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Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the latest chapter in the rise of Hindu radicalization

By Murtaza Ali Khan

“What’s in a name?” wrote William Shakespeare. Surely, he couldn’t have been further away from the reality when he wrote that in his ubiquitously renowned tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. For, everything lies in the name: be it Rama and Rahim, Gandhi and Godse, or Ashoka and Aurangzeb. Each of these names carries historical and/or cultural and/or religious significance. Of course, these names would be meaningless the moment they get separated from the historical, cultural, and religious identifiers. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali was recently manhandled by a bunch of goons on the sets of his upcoming movie, Padmavati, in Jaipur. Apparently, Rajput Karni Sena, an extremist Hindu group, wasn’t too impressed with the manner Bhansali intended to portray the legendary Rajput Queen in the eponymous film, starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, and Shahid Kapoor. This is not the first time that a Bhansali film has come under heavy attack by the right wing. His previous two films, Bajirao Mastani and Ram-Leela, too, had drawn the ire from certain right-wing groups over their controversial themes and titles.

So, with Padmavati, it has once again come down to the name. The figure of Padmavati remains quite sacred to the Rajputs till date. Much like Jodha Bai, Padmavati is a mystical figure whose historical existence till date remains a subject of debate among historians. For, there is no concrete historical proof which confirms of her existence. The best reference is perhaps Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem, ‘Padmawat’ (aka Padmavat), published circa 1540, which presents a fictionalized account of the Turkic Sultanate ruler Allauddin Khilji’s siege of the Chittor Fort in 1303 AD. Jayasi’s poem eulogizes the enchanting beauty of Padmini, the consort of Rawal Ratan Singh, the king of Mewar, which bewitched Khilji into carrying out his famous siege. According to the poem, when Khilji’s army surrounded the fort, Padmini immolated herself, along with a retinue of Rajput women, in order to protect her honor. The manner in which Padmini succumbed to this patriarchal notion of honor has over the years become the specter of the Rajput pride. So, basically, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has been accused of demeaning the iconic image of Padmavati by the group that trashed him in the premises of the majestic Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur. Apparently, it was brought to their notice that Bhansali was getting the set ready to film a romantic scene between Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji. The very idea sounded so revolting that they took it upon themselves to teach Bhansali a lesson that he wouldn’t forget.

Everybody keeps talking about the extreme side of Islam and its endless dangers but tend to overlook the maleficent ways of Hindu fundamentalism. What has happened to Bhansali is a classic example of the rise of Hindu extremism in the country, post-2014 general elections. With the NDA government not too keen on tightening its grip on them, these Hindu extremist groups feel that they can take the law in hands and still go scot-free. Of course, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with protest as long as it is peaceful. At the time of release of Bajirao Mastani, certain Hindu groups led by the descendents of Peshwa and Chhatrasal dynasty had sought ban on the release of the film as they accused Bhansali of demeaning their great legacy through his scandalous portrayal of the relationship between Peshwa Bajirao, a Hindu, and Mastani, a Muslim. Ram-Leela, made before Bajirao Mastani, too was accused of hurting the Hindu sentiments. It has certainly gotten worse for Bhansali with each passing movie. Undoubtedly, what happened in Jaipur was a well-planned attack devised by a dangerous nexus that’s trying to destroy India’s secular fabric. And the nexus has only grown stronger during the last couple of years. This period has witnessed recurrent verbal attacks on the artists as well as the intellectuals. What’s made the matter worse is the administration’s lack of intent in curbing the activities of the Hindu extremist organizations. While what happened to an artist like Bhansali is deeply disturbing, what’s even more distressing is the remark made by the Home Minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, that it is “natural to be angry”.

It’s well documented that the Hindu kings were great patrons of art and showed great religious tolerance. If we look at some of the greatest Sanskrit plays, we will learn how the playwrights took liberties to dramatize the old stories to suit the contemporary times. Perhaps, the best example is Kalidasa’s third and final play, Abhijnanasakuntalam, which tells a highly dramatized version of the story of Shakuntala, narrated in the epic Mahabharata. In his second play, Vikramorvasiyam, although Kalidasa drew heavily from scriptures as varied as Samvada Sukta, Rigveda, and Mahabharata, among others, he did add novelty and surprise elements to the original content in order to dramatize the events. Not only were the ancient Hindu kings tolerant to the artists taking liberties to retell the classic stories from Vedic texts, Puranas and classic epics, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata, but they wholeheartedly patronized them. A question arises that if the Indians artists could enjoy such liberty in the ancient times why can’t they enjoy it in the 21st century modern India?

