On Wednesday, the Rajput Mahasabha in Punjab officially withdrew its protest against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. The filmmakers didn’t request, do or change anything to make this happen. The only thing that changed was that 30 leaders from the community actually watched the movie at a special screening arranged for them by district officials in Pathankot, after which they proudly, and with no discernible hint of irony, told the media, “We will suggest that community members all over the country must watch the movie because it is in fact showing the Rajput community in a good light.”
Unfortunately, the unabashed backtracking from the Rajput Mahasabha in Punjab was just way too little, too late. The ball was already rolling when it came to attacking Padmaavat, and facts couldn’t stop the momentum it had built up this far.
It’s likely that those opposing the movie most strongly, like the Shri Rajput Karni Sena and All India Brajmandal Kshatriya Rajput Mahasabha, were emboldened by the BJP’s and Congress stated lack of support for the film, particularly given the fact that four BJP-led states attempted to refuse to screen the film despite Supreme Court orders. It’s also likely they were still power-drunk and rolling from a year of violence they could conveniently blame on the movie, which included slapping Sanjay Leela Bhansali, vandalising several public properties, putting a bounty on Deepika Padukone’s head and threatening to chop off her nose, Rajput women threatening to commit jauhar and then insisting that Bhansali commit jauhar instead of them.
The days immediately before its release saw arson, looting, and clashes between riot police and protestors in Gujarat, UP, MP, and Mumbai. In a neat and poignant reflection of the stupidity of a caste group opposing a movie that glorifies them, Karni Sena protestors also set fire to a car belonging to one of their own protestors in Bhopal. Of course, it all culminated in Haryana, which seems to have its rioting priorities all wrong, yesterday when 50 criminals stoned a bus carrying 30 children to protest Padmaavat’s release, and were planning to set it on fire too, until the Haryana police finally girded its loins or remembered its job.
While the irony is high, it’s really not surprising that any erstwhile-protester who actually watched the movie would be happy with the message it espouses. It begins with a disclaimer that the movie didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, and is meant to show its respect for the Rajput community. But truly it shouldn’t have bothered. The whole movie was a disclaimer.
The main compliment that Sanjay Leela Bhansali receives after the release of any of his films is that it was a spectacle. And so it was with Padmaavat too, but no number of neatly swirling skirts and artfully placed diyas could make up for the weird feeling of watching a movie that glorifies the life and dharma of a privilege caste, and culminates in the suicide of 16001 women.
It’s hard to tell how much was added in the face of the protests, but the movie’s packed full of platitudes towards Rajput kingliness (personified in Raja Ratan Singh Rawal, played by Shahid Kapoor), queenliness (even though Rani Padmavati, played by Deepika Padukone, is a Sri Lankan immigrant), code of conduct and general valour and mightiness. You know, Rajputs are brave. Rajputs don’t attack the sick, the unarmed, or anyone from behind. Rajputs don’t kill their guests. They don’t kill Brahmins (they see brahm-hatya as a whole separate and awful type of hatya that they never engage in), and would rather die (and instruct the 16000 women who work for them to die) than have their towns taken over by invaders. Okay.
But it isn’t just the naked adoration of Rajputs that would make the caste nationalist groups hating on the film happy. Naturally, Padmaavat also depicts Alauddin Khilji as the personification of the dark, dubious and morally bankrupt Muslim invader. He’s constantly snarling and kissing unwilling women, including his wife (Mehrunnisa, played by she of the wonderfully husky voice, Aditi Rao Hydari), eating extremely rare meat (versus Ratan Rawal’s giant vegetarian thalis), being romanced by his man servant Malik Karuf (Jim Sarbh) and dancing very badly whilst being bathed by Karuf. Some media houses have taken the homo-erotic overtones of Khiljis relationship with Karuf as a major milestone in the writing of Indian film characters. The Huffington Post writes that he’s the “first queer villain in Hindi cinema who isn’t necessarily effeminate or affected by his sexuality”, but it also falls neatly and fairly gutlessly in line with the popular stereotypes around depraved Mughal rulers and the young servant boys they would keep in their harems.
There were some intriguing moments of course, and they were ones we’d had no hints of in the buildup to the release. Mehrunnisa, Khilji’s wife, the daughter of Jalaluddin Khilji, the uncle he killed to take the throne, is endlessly fascinating to watch, and a character I actually had no clue I would be seeing. She never reacts quite the way you expect her to at any point that you get to see her, from her first appearance as a young woman giggling over the ostrich Allauddin has captured in order to claim her as his bride, to her reasons for helping Padmavati and Ratan Rawal successfully escape her husband’s clutches.
But over all, it was hard for me to separate the movie from all the madness leading up to it, and to watch it divorced from the knowledge that outside, in states far far away, it was currently inspiring Rajputs to burn cars and stone school buses.
We’ve also been reading about the plot for a year now, ever since the Karni Sena slapped Bhansali on set. Last week, the headlines were full of the Karni Sena’s threat that if the movie’s screening wasn’t halted, Kshatriya women would commit suicide just like Padmavati did. Today, the headlines report that Padukone said the jauhar scene in this movie was the most challenging of her life.
But as Netflix once said about Narcos 2, the second season of a show about Colombian drug lord and narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar, history, or in this case, history and headlines, are the world’s biggest spoilers. And that was the feeling I got while watching this three-hour long movie—the annoyed, restless feeling of someone who’s been handed a spoiler and forced to finish a book, and, given the year’s, month’s and week’s headlines, that’s how I expected other people to feel too.
But for once, the theatre around me was packed (I had to watch an evening show instead of the usual morning ones we review because Karnataka was on very peaceful strike all day, but for more useful reasons than a Bollywood movie). The three teenage girls next to me were gasping at all the right moments, and someone actually wolf-whistled at the beginning of the jauhar scene (which is a pretty good indication of what this movie glorifies, because there’s apparently nothing more invigorating than the mass suicide of thousands of women to save themselves from a Muslim man).
So it’s hard to come away from Padmaavat without feeling a bit bemused. You realise that lakhs of rupees worth of property was destroyed, and probably a lot more spent on security, over an imagined insult in a movie that’s nothing but a fawning ode. You realise that many of the 1 million people who came out to watch the movie did so because of the controversy-that-wasn’t, and are suddenly watching an overtly casteist movie with the justified expectation that it would be insulting to the community it venerates. I wonder if they felt the way the Karni Sena did when they set their own car on fire.
Co-published with Firstpost.