Padmini to Padmavati to Padmaavat – The Journey from history to a ballad to Opera to a film!

Finally Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus hit the screens in Mumbai last week and I happened to watch it. I liked the film for its making apart from other reasons which make for a good one time watch! No, this is not review of the film, but there are spoilers ahead. In the whole of the long 2 hours and 44 minutes running time of the film, I didn’t find anything even remotely close to bringing dishonor to Rajputs or any others for whom the now infamous Karni Sena is holding brief. The fact that the Sena is continuing to spit venom and wreck violence in the country in spite of this, set me into spending most of the free time this weekend on doing some background research (read as Google search) on the topic. The findings led me to pen this out of turn 2nd post on this topic today.  My 1st post titled “The rise and rise of the Censor Senas” on this (read here) was when the film couldn’t get beyond the censors in November.

Much of what I am writing here traces its origin to what I found on the internet in different sites including Wikipedia. Since the authenticity of a source like Wikipedia is suspect, I hesitate to make this as a presentation of facts but just as some material of interest and intrigue!  I feel that what Bhansali set out to make and ended up making could be two different versions. And here’s why.

It’s only very recently I came to know that Padmavati is the same as Rani Padmini the Queen of Mewar in Rajasthan. I have faint memories of Rani Padmini from the Amar Chitra Katha book which I read as a kid like millions in India. Most of our lessons in history are steeped in volumes of Amar Chitra Katha, I suppose. While I don’t remember the setting and details what I remember is that she committed Sati at the end with many other women. I think even the cover depicted this.

I understand that Padmini became more popular as Padmavati thanks to Albert Roussel, a French composer. After a trip to India and Rajasthan as early as 1909, he came across the story of this beautiful queen and became very interested in it. On his return to France, he styled Padmavati as a French Opera ballet. Written during World War I, it was first performed at the Paris Opera on June 1, 1923. Roussel’s version of Padmavati was drawn from a eulogical ballad titled Padmaavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, composed in the year 1540 AD.

In this poem, Rani Padmavati is described as coming from ‘Singhal Dweep’ or Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There’s an elaborate explanation of her background. Rawal Ratan Sen, the Rajput King of Mewar kingdom, as Ratan Singh was named by Jayasi, married her in a ‘swyamvar’ in Ceylon, where he goes to after hearing about her beauty from the parrot ‘Hiraman’.

The poem further introduces Alāʾ ud-Dīn Khiljī (1296–1316 the second and most powerful ruler of the Khilji dynasty that ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the Indian subcontinent) who learns about the beauty of Padmavati through a banished courtier of Rawal Ratan Sen who found refuge in Khilji’s court. Khilji lays siege to Chittor from where Ratan Sen ruled. Ratan Sen refuses his demand to surrender Padmavati. Following a truce, Ratan Sen allows the Sultan to enter the fort, where Khilji sees Padmavati’s reflection in a mirror. He then traps Ratan Sen into accompanying him to the foot of the fort, captures him and returns to Delhi.

After being rescued from Delhi by his two brave warriors – Gora and Badal, Ratan Sen reaches Chittor to learn that the neighboring king Devpal had sent a marriage proposal to Padmavati. An upset Ratan Sen goes to fight Devpal and the two kill each other in a combat. Ratan Sen’s two wives – Nagmati and Padmavati immolate themselves on his pyre (Sati) before Khilji’s army reaches Chittor and the battle begins. There is neither the mention of ‘jauhar’ or Ratan Sen dying while fighting Khilji.

However Roussel’s version veers towards a different interpretation. Known for his romantic sensibility, his opera focuses on a tale of passion – of an obsessed powerful emperor who fails to conquer a woman’s heart. It also turns the narrative on its head – with the queen Padmavati stabbing her own husband, Rawal Ratan Singh. This is for pleading with his wife Padmavati to give herself up to Khilji to protect his kingdom. Padmavati kills the Raja and then commits Sati to protect their kingdom’s honor from an angry, marauding Khilji. (This climax, I guess is the problematic issue for the cultural police and the senas)

Much before his venturing into making this film on Padmavati, I vividly remember Bhansali doing an Opera musical in France years ago. That was in March 2008 shortly after Bhansali’s film Sawariya bombed big time at the Box office. In his own admission, he was depressed and wanted to be away from India trying out something new.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali remains the first Indian filmmaker who was commissioned by the prestigious Theatre Du Chatelet of France to redirect Padmavati with a current day production values.  So he was in Paris in 2008 to direct the 1923 opera ballet Padmavati, written by Albert Roussel. I understand that the show opened to rave reviews and appreciation.  Being staged in France probably escaped the attention and fury of the Karni Sena way back in 2008.

