Leaving my undying fondness, admiration, and respect for the GENIUS that is Ranveer Singh aside, Padmaavat is a cinematic marvel! Sanjay Leela Bhansali has mastered the ability to create HISTORICAL FICTION films like Bajirao Mastani (2015) and now Padmaavat with grandeur and finesse. For those who are unaware of the story: Padmaavat is an epic period drama about the 13th century Rajput Queen of Mewar (currently in south-central Rajasthan, India), Padmavati. The story – as shown in this film – revolves around the Turko-Afghan ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Alauddin Khilji, who orchestrated the siege of Chittor Fort in Mewar in order to capture the Kingdom’s beautiful Queen. His desire was also motivated by an exiled Brahmin (originally from Mewar), who informed Khilji that his wealth and success would multiply by many-folds should he go after the Queen. Padmavati, whose not only beauty, but also astute wit and valour was unparalleled, leaves Alauddin’s desire to conqueror her a fantasy.
Over the last few months, people have taken to the streets to spawn protests – many of which have turned rabid and violent – against the content of this film without even seeing it. The debacle was brought to the forefront by the domestic and international media that highlighted the assault of creator, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the destruction of the sets by mobs to the Karni Sena, a political party in the state of Rajasthan, inciting violence by threatening to harm the actors of the film – Deepika Padukone – last seen as Serena in Vin Diesel’s XXX: The Return of Xander Cage – who plays Queen Padmavati and Ranveer Singh, who adorns the role of Sultan Alauddin, for distorting history, playing with public sentiments and besmirching the honour and valour of the beloved Queen and Rajput community by suggesting a romance between her and Khilji, who was infatuated with her beauty, which – mind you – was NOT the case here.
The announcement of the film also raised many questions: Was Padmavati (known as Queen Padmini in history) real or a figment of the original writer, Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s imagination? If she was not real, were the sentiments of the Indian public really hurt and by extension were the protests warranted? I cannot say, but as an ardent advocate of the Arts, I will say this: The Arts, whether it is through storytelling, theatre, art, dance, and music or mainstream cinema plays a pivotal role in our society – not only in India, but worldwide. In actuality, the Arts is that one medium that can puncture holes in walls of ignorance; it can foster empathy and understanding for the “other” by building bridges into worlds and cultures unknown or unheard of. In Aligarh (2015), I vicariously experienced the plight of members of the LGBTQ+ community in India. It got me thinking what section 377, which criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature”, would mean for them. In Margarita with a Straw (2014), Kalki Koechlin’s character Laila, an aspiring writer, who happens to be a teenager with cerebral palsy taught me that the way the world is oriented and the mentality of the people that live in it can make a differently-abled person feel “disabled”.
The Arts is also vexing, as it is liberating. Films like Padman (2018) and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) can be used as effective tools to educate individuals from all walks of life about pressing social issues like the taboo on menstruation, lack of access to sanitary pads and easy access to lavatories for women, which are universal issues and not just specific to India alone. On the other hand, would this mean that every film should be regarded by the audience as a social manifesto? In my humble opinion, no. Coming back to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat – those who have seen the film would have hopefully noticed the disclaimer shown at the beginning of the film. One of the elements the disclaimer cites, in words big and bold, that this film does NOT claim to be an accurate depiction of historical events. Had the makers claimed it to be and the final product failed to do so, we would be having a different conversation. The Arts also provide an escape from life’s daily grind through entertainment and, in my opinion, Padmaavat does just that – entertain. The acting by the cast – everyone from Deepika, Shahid, Ranveer, Jim, Anupriya, Aditi to the very last extra on set – was impeccable! I, as do many, thought Ranveer with his portrayal of Khilji stole the show. The cinematography and sets were picturesque and stellar – as is often the case with Sanjay’s movies in this genre. The dance and music numbers were delightful.
But here is the reality: After having watched the film (which is imperative if you wish to pass an opinion or judgment), if you felt differently to what I mentioned earlier – that is okay. The Arts is a subjective medium. Reputable film critics like Anupama Chopra and Sucharita Tyagi – both a part of Film Companion Reviews – may not necessarily like the same films or novels or cuisines, for example. Anupama may be crazy behind Indian street food, while Sucharita may have an affinity for Italian and that, folks, is okay also. What you take from the film may not be what your friend or family member sitting beside you gathers from the visual because, generally, individuals are influenced differently by their shared beliefs, values, and personal experiences. What is NOT okay is inciting violence against and/or violating individuals who are just doing their jobs! What is NOT okay is passing unsubstantiated claims without watching the film!
We live in a simple, yet complex era – iPads, Samsung phones, Youtube, Social Media, SIRI at complete disposal! At the click of a button, we can connect with someone that lives over 10,000 miles away, but we may not know how our neighbour is really doing. We have access to news or rather, news has access to us 24/7, which was not the case 2 decades ago. For this reason, our minds are active around the clock, constantly under siege by information of all sorts. We are consumers. We consume media every chance we get. This can be a bit unsettling! We are passionate beings, yes! The majority of us may pride ourselves on being opinionated. We may even pride ourselves on being patriotic. Our sentiments and opinions, heavily armed by our beliefs and values, may influence our decisions, but it is important to realize that our actions (as do our words) come with a set of consequences that not only affect us at an individual level, but also a local, national and global level. Hence, we, as consumers, need to learn to consume media responsibly. We need to have difficult conversations that will explore what that even means in today’s day and age. We need to avoid being passive participants and actively filter information whether it comes from news apps, political speeches, school textbooks, mainstream blockbuster movies or even from conversations with our near and dear ones and use it wisely. The rules of this game are still vague, but I know that the vast majority of us are doing the best we can with what we know, but we, as a people, need to continue to do better.
I believe a film like Padmaavat deserves great reception from domestic and international audiences. The fiasco that happened before, during and after the release of the movie could have been (and can still be) avoided. To excessively censure films and art, in general, is akin to placing a muzzle on freedom of speech and expression. This has been happening too frequently adding films like Udta Punjab (2016) and Lipstick Under My Burka (2017) to a gradually increasing list of names. If you do not want to watch the film, you have the right not to, but to censure content to change the product or to release unsubstantiated claims may be deja vu of George Orwell’s classic 1984.