Power, Piffle and Padmaavat

The problem with a film that has been in the news and resulted in violent protests is that it gets a pedestal, and the resultant pigeon droppings, before you have even watched it. There is baggage as you enter the auditorium. You are already emotionally tuned into it – whether it be its message or its very existence as triumph over opposition. (The Karni Sena, a sort of watchdog organisation that burned the sets and demanded the head of the actors, claiming that the portrayal of Padmaavati, their hero who did not bow down to Allaudin Khilji, would be an insult to Rajputs.)

Despite all the intellectual titillation provided by an open letter where an actor claimed that she felt reduced to a vagina after watching Padmaavat (more on that later), the film did not reduce or elevate me to anything.  

I sat through it, not squirming as much as feeling detached. There was no emotional connect, as character after character piled on bravado and bluster in the automated manner of updated robots.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has taken to making epic-type films that beneath their grandeur manage to camouflage the caricatures his characters come across as. For a movie that spouted honour, it struck one as a weakling constantly seeking affirmation.

The primary criticism of Padmaavat has been from the feminist point of view, and because one actor Swara Bhasker has decided to reduce the whole female population of India to genitals while smartly trying to win brownies by flattering the director with terms like “brilliant auteur” as well as the online coteries by adding mandatory references to “today’s India”, I’ll address a few points:

Why exactly was she reduced to a vagina?
 “Yes, women have vaginas, but they have more to them as well. So their whole life need not be focused on the vagina, and controlling it, protecting it, maintaining it’s purity. (Maybe in the 13th century that was the case, but in the 21st century we do not need to subscribe to these limiting ideas. We certainly do not need to glorify them.)”

You’ve got to be an obstetrician if that is all you see. This is ridiculous, whether the reference is to the film or to reality. Khilji has heard about Padmaavati’s beauty and wants to acquire her because “har nayaab cheez par hamara haq hai” (he has claims over every beautiful thing). His actions, at least according to this film, do not show him to be an aesthete and I’m afraid he does not appear to be terribly interested in the vagina either. His lust is essentially about jerking off the excess pressure of immense power he imagines he has.

You can’t find the jauhar scene glorified and not have a problem with the glorification of a queen who conveniently married a married man and let the first wife get side-lined.

You cannot rant about being reduced to a vagina and not notice that this first wife was not only dehumanised, but desexualised as well. Padmaavati too spends more time trussing up her husband’s turban than any expression of amour.

You cannot have a problem with women choosing to end their lives instead of falling prey to the enemy and not flinch when men routinely speak of embracing death fighting the same enemy. What is so valorous about the latter? That they don’t have a vagina? So who is being reductive?

You can’t talk about Nirbhaya, the Delhi gangrape victim’s brave fight against her assaulters and not see Padmaavati fighting a similar threat. For all we know, had Khilji made it anywhere close to her she, a warrior herself, would have put up a good fight. All women do, unless they are muffled, shackled or rendered immobile. And people should just stop using rape and Dalit girls for their posh little consciences.
“I felt like all the ‘minor’ achievements that women and women’s movements have made over the years– like the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to education, equal pay for equal work…all of it was pointless; because we were back to basics.”

There is so much hyperbole here that it sounds like she is cloning Bhansali. Nobody, and certainly not rape victims, feels reduced to a vagina. They suffer from trauma not because their vagina was violated but because they were. I wish people would stop demoting the strides in law and social justice regarding women only to use it to make the self-righteous point that they, as opposed to the rest, care.

Even more appalling is the belief that cinema ought not to portray what may have happened without taking a moral position on it.  

“I understand that Jauhar and Sati are a part of our social history…but then so were the lynchings of blacks by murderous white mobs in the 19th century in the US – sensational, shocking dramatic social occurrences. Does that mean one should make a film about it with no perspective on racism? Or, without a comment on racial hatred?”

Political correctness and vacuous op-eds are killing reportage and delineation. The creator would certainly be free to explore the material as s/he wishes, but that does not necessarily amount to an opinion. It is choosing what part of the landscape to focus on. Many do-gooder films that overtly comment do not flinch from sensationalising the evils they depict. Patina is not perspective. Just as binaries are no plausible response to cardboard portrayals.


Swara Bhasker posted a video where she told Bhansali that she had taken up for his film during the protests. I watched more than that one clip. On the casting couch of which she was a potential victim, she refuses to name the man because he is not as important as her now. The message being that if your perpetrator is someone lower in the hierarchy, what’s the point? No eyeballs to grab.
She also puts the onus of the casting couch on women. She says, and this is pretty much her quote, that a man asking you to sleep with him is offering a bribe; you have the choice to refuse it. Women must say No. There will be consequences. But women shouldn’t be in a position where their ambitions become their greatest disadvantage.

To think that people like this are seen as the sensible and brave voices on social media. Oh, but they would be. Social media props up blather because it can’t handle complexities.