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An Inconvenient Truth: Padmaavat was not regressive

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Like many of my fellow countrymen- I watched Padmaavat simply to prove a point-a self-styled bandit of goons shouldn’t dictate what I should and shouldn’t watch. I have never been an ardent fan of Bhansali’s over the top cinematic productions, and I didn’t expect this to be any different. Surprisingly, I was greeted by a nearly 3-hour magnum opus with solid performances by very capable actors. I find myself compelled to defend Bhansali amidst the torrent of criticism he has received over these past few days.

Almost everything is viewed through the myopic prism of right and wrong. Let us take the example of the movie’s final scene, which has understandably generated the most controversy. Some critics argue that Bhansali glorified Jauhar (not to be confused with the gruesome coerced practice of sati) and portrayed it in an irresponsible way. While, I respect these critics’ contrarian views, they tend to forget that such criticism stems from a reductive or at best incomplete understanding of context.

In 13th century Chittor (or for that matter Ranthambore or various other instances of Jauhar), the women who faced Khalji’s cascading armies were faced with two grim choices. They chose self-immolation over lives as oppressed sex slaves. Make no mistake: this was in no way an easy choice to make, but undermining it as cowardly without considering context is lazy and patronizing Had they instead chosen to fight back or surrender and be taken alive, that would also have been an equally courageous act, despite the fact that there really is no glory in leading a life of slavery. Viewed in this light, Padmaavat’s end was both deeply disturbing and discomforting. It was not however, disempowering or demeaning.

Another common argument made against the movie is that it propagates an image of valorous Rajputs fighting against their evil Khalji invaders. I will not wade into a raging historical debate on the merits of Khalji-was-not-as-evil-as-you-think. I will however point out, that justifying his track record of cruelty on the grounds that he protected us from the even more insidious Mongols requires me to participate in the Olympics of moral relativism gymnastics. Khalji apologists should note that his battles against Mongols were NOT driven by his love for Hindu culture. I reject the notion that Khalji, a faithless savage invader represents all that we hold sacrosanct about Islamic faith and values.

On the contrary, Bhansali portrays him as a strategist par excellence with strength and courage that contrast his rather naïve opponent-Raja Ratan Singh, played aptly by a meek Shahid Kapoor. Not to mention, his own army seemed fairly surprisingly open-minded about his not so secret sexual relations with Malik Kaffur. Only the valorous Rajputs were shown to mock his bisexuality.

I can go on about the inherent contradictions in the various outraged critiques I have read on the movie, but at some point it is time to move on. After all, the same critics who voice outrage over Padmaavat see nothing wrong about condoning stalking in movies that are actually set in 21st century Indian society.

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