28 Jan


Curb bullies and let Padmaavat fade away

Velocity of violence does not indicate valour. Vandals running amok on the streets, destroying public and private property, protesting perceived attacks on Rajput cultural, religious and community beliefs only end up licking wounds self-inflicted on their monumental egos. Karni Sena, the self -proclaimed protector of Rajput bravery, is a case in point. Its violent rampage against the Bollywood extravaganza Padmaavat starring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone raged on for almost a week; the warriors of Mewar prestige did not even spare schoolchildren.

Ironically, not one of the horrendous hordes had even seen the film. At the centre of the controversy lies the ambition of celebrity director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has mastered the art of manipulating history and religion to earn name, fame and money. His creed is that artistic freedom begins and ends with provocative forms of disruptive exhibitionism.

By now a pattern, SLB’s cinematic use of historical events and icons connect with the masses but also invariably leads to mass protests. He was forced to change the name of his controversial film from Padmavati to Padmaavat since he couldn’t convince even his liberal promoters that Padmavati was just another name. They didn’t buy into his romantically erotic interpretation of the legend about the beauteous Rajput queen who chose death over dishonour by a libidinally inflamed Moghul invader. Padmaavat, undoubtedly, is brilliant cinema in terms of acting, cinematography and direction.

All the three main characters, portrayed by Ranveer, Deepika and Shahid Kapoor, have delivered stellar performances. The three-hour-long film doesn’t allow the eye to stray away even for a moment from the screen. There is not even one scene or reference to Padmavati that should offend her worshippers. But Bhansali has taken liberties with historical beliefs. Allauddin Khilji, the nemesis of Rajput maharajas and ranis, has been portrayed as a ruthless predator who is obsessed with capturing and enslaving the beautiful queen. He dominates the film, yet Bhansali has refrained from projecting the person Rajputs and Karni Sewaks think he was.

He is considered a ruthless invader whose objective was not only to dishonour Indian women but also to destroy all Hindu symbols, from temples to holy scripts. Khilji and Aurangzeb are considered by nationalists as dangerous individuals whose primary mission was to destroy the Hindu identity. Driven more by the need to entertain than be emotionally historical, SLB has concentrated more on romantic scenes than on the Moghul conqueror’s brutality.

Even in the past, Bhansali and his ilk have chosen many real or mythical Hindu icons as subjects for their films. But the furore over Padmaavat signifies the first time that majoritarians have hit back with vengeance against Bollywood moneymakers and ideological propagandists masquerading as film artists, deterring them from playing fast and loose with conventions and convictions without facing resistance.
Yet the intensity and extent of violence by the anti-Padmaavat brigade is against every norm of democracy and civil behaviour.

More ominous is the near-unity among all the major regional and national political parties on adopting a policy of complete neutrality. Barring a few mid-level leaders, none of the top bosses has taken a public stand in favour of unhindered screening of Padmaavat.

Despite the Supreme Court’s unambiguous directions to ensure trouble-free screening of the film, lathi-wielding goons were able to get way with arson. Padmaavat promoters boast that over a million viewers turned up in various states to watch the film. However, the box office collections remain a secret. On an average, only 250 people have visited each of the 4000+ theatres that are showing the film. In an industry where an A starrer film makes over `50 crore in the first three days, Padmaavat has definitely not been a financial success so far.

It’s not a good sign for democracy that a small group of people is able to dictate the course and discourse in society through threats and violence. The fault lies with the ruling dispensation for allowing it to happen. The maximum uproar against Padmaavat was seen in BJP-ruled states, which could only mean that the party is afraid of a caste and community backlash if it takes action against the disrupters. None of its top leaders at the Centre or the states has condemned the vandalism. Its select club of aggressive and acerbic spokespersons has kept schtum so far. Its proactive ministers haven’t taken to social media since the prime minister hasn’t expressed his opinion on the film, though he spoke of inclusiveness in his Davos speech. Both the genuine and newly converted “Bhaktas” are waiting for a signal to troll.

It seems the BJP has given freedom to the state leadership to deal with the Padmaavat fallout at the local level. Of the 18 states it rules, only four have been affected by violence. Uttar Pradesh, whose chief minister is a Rajput, put down the rioters with a heavy hand. There were hardly any signs of protest in Chhattisgarh, where Dr Raman Singh, also a Rajput, is the chief minister. Significantly, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, where the maximum mayhem happened, go to polls either this year or the next. Moreover, elections for two Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan will take place by the end of the month. Does the tacit encouragement of street violence mean electoral compulsions dominate the political narrative?

Going by the results of opinion polls and public perception, the prime minister enjoys popular support as ever. He doesn’t need the bloody activism of fringe elements to bolster his chances for 2019. However, the BJP should dissect the deep message from the opinion polls, which indicate a significant fall in the party’s popular ratings and a steady rise in the acceptability of Rahul Gandhi. The economy is doing well. The Central government has not been hobbled by corruption charges. Coupled with political stability and international acceptability, India is perceived as a nation on the move.

The next 15 months are going to set the tone for the 2019 elections, preceded by Assembly polls in eight crucial states.

By allowing publicity-hungry faith-fighters to control the dynamics of the electoral battle, Modi risks losing his plot of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.

The perils of Padmaavat taking centre stage are potentially lethal to the well-laid plans of development politics.

It’s better to allow Padmaavat to lapse into obscurity as just another film which Tinseltown has churned out rather than one which can change the political colours of India.