Free Press Journal

A futile and divisive Padmavati controversy


It is not surprising that the controversial twist given to the folklore of centuries ago in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s celluloid depiction of Rani Padmavati of Chittor in Rajasthan has been occupying media space so pervasively. One can hardly ascribe it to anything but the obsession with sensationalism in the modern context.

Rajput groups, including the Karni Sena, allege that the film is a distortion of history and that it has invented a romantic angle between two historical figures, Chittor’s queen Padmavati and Delhi sultan of the time, Alauddin Khilji, where none existed. Revered by the martial race of Rajputs especially in Rajasthan and believed to have committed ‘sati’ at the funeral pyre of her husband to save her honour and her people’s pride from a marauding Khilji, the depiction of Rani Padmavati has disturbed a hornet’s nest.

The chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have shown a recognizable softness towards the critics of the movie and have been tacitly in favour of action to block its release in its present form. The protagonists of cultural freedom are equally up in arms.

The decision of the film’s producers to slice off a controversial part of the film to gain greater acceptability and to facilitate its release, in the process postponing its release, has run into rough weather with the Supreme Court, which insisted that unilateral cuts were not acceptable until the apex court took a call on the whole controversy.

With the powers-that-be at the Centre and in Rajasthan revelling in invoking Hindu pride as a means to polarize potential voters, there is indeed an outcry for banning or at least modifying the film to suit the depiction of the then Chittor Rani as an embodiment of purity who committed ‘Sati’ when Khilji’s forces were closing in on her palace for the Muslim ruler to betroth her. Arrayed on the opposite side is the Left and ‘liberal’ lobby that sees no harm in the depiction of romanticism between a Hindu queen and a Muslim ruler of Delhi.

It was a different matter, if one or the other point of view was the unimpeachable truth, but historians are even casting doubts over whether there was a Rani Padmavati at all in those times or whether the story is a work of total fiction. As it is, the first reports about Rani Padmini or Padmavati appeared nearly two centuries after the purported event was supposed to have happened. The jury is not out on the controversy and while the Rajasthan government has set up a committee to study the issue, there is no guarantee that the State government’s bias would not find its way into the report.

While protesters against the film are out on the streets, an obscure outfit Karni Sena’s diehard supporters slapped the filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali in public, threatened him with dire consequences and told the film’s famous actress Deepika Padukone that they would chop her nose a la demon king Ravana’s sister Shurpanakha and sever the head of Bhansali if the film was released without slashing objectionable content.

As a concession to those who are outraged at the lack of action by BJP governments at the Centre and the state of Rajasthan, a case has been filed against the activist who threatened Deepika and Bhansali but whether the case would take its logical course is a matter of speculation.

While human rights activists have been crying themselves hoarse that cultural or ‘artistic’ freedom is at peril, this needless controversy is sapping the country’s energy and fuelling social strife, putting more pressing issues on the backburner.

The moot question that arises is why does the country get deflected from its developmental and social reforms agenda so easily ever so often and why are interested parties able to take the gullible countrymen for a ride on emotive issues?

The answer lies in the disgusting fallout of disruptive and deleterious vote bank politics that has become such an integral part of the form of democracy that we practice. There is a premium on the politics of divisiveness which is sapping the country’s potential for positive energy.

The governments at the Centre and the state of Rajasthan, which have a stake in maintaining law and order, are sadly putting politics over national interest. The Opposition in general is far divorced from acting in national interest to the exclusion of narrow self-interest. The result is there for all to see.

Doubtlessly, not schooled in the diplomatic nuances of modern-day politics, Deepika Padukone goofed up when she said that “India has regressed as a nation” in response to the vandalisation of a cinema hall in Kota, Rajasthan by Karni Sena members for screening the trailer of Padmavati.

“It’s absolutely appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation?”, she asked and added, “The only people we are answerable to is the censor board, and I know, and I believe that nothing can stop the release of this film”. This inflamed the critics of the film no end.

One can only hope that the bandh called by the Karni Sena and other supporting outfits for December 1 would be withdrawn and the crisis would be defused well in time.

There is little point in quibbling about the ‘purity’ or the purported love affair of a 14th century queen today, when the authenticity of various versions is steeped in doubt. There is a lot else that is contemporary and requires the attention of people at large.

It is time this futile controversy be ended. There is no way history can be re-constructed with complete authenticity six centuries after the events occurred. Is there any point in hair-splitting?

The author is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.