Connecting the dots, the reasons behind the ruckus even on the 1st day of the shoot, is not difficult to comprehend. The presumption that Bhansali’s present day film Padmavati would also be similar in theme to his 2008 musical and the baggage Bhansali himself carries with his earlier outings like Ramleela and Bajirao Mastani where he was accused of twisting history and historical events to sensationalise his narrative, took their toll this time.

However, Padmaavat – the film is a completely different version.  Where Rajputs and their valour are put in a pedestal, though just in oft repeated lofty dialogues.  In this, the Rani doesn’t kill the Raja. So, only when Bhansali writes a memoir few decades hence, will we actually know if this was the film he wanted to make or he ended up compromising his creative instincts. In this journey of a character from history to a ballad to an Opera to this film, there are quite a few elements to conjecture that Bhansali ended up making a different film. If that is actually the case, irony just committed Jauhar!

Postscript: If you find all this too much of heady stuff and just want to laugh out loud, just watch this act by Varun Grover on the origin of Padmavati– Padmaavat & the Parrot!!!

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The era of ‘Constant Checkers”!!!

Every decade is characterized by a dominant influence of the times. So, if 80’s was the Doordarshan(TV) era, 90’s the Computer era, the 1st decade of this century – the Mobile phone era, then this decade is certainly the Smart phone era! And this era is afflicted by one significant syndrome.  If you want to understand what it is, it is quite simple. Try answering the following simple questions:

What’s the 1st thing people do, these days after waking up? After brushing their teeth or perhaps even before that?

What’s going on while sipping the morning cuppa of tea or coffee?

What does one do, while waiting at the bus stop?

What do you see most youngsters doing, while travelling in the train these days?

What do people do most of the time, while waiting for their order in restaurants?

What do folks do when they are waiting for the signal to change while driving?

What do you do at airports these days while awaiting the boarding call?

What does one do while waiting in any line?

In a group of friends what do you see most of them engaged in?

Before the advent of the smart phone, giving a pertinent answer for all these questions would have been difficult as they can be quite diverse.  In the smart phone era though, the answer to all those questions in all probability is just going to be one which is “Checking the phone”!!! Welcome to the era of “Constant Checkers”! I read some time back that the American Psychological Association (APA) after conducting a study on the behavior of people of late, has come up with this term called “Constant Checkers” for those who constantly are checking their phones for e-mails, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, WhatsApp messages, video clips and so on.

Being a “Constant Checker” and having them around have become the new normal! So, when I saw a poster at my friend’s place which read “I saw a guy at the Coffee shop today. No phone, No tablet. No laptop. He just sat there. Drinking Coffee. Like a Psychopath!”, I wasn’t amused. The days are gone when one visits a coffee shop to just enjoy the coffee!  In the pre-smart phone era, parents used to worry that their kids suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Because of their lack of focus or concentration on one activity and their constantly wavering moods. However these days, I reckon that it’s the opposite. With most kids getting addicted to the smart phone in their teens of late, they suffer from “Attention Abundance Disorder” as most of the times they are hooked on to the phone with single minded attention!

Those days, when guests come at home, they are put to ease first by offering a glass of water. These days – it is by providing the Wi-Fi password!!! “Constant Checkers”, aside from checking their timelines constantly on social media, also keep “checking in” somewhere and announcing to the world of their whereabouts. More than visiting a place, announcing to others that you have visited that place is the order of the day! On our annual holiday last year at a hill resort, when the manager at the reception informed the guests that there was no Wi-Fi in the rooms, the disappointment was palpable. So, in the entire resort which had a swimming pool, reading room, play courts, recreation centre and the works, the busiest place was the “Activity centre” which had Wi-Fi!  Airplanes which used to be one place with no connectivity, have also started providing connectivity. Yesterday’s news says that even in India, we soon will be able to browse midair!  So, for a “Constant Checker” being on a plane is no excuse for not checking nowadays!

