Sunday 4 February 2018

Padmaavat is a horrifying film and it should never have been made

In these times of strife, intolerance and extremism, in the name of religion and caste, I wish Padmaavat had never been made, writes Ishmeet Nagpal in Feminism in India. Read on: 

I have grappled long and hard with the intention of writing a review for Padmaavat. The overwhelming voice in my head throughout the movie kept repeating: this movie should not have been made at all. I’m all for freedom of expression and creative licence but the discomfort that comes with supporting a movie like Padmaavat just doesn’t seem worth it.

I remember reading about Allaudin Khilji in school. His huge eyes from a black and white portrait conveyed determination and a hint of cruelty. Bhansali’s Khilji is portrayed in a very sharp spectrum as well, leaving no room for complexity. He’s demonic, savage and outright evil – which the film stereotypically attributes as Muslim characteristics. He has no hint of sensitivity even when he regales Khusrau with his mediocre poetry.

He goes after every ‘Naayab cheez’ with animal ferocity. With ‘cheez’ here often referring to a woman.

This brings us to the woman in question, Padmavati, a Buddhist princess who likes to hunt in semi-practical clothing and flowing hair that never seems to impede her pyrotechnics. Romance (post the mandatory stalking) ensues with a wooden Rawal Ratan Singh who never once mentions being already married. His flirting is cringeworthy and would trigger any woman who’s ever been cheated on by the quintessential ‘nice guy’.

Padmavati is extremely intelligent and also quite impressionable by the looks of it. She abandons her Buddhist heritage, spews flawless Shri Ram vs Raavan idioms, and magically masters Ghoomar choreography in a jiffy because she’s ‘Sarv gun sampann’.

It’s tragic that the 13th century male egos denied women their voices. Oh, wait, that happens in the 21st century too. But as I digress, a random thought hits me – if there were no men allowed except the King in Ghoomar, where did the male chorus voices in the song come from? Were they hiding in a cave somewhere? We’ll never know.

The glorification of Rajputs seems out of place in modern cinema and especially insensitive in these turbulent times. As if that was not problematic enough, the film indulges in caste-based invisibilisation as well. While the kingdom belonged to Rajputs, other castes must surely have been living in the kingdom.

What happened to the Dalit women in the kingdom? Did they commit mass suicide too? In the same pyre as Rajput women? If they did, did they have any say in the matter? Does history forget them, yet again?

I have struggled to be understanding of Jauhar in the context of the 13th century. That was probably the only option they thought they had. The conditioning of a male-dominated society from the context of the 13th century has continued well into the 1980’s and 1990’s, even in our films.

So many movie plots involve the sexual assault of the hero’s sister as an insult to the hero’s ‘honour; and her inevitable suicide. Even Ek Duje Ke Liye, a film that highlighted regional and cultural conflicts, ended with suicide as an aftermath of sexual assault.


But there’s a difference between the above portrayals and Padmaavat. The Bollywood films preceding Padmaavat depicted the suicides as a tragedy, with heartbreaking music and tearjerking dialogue. It made you angry about the unjust society that conditions women into believing that their lives are over because of sexual assault.

This is where Padmaavat grossly gets it wrong. Padmavati delivers a motivational speech urging fellow Rajput women to commit Jauhar as a ‘dharm‘ to honour their men who are equal to ‘God’ for them. The women then proceed to the pyre in carefully choreographed geometric formations to rousing ‘this is heroic’ music and a voiceover which declares this as a Rajput victory.

As I watched children and pregnant women walking towards the fire, all I wanted to do was sob uncontrollably, but the ‘heroic’ music and cheers of the audience around me just left me frozen. How can you turn an unspeakable tragedy into a celebration, Mr Bhansali? The door closing scene lifted from your Devdas climax just leaves Khilji looking like a lovelorn little boy, not the villain you carefully crafted in the previous 120 minutes.

The disclaimers that this movie carried are worthless. Words are meaningless when actions refute them. In the end, I squirmed in my seat, because the only thing worse than a movie giving out wrong messages is the one that gives out ambiguous ones.

Please don’t tell us art can exist without giving out a message. All art speaks, whether you want it to or not. And Padmaavat leaves itself dangerously open to misinterpretation. In these times of strife, intolerance and extremism, in the name of religion and caste, I wish Padmaavat had never been made.

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