Bollywood and Indian TV.

In short, there are three entertainment industries that have achieved global prominence. These are the Western film, television, and music industries, the Hindi film and television industries, and the Korean music industry (K-Pop). No other entertainment industry has managed to break through this tripartite stranglehold.

The average Indian national is rather insular, completely oblivious to India’s cultural impact around the globe. They need to acquaint themselves with the fact that Bollywood is by far India’s most successful modern export. This is not a 21st century phenomenon; it dates back to the days of the Soviet Union. Bollywood was the most popular Indian export in the USSR, and even after the dissolution of it, Bollywood continues to be popular in not just Russia, but in every single post-Soviet Central Asian state: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Central Asia aside, Bollywood is either the single or second most (after Hollywood) successful foreign film industry in the Arabian peninsula, east Africa, and parts of northern and west Africa. The average Ethiopian, Somali or Nigerian citizen might shock you with their general knowledge of Bollywood. They might even know far more about it than you do. The average Ethiopian, Somali, or Nigerian is also likely to have affection for the Indian state, and is unlikely to buy into Western atrocity literature against India. See how soft power works? It serves as a bulwark against Hinduphobic and Indophobic poison.

Closer to India, parts of Southeast Asia – especially Indonesia – are obsessed not with just Bollywood, but also with Indian TV. The most mundane and forgettable Indian TV shows that Indians could not care less about are consumed like hotcakes in Indonesia. Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? Check, that has been dubbed into Indonesian. Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon? Check, that has been dubbed and has become a cult classic (not just in Indonesia, but in Turkey, of all places). But the most successful TV show in Indonesia happens to be Star Plus’ Mahabharata, which aired in India in 2013. That show has become such an insane cult classic that millions of Indonesian schoolgirls are completely riveted with the male actors. They have created massive online fandoms for Indian TV actors that Indians themselves would otherwise consider irrelevant. The male stars travel to Indonesia at least once a year on fan tours organised by Indonesian TV producers, and one of the actors – Vinay “Vin” Rana – has married an Indonesian pageant queen, Nita Sofiani. They have become a power couple in the Indonesian entertainment industry, and he now represents India on the global arena.

And then, there is China – India’s most powerful neighbour. Dangal was so immensely popular in China that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was alarmed about the prospect of the Chinese citizenry viewing India in a positive light, yet there was nothing they could do about it.

Notice a trend? Indian film and TV literally makes foreigners *love* India and its culture. It creates bonds. Furthermore, global consumers of Bollywood and Indian TV don’t care about crass garbage like Golmaal and Dhoom. They consume content that actually reflects the (dramatised) lives of average Indian families, or content that relates to India’s impressive culture and history, or feel-good films that show Indians overcoming obstacles, against all odds. They crave real Indian culture, and Bollywood is the perfect medium to propagate it. Bollywood’s most successful exports to date have been Devdas, Mughal-e-Azam, Bajirao Mastani, Jodha Akbar, Three Idiots, and Dangal. Padmavati looks set to become the next global obsession, because the hype for it has been building up outside of India.

And herein lies the problem: Regardless of how you may feel about Bhansali’s directorial skills, he remains the best period film director in the Hindi film industry. If the goons were to scare not just him, but also any other up-and-coming period film director, into refraining from producing these films on India’s past, the Indian content that is voraciously consumed globally would cease to exist. But forget about what the outside world for a moment: think about Indian people.

Films like Bajirao Mastani and Padmavati are a great way for Indian youth to learn about their past. Bajirao Mastani was ridiculed by the same men who are now after Padmavati, but it was through the film that many Hindu children found out about the Marathas. Bhansali’s film did for millions of Hindu youth what the protestors have failed to accomplish so far: Inculcate pride in them. And the protestors were against this film too?

Bollywood is not India’s enemy. It is one of India’s most important allies. The goons going after Bhansali have been silent all along when deracinated nonsense like Golmaal hit the screens, but they have had a lot to say about Padmavati.

Indian men have proven time and time again that are only capable of going on rage-filled, testosterone-laden violent outrage sprees. Indian men lack the nuance and tact to understand how global power dynamics work, and how Bollywood aids India in expanding its power. What these men need to do is get themselves passports and travel outside of the Indian subcontinent. Visit Thailand, visit Indonesia, or maybe even just hop north to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. The amount of goodwill that the people have towards India, as a direct consequence of Bollywood – will have you shocked.

These goons and demagogues do not represent India’s interests. They must instead be shunned. They have not yet done that much damage, but if allowed to continue, they will eventually squander away the goodwill that the outside world has for India through its art. That will leave a vacuum that will eventually be filled by China. China is the one country that is the most envious of India’s ability to project power through its own cultural exports. China killed off much of its native culture during the Communist revolution, and its film industry cannot hold a candle to anything Bollywood has produced. That is because closed Communist societies tend to lack the creative, democratic streak found in open societies like India.

Think before you criticise.”


Author: Smita Mukerji

Published: Jan 19, 2018


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