In line with the adage, “What goes up must come down”, I guess soon we will see the burnout of this syndrome or so I hope. And the signals are visible somewhere in the horizon.  In the many WhatsApp groups I am part of, I saw few of my friends exiting the groups as part of their New Year resolutions to be less hooked on to WhatsApp.  They claimed it to be a temporary measure and wanted to try it out. As stress levels go up due to the constant checking, “Digital Detox” is getting popular. I see online status messages which read: “On Digital Detox, please don’t disturb” more often than before.  However the jury is still out on if the detox helped or created serious withdrawal symptoms! I also see a sense of fatigue setting in of seeing the same messages of frivolous nature being circulated in different groups with a result, one just chooses to ignore the chats in most groups and focuses on just a select few. “Constant checking” also invariably becomes a bone to pick for wives with their husbands or vice versa.

With WhatsApp being actively used for serious business communication nowadays, “Constant Checking” has become unavoidable at one level.  As in most aspects of life, the challenge is to strike a balance while taking advantage of what technology can offer. The same is true for “Constant Checking” as well, I fathom till another disruption emerges.

Post Script: At a Chennai restaurant in what is a bold move, they ask the patrons to leave their mobile phones behind in a locker. And I’m told that the place is getting popular with the wives and Girlfriends!!

Rajinikanth and creating his own playbook!

“Normal people go to a party on 31st Dec., but Rajinikanth forms his own party on 31st Dec.”! This joke got added to the myriad “legend of Rajinikanth” jokes that storm the internet in regular frequency usually before his film releases. His next film 2.0 is still few months away. But his career 2.0 finally got released.

What were hitherto just signals and hesitant testing of waters turned into a clearly stated commitment on the last day of 2017, when Rajinikanth announced his intent to enter electoral politics in Tamil Nadu. The journey from being a matinee idol, Superstar Rajinikanth to the Thalaivar Rajinikanth has begun in right earnest. It’s clear that Rajini now sees an opening in TN to make an impact amidst the current political vacuüm that has engulfed TN since the demise of Jayalalitha and the virtual retirement of Karunanidhi. And for common people, of what has now become a rudderless Turmoil Nadu, Rajinikanth is their beacon of hope.

Why did Rajini decide to take the plunge now?  If you map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into Rajini’s life, he is probably past the first 4 needs (Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging and Esteem) and now he is seeking “Self Actualisation”. Nothing else explains his craving today to jump into politics having been so successful in his film career. The point to note is, if he lived in a state like Maharashtra, probably he would have just walked into the sunset like a Dilip Kumar. But TN has a strong precedent of popular actors trying their luck with politics (with mixed success though) and hence has shown politics to be the path to Self Actualisation for any mega successful actor.  Explains Kamal’s recent fishing in political waters as well.

If you just go by history just in TN, you have examples of stars who succeeded big time in politics and who failed miserably. MGR, Jayalalitha count in the 1st category while Shivaji Ganesan, Vijayakanth and a host of others fall in the 2nd. These tried to emulate the MGR playbook which didn’t work. In another era and environment, to succeed, Rajini needs to create his own playbook today. For which, he needs to know not just his strengths and weaknesses but also limitations of his strengths. Just like how he knew these and managed well in his film career all these years.

Having been an extremely successful actor and elevated to being a legend in the last 20 years, his popularity, charisma and top of the mind recall among the masses in TN are unparalleled. So he starts with this huge advantage of connecting with the youth, women and the underprivileged instantly.

Rajini has thus far a super clean image. He is not known to have cheated people or swindled others’ money. Stories of him returning money to distributors when his films like Baba and Lingaa flopped have only helped cultivate the image of him as a person with high moral values.

Rajini’s other important and I would say deliberate approach has been to stay away from controversies. Being just an actor so far he has not felt the need to give his opinion about all matters under the sun. Also he never threw his weight around in matters which are unconnected with films and thereby managed to remain unattached. This has earned him more sympathisers than adversaries!

