For several years, it has been typical for high-budget, usually underwhelming films to be mired in controversy before their release. It happened with Jodha Akbar; it happened with Vishwaroopam/Vishwaroop; it happened with 3 Idiots; it happened with Veer; it happened with Dasavataram/Dasavatar; it happened with Enthiran/Robot.Sometimes, it’s a group claiming the film is offensive to their communities. Sometimes, it’s a writer claiming the story was stolen. Usually, a court case is filed. This creates enough attention for people to want to go see the films before they get taken off the screens, the producers break even, they occasionally make cuts in later versions to appease the protesters, and everyone is happy.
The Rajput Karni Sena is leading various outfits in their claims that the film is derogatory to their caste and queen and that it distorts history, and in their demand that it therefore should not be shown. They have threatened to protest across the world against its release – bigots apparently come with all colours of passport – and have already vandalised a theatre which was rumoured to have screened the film’s trailer. Oh, the irony of people protesting against a film which reportedly distorts a myth at a time when history textbooks are actually being rewritten, with the victors of wars changing to suit religious and regionalist fervour! There have been debates about whether Rani Padmini truly existed in history or whether she was simply a character of the epic poem Padmavat. But the question here is a far more crucial one than whether the film is “offensive” to the history or mythology of a particular community. Does an artist, a fabricator of fiction and ideas, not have the right to revision history as s/he sees fit, to explore perspectives that found no place in the traditional telling? The idea of subversion of the stereotype through re-visioning and rewriting became popular in the twentieth century, and has been a powerful tool for the voice of traditionally oppressed communities – by gender, by race, by class. Works such as Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys in response to Jane Eyre, and more recently The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall as a reinterpretation of Gone with the Wind have been crucial in pointing out and dismantling the stereotypes in those classics of literature. In India, some of the greatest modern and contemporary works of literature owe their origins to myth and history. We made history as the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. But decades earlier than the ban, works were published or staged that were revolutionary and won more acclaim than criticism. These include Subramania Bharati’s Panchali Sabatham (1912), C. N. Sreekantan Nair’s Kanchana Sita (1961), and Cho Ramaswamy’s Muhammad Bin Tughlaq (1968). Later works of reinterpretation and reimagining include Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story (1977), M. T. Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (1984), Gajendra Kumar Mitra’s Panchajanya (1987), Githa Hariharan’s The Thousand Faces of Night (1996), and Girish Karnad’s Tipu Sultan Kanda Kanasu (1997). In the earlier works, written at a time when India was either fighting for independence or forming its various states and governments, mythical and historical characters were given voices that were not originally theirs. In Bharati’s Panchali Sabatham, Draupadi berates every man in the Kaurava court, emasculating them in metaphors, dripping with sarcasm as she explores their deeds of purported heroism and adherence to the duties of a king. Kanchana Sita explores the idea of caste and duty through a series of interrogations of Rama by his sister-in-law Urmila, his guru Vasishta, his brother Bharata, and eventually his sons Lava and Kusha. Muhammad bin Tughlaq, which Cho Ramaswamy later made into a film of the same name, uses the writer’s characteristic satirical style and unflinching pragmatism to tear apart the socio-political constructs of an emerging India, exposing politicians for power hungry turncoats and election manifestoes for false promises. None of these was denied either literary merit or editorial validity. But at some point things changed. Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story (1977) could not be staged in India. It was greeted with an order for 78 cuts by the censor board and threats from right-wing groups. No publisher wanted to touch the play for nearly four decades, until it was finally published in 2015. The forced polyandry of Draupadi is the central theme of the play, and in a manner reminiscent of Panchali Sabatham, it explores the ideas of war, commoditisation of women, and caste privilege. However, it doesn’t spare Krishna either, berating him for “rescuing” her only after she had been almost completely disrobed. In one of its most searing episodes, it has Eklavya offering in return for Dronacharya’s demand of his right thumb as gurudakshina, a cast of his thumb from mud and spit, with the explanation, “Like guru, life gift.” Gajendra Kuma Mitra’s Panchajanya is told in the voice of Krishna, who – in contravention to the traditional idea of his being on the side of the Pandavas, who embody virtue – is only on the side of justice, which he believes the entire ruling class is incapable of delivering. Every move, as a cowherd, as an advisor, and as the pilot of Arjuna’s chariot, is seen in the context of a gameplan, one which involves ridding the nation of both the Pandavas and Kauravas. The much-acclaimed, award-winning Randamoozham tells the story of Bhima, sandwiched between Yudhisthira – the epitome of righteousness – and Arjuna, the epitome of valour. And its revisionist take exposes these labels as exaggerated, Yudhisthira as effete, Arjuna as narcissistic, and Bhima for the unsung hero who essentially won the war for the Pandavas. With a film adaptation budgeted at a reported Rs. 1000 crore in the works, one wonders how the right wing will react before its release. Perhaps it is odd to point to literary masterpieces in the context of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. But the release of Padmavati is not about the merit of the film. It’s about the right of an artist to re-imagine history and mythology. When we take that away, we lose all veracity in art.