Archive for February, 2017


The dust has kind of settled and the victim could be the winner here. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali may well be laughing over an assured audience for his film Padmavati, still in gestation, after all the controversy it has generated.

It was on Jan 27 that members of the Karni Sena, a Rajput group ransacked the sets of the film in Jaipur, assaulting Bhansali and damaging equipment. Their opposition was to the alleged ‘romantic’ depiction of a Rajput queen with emperor Alauddin Khilji in the film.

Since then, all reports  claim that there was no such scene planned, though the film is based on an apparent epic poem Padmavat revolving around Khilji’s attack on Chittor, attracted as he was by legends of the queen’s beauty.

Protests by Bollywood and intellectuals have raised the bogey of freedom of expression, creative licence and intolerance. Padmavati was a fictional queen in the 16th century poem Padmavat, written in Awadhi by the Sufi poet, they note, arguing that the film be treated as fiction.

True, but Khilji was no fiction, say the critics. And call her by any name, a Rajput queen is a Rajput and the opposition stems around linking any Rajput queen to a foreign marauder. Even the poem only talks of a one-sided urge to possess, rather than love or romance. Hence any romantic angle is further distortion of a fiction!

Sections of the society today also note that Khilji was no lesser or greater an evil than any invader, or even some of the existing Indian kings who vied with each other and killed each other and usurped kingdoms and wives. So why measure a Khilji or a Timur by a different scale?

Critics then dig up ‘facts’ to show that some invaders are more brutal and knew no limits in their barbarism and treachery. The second in the Khilji Sultandom, Alauddin who reigned from 1296 to 1316 was one such, they say.

Among all this, one thing that stands out is how few historians India seems to have, seeing how media reports feature the same one or two repeatedly. And they always have the same view. How can that be when a large part of understanding history lies in the interpretation?

As things stand, it is not clear what exactly the script has. If, in fact it portrays a ‘gentle’ side to Khilji or not, if there is a romantic scene between the invader and the queen, etc. Best to wait and watch the film. A victory to Bhansali right there as detractors and friends will want to check it out.

Do we need these cultural defenders is yet another aspect of the incident. Groups like the Kranti Sena or the KKK in the US do not rise on their own but do so to fill a gap perceived by society. An exploitation of the sentiments of the majority is often cited in India and is acknowledged by all but media and intellectuals.

The defenders of culture are on the rise whether they seek to protect Rajput pride or fight a desi bull! And they do not listen to reason. Blame it on perceptions or otherwise of marginalisation.

Regarding Indian commercial cinema and how it continues to flirt with controversy a la distortion of history, we need to look at some definitions.

First, popular cinema. Is it meant for entertainment, or education, inspiration or reflection on society? Or as an agent provocateur? All that and also a form of art that becomes the expression of the artistes involved, director included. Can this expression be unrestrained?

As a filmmaker, the search is on to look at new and different ways to capture viewership and of course, make money. A love story between a Rajput king and queen becomes passe. Requirements of box office demand more. Now what can be more provocative to take up in these ‘intolerant’ times than the romantic embroilment of a ‘foreign invader’ and a native queen? After all, there is the Article 19.

Freedom of expressing anything?

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But this is not an absolute right.

Clause (2) of Article 19 imposes restrictions on the right by cautioning on public order and defamation (injuring reputation). This again can be contested as reputation is an ambiguous word, meaning different things to different people. In this case, can falling in love, albeit with a villain, be seen as ill repute? Not in a general case but given the legendary fidelity upheld by Rajput queens, not to forget sati, a love affair of a married queen with a barbaric person of a different community and religion, is to many people an affront.

Second comes the question of creative licence which allows artists to morph aspects of fact suitably. It is well accepted that many great playwrights and authors were inspired by history, but not controlled by it. That is where the difference comes between a biography and a story ‘based on actual events’. In the latter, characters and events could be deleted or added from historical facts.

Recall how Gowariker called his Jodha Akbar 80 pc fiction and 20 pc history. That controversy shook the country on a relatively lower scale as the difference of opinion was merely based on whether Jodha was Akbar’s wife or his son’s.

It is ironical and also wrought with mischievous intent that filmmakers want to draw mileage out of a ‘real event’ and then want to distort it. Instead, why not make the whole thing fictional?

Chakravarti Ashoka

It brings to mind a television serial that took another historical figure and shaped his story into one straight from Game of Thrones! I allude to Chakravarti Ashok Samrat on Colours channel last year.

To my mind, the emperor is truly Ashoka, the Great. Both as a fearless ruler of the vast Maurya dynasty, as well as the propagator of Buddhism inside and outside India. I lapped up the words of H G Wells in The Outline of History, where he says, ‘Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.’

The big celluloid version from Santosh Sivan and starring superstar SRK as Asoka had been a romantic version of the king, focussing on an fictional love story between the prince and a princess from an enemy kingdom.  The television serial I had expected would fill in the gaps, especially the Buddhist influence on Ashoka.

But sadly it stretched across the months portraying plots, treacheries and more plots! Queens, princes, ministers, all took turns in aligning with each other and plunging the knife into rivals. Tears, treachery, assassination bids…

All this was the imaginative filling of historical gaps by the writer, and expected. Most of what we know today about Ashoka is what has been interpreted by various historians of the emperor’s inscriptions on pillars and rocks, besides the three texts – Ashokavadana, Divyavadana and Mahavamsa.

But the television serial was happy to settle for a mundane plot around a good guy versus multitude of baddies. The story of the country’s greatest emperor, who ruled during 265-238 BC over three decades and across the entire landscape, save the present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala, was turned into just another soap story.


And when the actors dropped out and the channel had a mythology slated next, Ashoka was ended abruptly with the last episode hurriedly glossing over the life-changing Kalinga massacre and a sorrowful Ashoka clutching his slain lover. A voice in the background ran a quick line or two on his subsequent transformation.

Licence to distort

True, history is as much open to the imagination of a filmmaker to interpret it as of the historian’s. No historian can ever be 100 percent accurate when talking of events hundreds or thousand years ago. There are some gaps which will beg subjective fillings.

In an effort to entertain (and make money) can commercial movies and soaps play to the gallery entirely? Is there no obligation on the part of the movie or serial maker to stick to at least some basic presumptions? In making a historical figure relatable in today’s times,  can all rules be bent? Is it ok to make army chieftain Bajirao dance to a contemporary fast number? Have your item song but at least let Bajirao be seated. Why the need to base the story on history if the aim is just to sell the usual masala fare — of jealous husband, cheating wives and wicked siblings?

The print and visual news media has long ago cast away any semblance of social responsibility in joining the information rat race. The entertainment media has been shedding the same in its choice and way of handling ‘real’ events. In the resulting free for all, what we often see is anger and bitterness among the masses, both expressed and suppressed. Not the upliftment which an unfettered freedom of expression ideally should usher. Clearly, we still are not ready for that.

When media wields such range and influence over people, it must apply restraint in the way it portrays historical characters. This is not just about respecting sections of society but also being responsible in handling facts. Today, with social media whipping up mass frenzy over trivial issues, sometimes even spreading lies, it is even more necessary that story tellers get their facts and sensibilities right before mixing it with fiction and selling it as entertainment.

And not spoil the fun of history for us folks!


Read Full Post »