But succeeding in politics and becoming a ruler of a state needs more than just a charismatic leader. You need a grass root organization with credible leaders who will be connecting and engaging with people on a day-to-day basis. Here’s where I would like to bring in Rajini and a seemingly far fetched BSNL analogy.

In India, when BSNL got the license in the 2nd round for offering mobile phone services, it started off with a distinct disadvantage. That of, competing with established private players who had a head start in the market. However compared to the other private players like Airtel, Tatas who also got into the market late, BSNL had one great advantage.  The private players had to put up a cellular tower network in their respective regions from scratch, right from identifying location, incurring high capex in real estate, setting up towers,…  BSNL however, already had their established base of offices for landline phones in the nook and corner of the country. So BSNL had to just put up cell phone towers in their own office buildings and do the roll out. This explains the fact that even today when you travel to remote rural areas, Airtel/Vodafone,.. fail miserably while BSNL provides great connectivity. I notice this every time I travel to my native place in Kerala!

Akin to BSNL’s offices in the nook and corner of the country, Rajini, though new to politics, has his established organizational network of Fan clubs in the entire TN. This network needs to be activated to become what we call in Marketing as “Touch points” for people. And from the announcement speech, it appears that this is what is Rajini’s first task going to be! I.e. of organizing the fan clubs into political shaakas!

Tapping into the BSNL analogy again, in spite of having such an advantage in terms of an established infrastructure, BSNL did not manage to set the cellular phone market on fire. While in rural areas, BSNL could hold fort thanks to the superior coverage, in urban India it couldn’t match the nimble footedness of private players. The “sarkari” image and the sloth experience customers got to experience in BSNL’s touch points in urban centres didn’t at all help in getting users to try BSNL. As Rajini tries to activate the fan clubs across TN, it is important for him to give a different flavor for these fan clubs in rural and Urban TN to appeal to the different sensibilities.

This is where it is important for Rajini to have the right set of advisors around him. Those who will be able to translate his intent into set of initiatives that will impact the people. Here, he can go back to his model what he has been adopting in his film career. As far as his films go, Rajini had a very clear but simple approach. That is of selecting the right script and choosing his directors very carefully. Apart from bringing his personal heft behind the project and picking the director, he didn’t do much in terms of influencing the script or choosing his technicians and the cast,…,… beyond a point. Here he is very different from Kamal Haasan or even other top Tamil stars like Vijay. Surya, Ajit,… who I understand involve themselves in the film beyond just being the hero. Similarly, with a right team in place and a winning script in the form of a vision for the state of TN, Rajini should let the team carefully craft the roll out of the policy, programs and promises.  Having a right team is also critical as, in the world of competitive politics, Rajini, (an ageing star turned politician at 68 with health concerns) has to be “seen” on top of issues 24*7. This can only happen if he has a good team to lean on. The current set of ‘Fan club” leaders may not fit the bill entirely.

In marketing, Brand positioning is considered to be the most crucial element in the whole mix. How one positions the brand in the minds of the consumer differently with respect to competition defines the way the brand is remembered and adopted. And here I feel, Rajini has thoughtfully come up with a unique positioning i.e of “Aanmeega Arasiyal” (Spiritual politics). While we have heard of Secular politics and Developmental politics and politics of all hue, this is unique. In TN, Dravida parties and their variants for decades have professed Atheism, Care for the oppressed and all such lofty ideals but have practiced exactly the opposite. I feel that this positioning will resonate well with the urban middle class segment which has been enduring the hypocrisy of the Dravida parties for quite some time.  Having cracked the positioning bit, it’s important to live it up and be consistent around this positioning as time goes by.

If one would have noticed, since the 31st Dec, when he made the announcement to join electoral politics, Rajini has managed to remain in the news. Instead of doing everything on one particular day and keeping quiet subsequently (a la Kamal), Rajini has been carrying out his activities in tranches. Thereby remaining on top of the news clutter. A smart approach so far.

Rajini has thus far created his own playbook and has played his cards well. But politics is a long game. It will be interesting to watch his next moves and the outcomes. Whether this playbook helps him to succeed, only time will tell.

Usually when so called “Good people” join politics with a promise to bring a change, they end up changing themselves. But here, “Politics has joined Rajinikanth”. Hopefully politics gets a makeover. Or so many pray!

Pic courtesy: AFP