India has by far the highest Per Capita Offendees in the world. Almost everyone these days is a Professional Offendee, with an all-purpose searchlight to hunt out of every possible cause, issue and event at which to be offended, so they can foam at the mouth. Anything will do, including Genuine Offendees, and most Professional Offendees graduate to Professional Trolls in one smooth, eel-like move. Look how they exploded when Aamir Khan shared his family’s worry for their safety — completely understandable, given how hundreds of Muslims were butchered in the Gujarat riots of 2002; an estimated 40,000 Muslims were displaced following the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013; the lynching this year of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, following rumours that he stored beef; the murder of rationalists like MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, with little accountability from those implementing the law. Instead of acknowledging a real, Nazi-like persecution of minorities, and addressing minority fears, Professional Offendees howled that while Aamir Khan had no right to feel persecuted, they had a birthright to Be Offended. And they need new, moving targets all the time.
Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra do the Pinga dance in Bajirao Mastani
The latest Professional Offendees’ target is the “authenticity” of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Bajirao Mastani, due to release this month — including the Pinga dance with the lovely Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra. Trolls whined about the ridiculousness of Bajirao Peshwa’s two wives Kashibai and Mastani dancing together, and how virtuous Peshwa ladies did not wear saris like this or dance like that. It is legitimate to question a distortion of history, but to target Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a cop out: he is not renowned for his biopics, nor has he claimed to be a Maratha historian. Those seeking historic authenticity would be better off reading a reliable history book, rather than looking to Bollywood. This is not to belittle anyone, least of all Sanjay Leela Bhansali, for whom I have the highest respect. Nobody asked Milkha Singh whether he actually sang Wooloomooloo wonda with a hot Australian babe, as was shown in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. In a vitiated, right-wing dominated atmosphere in which India is terrifying its minorities today, I greatly admire Bhansali’s choice of a Ganga-Jamuni film, that celebrates the long-standing, composite culture of India, as Shejari, Garm Hawa and Jodhaa Akbar have done before. He had already tackled a Hindu-Muslim romance in Saawariya; here, he ups the ante with a story of an already married, Hindu Brahmin Peshwa, taking a Muslim woman warrior as his second wife. Bhansali could easily have played it safe with a regular, all-Hindu romantic triangle, but chooses instead to make a courageous political point, not only a thing of beauty. And this fact remains, regardless how the film turns out, or how much money it makes.
In fact, I loved the beautiful dances, including Pinga — the songs and dances are one of the main reasons to watch a Bhansali film. It is wonderful to see Maharashtrian folk and lavani songs and dances in a Bollywood film, otherwise largely defined by interminable Punjabi sangeet-mehendi numbers. Besides, Bhansali, who is a music composer and has trained in dance, is one of the few film directors with an exceptional gift for song picturisation, like Mani Ratnam and Vishal Bhardwaj.
In any case, history and authenticity are contested territories. The official version of history is usually the version of the victor; the truth usually lies somewhere between the facts. This is not to certify the authenticity or otherwise of the Bajirao Mastani film. Bollywood’s role, as I see it, it more like a vidhushak, mainly entertainer, part commentator, part pot-shotter. Historical authority? Sorry, boss! It seems something of anachronism to demand “authenticity” of Bollywood, considering that the lines between fact and fiction in film have long been blurred. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s docu-fiction The Act of Killing, set in the Indonesian anti-Communist genocide of 1965-66, in which some 2.5 million were butchered, murderers re-enact their crimes in movie settings, one of which is set with dancing girls before a waterfall. Closer home, Manipuri director Haobam Paban Kumar has “reworked” his documentary Phum Shang (Floating Life), into a fiction film Nongmei (Gun), that incorporates parts of the documentary. Pow! Take that, you authenticity-seeking Professional Offendees!
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in these columns are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.