• Priyanka Agarwal

No, Swara Bhasker, women not only have the right to live

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

They also have the right to fight back and learn how to do so

In Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon, a bunch of goons go after Lee’s sister, Su Lin (Angela Mao). She fends them off with all her might, using the slickest kung-fu moves, and gives them a tough chase across town. But soon she realizes she’s ambushed and helpless, without any chance of escape. It’s only then she picks up a long, triangular shard of glass from the ground and pierces her stomach with it.

Then there’s the climax of Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala. It’s the women of the spice factory versus the lecherous subedar (Naseeruddin Shah). The former win the battle by showering him with buckets of red-chilli powder.

These films hit screens more than three decades ago. But in 2018, we’re stuck with Padmaavat. It’s a disturbing movie that not only glorifies the practice of jauhar and equates it with “victory”. It also shows women as weak, powerless beings, incapable of defence or warfare. It’s a film that should never have been made.

I know I’d said I wouldn’t ever review movies. But after last week’s viewing of this Sanjay Leela Bhansali ‘opus,’ I had to vent it out.

The first half of the film is like a typical Bollywood drama. Breezy and entertaining, it sees exemplary performances by the primary and supporting cast. ‘Ghoomar’ does reek of regression and patriarchy, but it isn’t half as bad as what’s to follow later.

Never have your “good” characters behave like fools.

The problems begin when Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) visits Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). And the movie keeps getting worse, and worse. I had to suffer through Ratan Singh’s moronity, warped laundry list of ‘usool,’ and inflated male ego. All these are in stark contrast to his smart, sensible first-half avatar.

This led me to one valuable storytelling lesson. Never have your main character or the good people they’re with behave like fools. Never show a decline in their graph. Leave that for the antagonists and their supporters. Padmaavat, though, does the opposite of all this. Hence, the barbaric Khilji and his loyal slave Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) come across as logical folks. I got another insight–Ratan Singh never read books, not even the Mahabharat. When he dies on the battlefield, I blurted out one word: Idiot.

Ratan Singh’s assholery causes his own arrest and an innocent woman’s life imprisonment. It also results in the needless martyrdom of his warriors. Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), as we all know, is his second wife, plus Khilji’s obsession. But first, she is a wise, intelligent and courageous woman. Then why is she all romantic with Ratan Singh even after witnessing his egoistic side? (Oh, I forgot, it’s her ‘kartavya’.) And then his stupidity makes jauhar an inevitable ‘choice’ for Padmavati and the other women of the kingdom.

“Aren’t the ladies going to put up a fight?” I thought to myself before the scene began. But the climax felt like a resounding ‘No’ from Bhansali himself. The women of Mewar not only needed to seek permissions from their husbands to “die”. They had also been denied an education in combat or self-defence. Nor did they know the castle’s secret passageways or escape routes. The film only shows them dancing, gossipping, conducting ceremonies, and nursing petty jealousies. It’s as if they’d been taught, “When under attack, commit the jauhar, and all would be well.” I was facepalming through the sequence till the end of the movie. Ratan Singh and gang hadn’t read the Bhagavad Gita either.

It wasn’t only a Mewar problem. Members of Alauddin’s harem had their hands tied in the same way.

You may argue that Padmaavat is a story based on historical fiction. That that’s how the situation was back then. That SLB is only interpreting a popular legend through his trademark grandeur. (Even that looks cardboard-fake this time.)

But I ask: is this film necessary? At an age when women hold important positions in politics, defence, sport, and other fields? Especially when they are championing causes and fighting for their rights? Not to forget the #MeToo movement? The makers preach that Padmavati’s “sacrifice” serves as an “inspiration” even today. But with that, they’ve negated the heroic efforts of the several women around us in one fell swoop.

Are the makers trying to say these are better times for women than those? If yes, I’m afraid to admit, they’ve lost the plot.

Or they seem to have asserted their political stand. If that’s the case, then comedian Kunal Kamra was right.

The trolls instead targeted a bunch of actresses who stood against the Kathua horror. Around the same time, Rajeev Masand singled out Kartik Aaryan to grill him for Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety. Admitted the Luv Ranjan flick was misogynistic, sexist and toxic. But the veteran critic never put the cast and crew of Padmaavat through a stress test like this.

Swara Bhasker is the only celebrity to have expressed her disagreement with Padmaavat. (She was also among those trolled for condemning Kathua.) But her issue was about depriving women of their right to “choose” whether they wanted to die for “honour”. My question is: why bring women to that stage anyway? Why not equip them with the skills to protect themselves, their loved ones, and self-esteem? If the genders were reversed, would Ratan Singh have died to avoid capture by a seductive sultana?

My respect for Baahubali 2 and its makers has increased tenfold. In Rajamouli’s universe, women are, without a doubt, strong, bold beings, even if flawed. They’re adept at sword-fighting, defence, administrative and other skills. Plus, they’re determined, decisive and passionate. Sivagami and Devasena are lessons in the cinematic depiction of women.

If a film like Padmaavat grosses Rs600 crore and picks up accolades, I’m judging our audiences. There hasn’t been a darker era for Hindi cinema. Wish the 80s of Mirch Masala would have never ended.


© 2018 by Priyanka Agarwal.