Paromita Vohra: Accessories as cover-ups
Who can now tell the real reason for the success of the worlds longest Good Earth advertisement, yaniki Padmaavat
Who can now tell the real reason for the success of the worlds longest Good Earth advertisement, yaniki Padmaavat. I went to see it as a sporadic fan of Mr. Bhansalis campy flamboyance which has earned me endless derision from intellectual friends. Well, whether you like him or not, he deserves a place in Bollywood history just for Jab Se Tere Naina, a song where male beauty lit a soft light in many eyes, across genders and sexual orientations, creating a national moment of erotic unity in diversity. But, anyway, all that, like Rajput glory, is kinda in the past. Here we are. At Padmaavat.
When we retell historical stories or enduring myths, we are bound by the larger contours of the story, which may feel retrograde now. But we may reinterpret its internal details to provide a different reading, and so, a commentary for our times. Padmaavat despite its derivative aesthetic, staccato script, communalised love jihad narrative, boring songs, Shahid Kapoor as a sexless Vegan Ken, and I never thought Id say this, but too much jewellery is not without some sly internal subversions.
The most compelling of these is in the sexual realm. There are some decidedly transgressive scenes, implying bisexuality and threesomes, a close up of Ranveer Singh rising in an orgasmic arc from his bath. Then there are the twice-born lotuses. One offered to Khilji by a vengeful Brahmin as a symbol of power, another that he carries like a rose when going to meet Padmavati. Khilji never addresses a press conference, sorry, his troops, except once, in a tearful enactment when theyre restless following the failure of demonetisation, mera matlab hai, military attack. You note all this and think: thats audacious.
For a few moments, when Padmavati tells Ratan Singh that his honour code is stupid and will only lead to war and death, you even feel that the film might be trying to offer a reading of jauhar as the horrifying outcome of patriarchal masculinity, which compels women to kill themselves for a hollow notion of honour. But none of this adds up to anything. Mr. Bhansalis ornamental aesthetic, which has sometimes yielded meaning, is now simply a heap of accessories. Here political ideas are pinned randomly onto a film that refuses to commit to anything. Disparate elements of the film pennants bearing crescents demonising Muslim hoards, subversive sexuality, strong women, women committing Sati are just ornamental gestures which, when placed together, cancel each other out. These are political ideas as accessories to a cinematic crime/dress that conforms to retrograde political fashions of the times.
In a sense, the film reflects our times depressingly well. It is akin to how some online political discourse allows you to post all the right tweets and articles containing all the au courant correct political terminology without committing to any real political search or conversation, or having to articulate concerted choices. These tweets and posts and terms then become political accessories to convey the right image, while having a Twitter bio that says RTs are not endorsements. It resembles the cherry picking dissembling in which development apparently cancels out communalisation. Or talking about equality cancels out the need to talk about feminism. These political accessories, whether in a film like Padmaavat or in digital discourse, however, provide a costume that only covers a**.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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