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 Padmavat 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, Padmavat – 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 rise and rise of the Censor Senas!!!

Acclaimed film maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has again been engulfed in a controversy. This time around his soon to be released magnum opus Padmavati, which has enraged a section of people in North India –   Rajputs in particular, who have threatened to behead Bhansali, maim the lead actress Deepika Padukone apart from stopping the screening of his film. A few years ago, Bhansali had faced the ire of some religious groups over his film Ram Leela over the title. Bhansali then rechristened the film to Goliyon Ka Raasleela – Ram Leela and managed to get away. And his last movie, Bajirao Mastaani met with similar pre-release blues when activists from Maharashtra claimed that Bhansali was distorting history in the name of creative freedom. The film was finally released after Bhansali claimed that it was a fictional work. So, with all his rich experience in handling similar crisis in the past, hopefully Bhansali will get over this as well, even as I hear that the producers have deferred the release of the film.

Bhansali is not alone in this. In the past, quite a few filmmakers have gone through the harrowing experience of their film being threatened to be stopped. And the reasons varied from “hurting religious sentiments” to ‘distorting history” to “disrespecting past leaders” to “using Pakistani actors” to “hurting a particular community” to “against Indian ethos” and so on. Almost every month we have a film which gets caught in such a controversy at the time of release. Conspiracy theories abound that filmmakers often play with fire to stoke these controversies as a means to promote the film. In these days, where a film’s financial fate is decided on the opening it gets, one cannot dismiss these theories. Controversies help to “hashtag” the film for a few days and help to raise interest levels!  And then the producer gets into a “compromise” with the fringe groups in return for a safe passage for the film! And one cannot blame the producer for the same as few million bucks ride on each of these films!

These days, some fringe group or other raises a stink even before they have seen the film suspecting to hurt their sentiments just by going by the trailer and promotions. In the case of Padmavati, Bhansali got into trouble just as he commenced shooting when a group called the Karni Sena vandalized the sets at Kolhapur earlier this year. What perplexes one is how could they conclude that the film is going to hurt their sentiments even before the shooting commenced? Did they get to see the script? The Karni Sena chief admitted recently that though he not seen the film he had a “hunch” of what the film is about. Well, if only if we can find a way of utilizing their skills of prescience better like in weather forecasting,… we may be better off!

In effect, what we see is fringe groups taking the mantle of the censor board and becoming “Censor Senas”! Karni Sena, which was originally formed for securing the interests of Rajputs against discrimination, seems concerned only about the image of their clan as depicted in films as can be seen the last few times they shot into limelight – like before release of Ashotosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar! During the release of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, I had opined that filmmakers may have to get their films certified by fringe groups on whom the film is about!  But it appears that not just fringe groups, but filmmakers may have to seek approval even from news anchors as we saw yesterday when the producers of Padmavati had an exclusive screening of the film for a few news anchors! So, Arnab Goswami apart from being the Prime time Prosecutor cum Defense lawyer and Judge now has turned a “Super” Censor Board member as well!  As things stand, in India, film makers may have to show their script, may be add a few scenes to glorify and take blessings from the “Censor Senas” and then commence shooting!

In all this, what comes under very close scrutiny is what the Govt. of the day does or doesn’t do in such circumstances. In this, no party has covered itself with glory. While our constitution has enshrined the Freedom of Speech and Expression as a fundamental right, as far as political parties are concerned it often is secondary. What is more important to them is the political impact of exercising that freedom. And they take umbrage under “Whataboutery” of such incidents of the past! I am certain that if the ruling govt. makes its intent clear right from the beginning that once the Censor Board clears the film for release they will ensure that they will provide the necessary support, the threats of stopping the film will lose its sting. But, usually it’s not the case. The party panders to the community overtly or covertly as per their electoral clout and plays to the gallery. Just like what the BJP government in Rajastan has done in the case of Padmavati or what the AIADMK Govt. did for Vishwaroopam. Then it is left to the filmmaker to broker peace with the protesters either financially or by tweaking content. Either way it doesn’t augur well for our country which often talks of promoting its soft power!

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” is a quote often made in the context of freedom of expression. So, the argument is that no creator has any business of hurting sentiments of others and hence they should stay off topics like religion, community, biography of leaders, depiction of history, Indian culture,…,… If that is the case I am afraid that the only way out for filmmakers is to become a Rohit Shetty and churn out capers of the Golmaal variety!

On a serious note, while in a country where people are emotional and argumentative, aspects of religion occupy an important space in one’s lives, I do agree that it is important to respect the sentiments of others. However, any act of disrespect or alleged disrespect cannot be judged by people themselves. It was our former PM Vajpayee who once said “An answer to a book is another book!” in the context of banning a book! Similarly the answer to a film one doesn’t like, is to stay away from the film and not threaten to stop the film or vandalise the theatres!

Ergo, I feel that the role of the Censor Board becomes crucial while certification. As per its charter, the CBFC (Central Board for Film Certification) can refuse to certify a film on many accounts including some of the concerns espoused like disturbing communal harmony,… Once the film is certified for release by the Censor Board in its due wisdom, it should become the responsibility of the State to support the filmmaker with its release, if the situation warrants. With such an onerous responsibility, it also becomes crucial for the Board to have the right people as its members.  Here again, instead of treating Censor Board as a place for rewarding loyalists, considering the sensitivity involved, the Government of the day should pack this with eminent people from different walks of life who can carry out the job without prejudice.  At a time when as a country we are in the throes of “Arriving” in the world scene, we need minimum distractions.  Threat to Freedom of Expression must not be one. Time for the Censor Senas to Rest in Peace!

Postscript: This is my 150th post! A big thank you for reading, liking, commenting and at times sharing my posts! Your encouragement has always been a big driver!

Pic Courtesy: Amul