Mayank Shekhar: Why this isn't about Padmavati

Updated: Nov 21, 2017, 07:05 IST | Mayank Shekhar

If Malik Mohammed Jayasi's 1540 fable about two kings and a queen really interests you, here's what I think you should do

The traditional Rajasthani 'ghoomar' dance sequence in the film on Padmavati - as in the epic-poem Padmavat, written in Awadhi in 1540 by Malik Mohammed Jayasi (who was from what is now Uttar Pradesh) - has irked a few self-styled upholders of the Rajasthani/Rajput culture to wonder how their queen could dance.

But so far, as I can see on the screen, the dance or "nritya gaan" isn't being held for 'nautch' entertainment (if that's the issue), but to appease Gods as the kingdom Chittor is on the verge of a fall. This is taking place upon the instruction of Raja Ratan Sen himself, who happens to be the only male in the audience.

Deepika Padukone portrays the fabled Rani Padmini in the upcoming film Padmavati
Deepika Padukone portrays the fabled Rani Padmini in the upcoming film Padmavati

How do I know this? Because I saw Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati? No, a few TV news anchors did, which oddly enough pissed off the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chief, as if a national secret was revealed to a select few. It's common practice for producers/directors/cast/crew to hold private screenings of their films (for focus groups, even at film festivals), much before the CBFC has deemed it fit to be viewed by kids (or not). The CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi, I'm sure, has attended a lot of these shows.

More importantly, Bhansali isn't the first filmmaker to bring Padmavati, or Padmini, alive on screen. The scene I referred to is from Shyam Benegal's Bharat Ek Khoj (Episode 26, easily available on YouTube), based on Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India-a deeply inclusive, rather than divisive, retelling of history, penned by India's first Prime Minister himself.

The episode aired on the government-owned Doordarshan, and given that there was no other channel on Indian television, or much else for screen entertainment in the '80s, it was probably watched by more people than Bhansali's Padmavati could ever hope to gather in theatres.

Now it goes without saying that you can't really compare Benegal with Bhansali, especially not in your dreams, given the scale and sensibilities they operate on. Yet, since the original source of their 1540 story is the same, at least Benegal's version seems quite wishy-washy on whether Delhi's Sultan Alauddin Khilji did indeed mount Chittor for Rani Padmini in the first place.

Padmavat is essentially a story of deceit, on the part of Khilji (Om Puri incidentally played this role in Bharat Ek Khoj) - how he was invited by Chittor's traitor, court-priest Raghav Chetan to look westwards and expand his empire. Sure, the priest mentions the beauty of Rani Padmini, but Khilji isn't the least bit interested. "You'll melt even if you see a daughter of the 1,600 wives I have," Khilji says.

The priest entices him with five 'ratans' in Ratan Sen's court - absolute curios - one of them being a stone that can turn iron to gold. Khilji is pleased. Yes, he does once see Padmini through a reflection in a mirror. But they never actually meet (in a real sense). This is certainly not a valorous story of love (or hate) of any sort, for a couple of Taliban-style zealots in our own government's court to demand the nose of a living woman in our midst, Deepika Padukone (playing Padmavati in Bhansali's film), in order to restore the honour of a woman that no one is even sure ever existed. That the person demanding another's head in exchange for money, cares for women, and fellow humans, is clearly beyond doubt.

Padmavati's existence, as recognised by historians, is based on a fable. But then, so are most religions, including my own. Benegal, in his heavily Doordarshan-Hindi show, presumably quoting Nehru, runs the disclaimer: "Naitik updesh aitihasik sacchai se zyada mahattv rakhta hai. (Moral lessons supersede historical accuracy, with a story such as this)." In the future, who's to stop someone from believing in Baahubali?

To each their own faith, I guess. You can get upset about anything anyone says/shows about Harry Potter, for all I care.

What's worrying is what you do once you're upset and the government quietly plays along. As it did with Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1988 (first to be banned in India, and a turning point on the question of creative liberty), while the Brits stood their ground, and vowed to protect the author instead.

Ever since, a few people (and often the same few people) have been getting hit by an affliction so regularly that it might befit rigorous medical examination to ascertain exactly what chemical reactions occur within the human body to debilitate someone enough to lose their mind when their "religious sentiments" are "hurt". No, seriously, what happens, when your religious sentiments get hurt?

I recently told a gentleman from Karni Sena (a group opposing Padmavati's release) about how a poor, scary precedent had been set, after Karan Johar (before his film's release), and now Bhansali appearing apologetically before a camera, explaining to unknown people how he's done no wrong by making a film. I told the guy, "It seemed like a hostage video, with probably imaginary terrorists holding a gun behind their back!" The Karni Sena man in turn, snapped, went nuts, "You called me a terrorist! You called me a terrorist! I'm offended. I'm offended..."

Arrey yaar, seriously?

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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