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Bhansali must be given the benefit of doubt

November 23, 2017 09:29 IST

'The casting of a popular hero Ranveer as Bhansali's Khilji sends out an erroneous and contradictory missive to the lay public; a message that tends to equate a leading light with a notorious and treacherous player of medieval history,' notes Vivek Gumaste.

In the mosaic that is India -- a land of conflicting cultural streams and contentious historical narrations -- the resurrection of antiquity, the realistic recreation on the silver screen of historical characters and the era that they thrived in is a dicey proposition; a daunting exercise fraught with unseen dangers and with the uncanny potential to evoke animus from the unlikeliest of quarters.

Needless to say, that the art of story-telling must walk a fine line and scrupulously match historical reality with the volatile sentimentality of current political correctness.

 

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's epic film Padmavati embodies this dilemma to the fullest and stands at a crossroad wherein the right to creative licence supposedly collides with the traditional sentiments of a community as strong protests have erupted all over the country from Bengaluru to Jaipur and includes the Rajput elite as well as the hoi polloi.

It would be intellectually crass, and unethical, to comment on a movie without seeing it.

Expectedly, I will refrain from doing so.

However, it is imperative that we scrutinise the antecedents of this cantankerous melee for national edification.

To dismiss the protest by the Rajput community as an exposition of overheated Hindu nationalism or an outpouring of right wing fringe elements is naïve, pedestrian and a classic example of vacuous virtue signalling.

For an intelligent genesis of this controversy one needs to delve deeper and look for a root cause that nurtures and allows such tendencies to flourish.

Is the remonstration by Rajputs a de novo phenomenon, an isolated occurrence in a sea of tranquillity and appropriateness?

Or is it a part of a routine repetitive phenomenon, albeit this time with different players?

That is the million dollar question at the crux of this controversy.

Censorship has a notorious track record in India with proscription of books and films going back to a period when the Congress party reigned supreme and Hindu nationalism was but a nascent force.

In 1988, the Satanic Verses was banned in India for hurting Muslim sentiments. The release of The Da Vinci Code in 2006 was met with violent protest by Christian groups who vandalised several stores.

Predominantly Christian Nagaland led the way in banning the film with other states, including Tamil Nadu, following suit.

So, let us be clear about one thing: This is a quagmire of our own making; we have fostered an unhealthy environment that considers banning of books and films as fair game and condones strong arm tactics to force a point of view.

To subscribe to a new set of rules in order to castigate the Hindu Rajput community as retrogressive and to invoke lofty notions of free speech in this particular setting is nothing short of hypocrisy and outright bigotry; it reeks of double standards.

Having said that, we cannot justify the violent threats associated with the protest which must be condemned in the harshest terms.

However, capricious standards of propriety that fluctuate to suit one's whims and fancies do not make for a robust egalitarian society and take away from our ability to inculcate and impose forcefully an ethical code on the public.

When we turn a blind eye to the fatwas issued by Muslim imams who have been doing so for the past 50 years, with what moral authority can we castigate the Rajput protestors from indulging in similar vulgar threats? That is where our problem lies.

A uniform code of conduct applicable to one and all is vital to maintain decorum and discipline in society.

Another development accentuating this dissent is the systematic, sustained efforts in recent times to whitewash Indian history by painting villains as heroes and vice versa.

Audrey Truschke's championing of Aurangzeb as a paragon of virtue via her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth in lieu of the confirmed bigot that he was, has found a willing audience in certain sections of our media.

Therefore, there is justifiable concern that Padmavati may be another effort in the same direction -- a misguided attempt to refurbish Alauddin Khilji's ugly persona and play down the heroic jauhar of Rani Padmavati and her compatriots.

Lending credence to this perception is the rumour of a romantic dream sequence between Deepika Padukone, who plays the eponymous queen, and Ranveer Singh, who plays Khilji.

Moreover, right or wrong, the casting of a popular hero Ranveer as Bhansali's Khilji sends out an erroneous and contradictory missive to the lay public; a message that tends to equate a leading light with a notorious and treacherous player of medieval history.

In short, this controversy is a multifaceted conundrum: The result of a complex interplay of historical sensitivity, a vitiated conducive milieu, unsubstantiated rumours and nuanced perceptions.

It is entirely possible that the reality may be quite different and the actual film may prove these misperceptions to be unfounded.

Bhansali himself avers, 'I've made this film Padmavati with a lot of sincerity, responsibility and hard work. I have always been inspired by Rani Padmavati's story and this film salutes her valour and sacrifice. But because of some rumours, this film has become a subject of controversy.'

Regarding the 'alleged dream sequence' involving Deepika and Ranveer's characters, Bhansali categorically states, 'I am reiterating that in our film, Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji have no such scene together which will hurt anyone's sentiments.'

In all fairness, Bhansali must be given the benefit of the doubt: One needs to wait for the film's release to pass a valid judgement on this quasi-historical depiction.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's suggestion in a letter to Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani that a committee of historians, film experts and members from the Rajput community review the film to edit out controversial parts so as not to hurt the sentiments of any community is sage advice that Bhansali must heed.

It can put to rest a needless controversy.

Vivek Gumaste