India has a rich literary legacy of over 2000 years that can be traced back to Bharatmuni’s Natya Shastra. And, yet, we look towards the West for ideas. In the recent times, our filmmakers have shown more interest in adapting Shakespeare (Maqbool, Omkara, Haider) and Dickens (Fitoor) than they have in embracing the Indian folklore and legends. All these years Sanjay Leela Bhansali has stood as an exception, for his films have been nothing but a celebration of the Indian culture. While Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was an adaptation of Maitreyi Devi’s Bangla novel, Na Hanyate, his Devdas was based on Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s popular Bangla novel of the same name. His recent film, Bajirao Mastani, was based on Nagnath S. Inamdar’s Marathi novel, Raau. Bhansali’s ingenious showmanship has helped bring back these nigh forgotten literary gems to life. Indeed, Bhansali is a national treasure and his films are culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. What happened to Bhansali in Jaipur was extremely regretful. Jaipur is a major tourist hub of India and a favorite shooting destination for Bollywood. It was the state government’s responsibility to give sufficient protection to a celebrated filmmaker like Bhansali. But it failed miserably. Alas, instead of acknowledging the administration’s failure to protect an eminent public figure, the BJP’s Home Minister of Rajasthan was too busy justifying the sentiments of the goons who assaulted Bhansali!

India is a land of diversity. It is the unity in diversity that’s India’s greatest strength. But everything that India stands for seems to be under a serious threat. The intolerance debate has been going on ever since the power change took place at the centre in the year 2014. But what is intolerance? Well, any attempt to curb the freedom of an individual or a sect is an example of intolerance. To cut the long story short, let us take the recent controversy surrounding Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor’s newborn. The couple chose to name their son as Taimur. But, as soon as the news broke out, certain extreme elements on Twitter went berserk. Not only did they dare question the right of the parents to name their child but also went to the extent of branding Saif as an anti-national. Some vile individuals even cursed the newborn, wishing for his death. It was a classic case of Islamophobia. Taimur, meaning ‘Iron’ in Arabic, bears homophonic similarity to Timur (aka Tamerlane) – the name of the Turco-Mongol conqueror who is said to have massacred 100,000 captives in Delhi.

But Timur’s belligerent attack wasn’t against a Hindu empire. It was a crushing assault on the Tughlaq armies which brought an end to the dynasty’s rule in the Delhi Sultanate. It was not unlike Maurya King Ashoka’s decimation of the state of Kalinga. Such attacks aren’t about vengeance but about conquest. The history is full of such examples. Also, there are historical references to Ashoka killing 99 of his brothers in order to claim the throne just like there are proofs of the Mughal King Aurangzeb executing his brother, Dara Shikoh. Although, Aurangzeb has often been described as a religious fanatic, who didn’t share his father Shah Jahan’s passion for architecture, he did play a pivotal role in the completion of Shahjahanabad – one of the seven cities of Delhi – and befittingly one of the roads in New Delhi was named after him. The incumbent NDA government controversially renamed Aurangzeb road to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam road back in August 2015. One wonders if this rechristening of the road was actually done to honor the former president of India or it was another case of an Islamic name weighing too heavily on the minds of an intolerant regime. The fact remains that historically no king ever lived who didn’t kill in the name of his empire: be it Marcus Aurelius or Ajatashatru, Ashoka or Alexander, Edward Longshanks or Akbar. Then why only pinpoint the violence committed by the Muslim kings? Why detest Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan but adore Chhatrapati Shivaji and Maharana Pratap?

Coming back to Padmavati, the members of the Rajput Karni Sena have serious objections against the idea of Queen Padmavati romancing Allaudin Khilji in the upcoming Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. And so, purely on the basis of conjecture, they decided to thrash up an artist trying to take a creative liberty. This brings us to the Orwellian notion of thought-crime in 1984 and Phillip K. Dick’s idea of precrime in The Minority Report. Ironically, in both the cases the concerned person gets apprehended without actually having committed any crime. Since ideas are seen as dangerous in both these dystopian worlds, even the thoughts are punishable. Are those dystopias becoming a reality in the 21st century India? Now, the perpetrators claim that Bhansali intends to hurt their sentiments by maligning the reputation of their beloved Queen Padmini. But, neither Bhansali nor his team has made any such claim. Knowing Bhansali, he would certainly take a few creative liberties in his retelling of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s ‘Padmawat’ that was also the source of Albert Roussel’s 1923 opera titled, Padmavati. But would it be unlike the liberties that Kalidasa took in Abhijnanasakuntalam to make it more accessible? After all, Padmavati is going to be a commercial movie and not a documentary! But what if Bhansali’s concoction ends up hurting the sentiments of a particular section of the society? Well, that’s precisely why we have the Central Board of Film Certification in place. And if that’s not enough, the legal option is always available.

But then why beat up a famous filmmaker publicly like this? The recent attack orchestrated by the Rajput Karni Sena is the latest chapter in the rise of Hindu radicalization masterminded by the Hindutva lobby. It should be seen as yet another attack on the freedom of expression of the Indian artists and intellectuals. Also, come to think of it, the protest has been timed carefully with the UP elections just around the corner. During the last couple of years, we have witnessed the vilest side of Hindu fundamentalism hitherto unseen in post-independence India with the artists and intellectuals being subjected to verbal attacks and physical assaults, students being charged with sedition and anti-nationalism, Muslim youth being accused of Love Jihad, hue and cry over beef consumption, attack on the churches, and desperate Ghar Wapsi drives. One fears the worst is yet to come.

Murtaza Ali Khan
is an independent film critic and blogger based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Wittyfeed, Jamurra Blog, etc.


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