(Deepika Padukone in the Padmavati movie poster)
As if the controversy over whether Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati-turned-Padmaavat was offensive to Rajputs and Rajput queens wasn’t enough, a new debate has begun, courtesy actress Swara Bhasker, who wrote an impassioned open letter to the director, saying she felt reduced to a vagina at the end of the film.
Among other things, she said the context was not thirteenth century Rajasthan, but a country where young women are raped on buses and sons are ashamed of mothers who did not succeed in committing suicide after being violated.
Naturally, the letter has gone viral, and Bollywood is busy responding to it.
Her letter troubles me on two levels: (a) She compliments Bhansali on “pushing boundaries” with each subsequent film (b) She emphasises that cinema sets the tone for a society to reflect on its mores.
Now, while Bhansali may have pushed boundaries with respect to budgets, he cannot be accused of pushing boundaries with respect to storylines. He has always directed spectacles, not stories. Women have never been more than their “uncovered slender waists”, whether in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Goliyon ka Raasleela Ram-Leela, or Padmavati. Yes, there was Black and perhaps Guzaarish, where every scene was orchestrated to squeeze tears from our ducts. When women weren’t being sexy, they were being caretakers, irrespective of whether they could see or hear.
Even before Padmaavat was released, everyone who was familiar with the story of Rani Padmini of Chittorgarh knew that the climax would be the jauhar scene. And, like all film scenes featuring hundreds of extras, cinema would give it glory by its sheer size and spectacle.
What did the trailer lead us to expect but what reviewers have found? You only had to see Ranveer Singh tearing around like a savage, wild-eyed and dirt-stained, hair flying, robes flying, teeth flashing, sword flashing, to understand the nature of the film. I did wonder at the time why it was Rajputs and not Muslims who were concerned the film would be offensive to their ilk. I have not put myself through the trauma of watching the film, but the reviews do seem to indicate Rajputs have little reason to fault the film’s portrayal of their glory.
The other question, of cinema and its impact on society, has is the subject of constant debate. We will not find the answers. Should cinema set the tone? Should it be corrective and advocative? Should it be reflective? Should it be absurd – man stalks woman, woman slaps man, slapped man insults woman, woman mends her ways and falls in love with man?
Mainstream cinema has been absurd for a long time, and so absurd and for so long that people have begun to appreciate films just for being “different”. “It’s great for a Tamil film”, we say, or “It’s great for a Bollywood film”. A film is branded “feminist” when the lead part is the female character’s, even if she chooses to give up her job or boyfriend because her child from her first marriage or forced marriage doesn’t like sharing his mother with a desk or man. The shrew is always tamed, one way or the other. It is what people pay to watch, and then talk about.
The problem is not that toxic masculinity and quiet feminine strength have been so popular in cinema. It is not that the hero’s greatest strength is his ability to kill and that the heroine’s greatest strength is her willingness to die. The problem is that we take films too seriously, and expect them to send out powerful messages. The problem is that we don’t laugh when someone says, “There is as much power in a Rajput bangle as there is in a Rajput sword”.
No epic has ever made a woman more than her vagina. They are about men’s journeys and men’s wars; they are also about women’s vaginas, which have usually spurred the wars. Who sired the human that popped out of the vagina? Who is entitled to the vagina? Who desires the vagina? Except we call it “honour”, because that sounds grander than “vagina”. So men fought for the honour of Helen, of Penelope, of Sita, of Draupadi. Sita, too, commits suicide at the end of The Ramayana, not so much for glory as from fatigue.
But, perhaps, rather than fight about how a scene is portrayed, we should look at how much of this we bring into our daily lives.
We may take offence at the idea of women choosing death over rape, but how much ownership do we take of our own bodies?
Feminism at this juncture of time is still caught up in issues for which only the elite have time – whether a woman should change her name after marriage, whether it is acceptable for a woman to fast on karva chauth – but the institution which most subjugates the sexuality of women and equates sexuality to moral failure is allowed to get away with it.
Organised religion has constantly prescribed dress codes, and none of us questions it. The walls of temples are covered with bare-breasted women flaunting their voluptuousness, but notice boards demand that the men and women entering the premises must cover their legs and hide the shape of their chests respectively. Gurdwaras and dargahs insist that people cover their hair, but no one throws a tantrum if a man’s handkerchief slips off his head. I have been screamed at in a gurdwara because I didn’t notice that a breeze had blown my dupatta halfway down my head, and part of my hair was visible. It was the last time I went to a gurdwara.
The hijab has become a symbol of choice. Videos of hijabi women dancing to Beyonce or the Sherlock theme have gone viral. What are they trying to say? That a garment which hides one’s hair in order to protect one from the male gaze is not oppressive? I once interviewed a Muslim feminist collective about their championing of the hijab.
“It means you’re seen for your intelligence, not for your beauty; you’re not objectified,” one of its members told me.
I would like to think a woman or man wearing as little as is legal and possessing the kind of body we have all been tuned to desire could still command attention for intelligence if blessed with any.
What the films show does not matter, if our conversations don’t go beyond what inspired the events we saw on screen.
We ask mothers to raise their sons not to rape, rather than protect their daughters. But it remains the woman’s duty to make an honourable son who will not violate other vaginas.
We speak of an ideal society where a woman should be able to walk naked without being harassed. But we equate displays of attractiveness with disrespect in places of religious worship.
Cinema is fantasy. The Sanjay Leela Bhansali brand of cinema is exorbitant fantasy.
It does not dictate how we perceive the world.
We dictate how we perceive the world through what we patronise. And for as long as we scream at girls for sitting with their legs splayed, for as long as we scream at women for allowing their dupattas to slip from their heads, for as long as we defend as oppressive a garment as the hijab, we are distorting the idea of honour as much as the epics did.