Maharashtra’s folklore does not have a love story as intricate as Bajirao and Mastani’s saga. It has been written as novels and made into films earlier as well, but it had not courted any controversy of the intensity that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s artwork has. Bhansali should be able to release the uncut version of his film because the agitation is unlikely to culminate into violent attacks on cinema halls and the people who made it. The screening is unlikely to face protests that a Marathi play ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’ was subjected to four decades ago.
It will be premature to predict the fate of Bhansali’s Bajirao-Mastani before it opens to the audience. But considering the lack of nuisance value on the part of the descendants of Peshwas and Mastanibai — who are not supported by any influential social organisation or political party — the filmmaker has already won the battle. Bhansali may just go ahead with a disclaimer that his movie isn’t a historical account, instead of dropping the songs that are termed objectionable by the upset families.
Why have the aggrieved descendants been left alone in their fight? Is it that the people of Maharashtra do not take any pride in Bajirao, who was the Maratha empire’s undefeated general and prime minister? Where are the people who had forced the government to ban a book on Chhatrapati Shivaji, ransacked a research institute in Pune and attacked scholars after finding the reading material objectionable?
What comes to Bhansali’s rescue is a deep social and political divide in Maharashtra. The division exists even now, 300 years after Bajirao was crowned as the prime minister by Shivaji’s descendant Shahu Maharaj. The Chhatrapatis were Maratha by caste (their descendants are very much active in today’s politics and many other Maratha families dominate the ruling class of the state) while the successive Peshwas were Brahmins, the caste which till then wasn’t considered as warriors (Kshatriyas). A sub plot had complicated the caste conflict further. Since Peshwas were Chitpavan Brahmins, the Deshastha Brahmins despised them as rulers and in general. Kayasthas, yet another influential caste till date, also opposed both Peshwas and Deshastha Brahmins.
This socio-political divide continues even in the 21st century. It reflects significantly in the Bajirao-Mastani row despite the fact that it is the historians — Indian and non-Indians alike — who have appreciated Bajirao as the prime general, who expanded the Maratha empire as per its founder Chhatrapati Shivaji’s wish. History draws many parallels between the two. Both were extraordinary warriors, good human beings, competent administrators, strategists in guerrilla warfare and astute politicians. Bajirao is credited for penetrating the Delhi rule of the Mughals and remaining undefeated in some 40 high-intensity battles. It is because of his valiant efforts that the Maratha royalty was able to reach out to northern and southern states, where they play an important role in current politics. Bajirao served only 20 years before dying of fatigue while preparing for a battle in 1740.
An alliance with Mastani could be the only thing that spices up the later part of Bajirao’s 40-year life for reasons that were deemed wrong by orthodox society. There are views and counterviews about this. One version says that Brahmins of one of the country’s formidable power centres (Pune) and the Peshwa family did not accept a daughter of Bundelkhand’s king Chhatrasal, saying that she was a Muslim nautch girl. Another version says that Bajirao’s first wife Kashibai had accepted Mastani as her husband’s legally wedded wife.
Now since Mastani and Bajirao’s descendants — we did not know there were any until Bhansali agitated them — have come together to dismiss Mastani’s nautch girl projection, (which Bhansali too has rejected in his film), the issue has become all about the ethos and pathos of the society that existed 300 years ago. Based on two songs that are being aired in the film’s promos, Bhansali’s cinematic liberty and his knowledge of the Peshwa history is challenged. More questions are expected to be thrown at the filmmaker if he doesn’t get the aggrieved heir to agree.
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org