There are two parts to this story, and it’s the aftermath I find much more interesting and radical. So I’m going to start there and work backwards.
Karan Johar has been “good” for years. He knows he is out there, he knows he is “different”, he knows that makes him a target and means most people think he doesn’t have the right to open his mouth. And so when the Shiv Sena went after Wake Up Sid, he apologized and took the blame. And when they went after My Name is Khan, he kept fighting behind the scenes, but let Shahrukh be the face of the fight. And when the MNS went after Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he gave up in order to protect the rest of the industry.
But now someone else has been attacked and he is a lot more angry on their behalf than he ever was on his own. I’m reading his autobiography right now, by the way, and he talks about how during his father’s illness (ten months of chemo and treatments before dying of cancer), he was the strong one. How people don’t think of him that way, but when the people he loves need him and there is no one else, he can be a rock.
Which is kind of what it feels like he has become now. Well, a very very angry rock.
Let me back up. On Friday, while Bhansali was shooting in Jaipur for Padmavati, a gang of local “activists” broke onto set, vandalized equipment, and attacked Bhansali. Because he is “distorting” history. They think. Without having seen the script or spoken with him.
Responses ranged from Bhansali himself declaring he would never shoot in Jaipur again and moving production immediately back to Bombay, to Siddharth Roy Kapur, new head of the Film & Television Producers Guild (the industry group that tends to focus most on protecting the free speech and safety of artists) condemning the actions and calling on the government to punish the perpetrators, to Sushant Singh Rajput announcing he was dropping the “Rajput” from his name in shame.
This came up a bit in one of my earlier posts about this film. Honestly, I had no idea the story was even controversial when I first mentioned it. However, since then, I have done some research on it. Looks like the “popular version” of the story is from one of those ancient epic poems that might or might not be based on actual historical details. This version says that an “evil king” fell in love with Rani Padmavati after hearing of her beauty, was allowed to see her reflection in a pool (but no more than that, because she was such a faithful wife she refused to show herself to any man besides her husband), kidnapped her husband and conquered her kingdom just to possess her, and then she killed herself because it is a feminine virtue to die rather than be raped. What can be confirmed through multiple sources is that the Sultan of Delhi, Alaudin Khilji was an expansionist who was trying to spread his power through out India using brutal means. He attacked Rani Padmavati’s kingdom, and the queen along with hundreds of other women committed “jauhar”, killing themselves by jumping into fire rather than be conquered. A legitimate decision if the assumption was that they would suffer from rape/torture at the hands of the invaders before being killed anyway; not necessarily a lesson I want taught if it is more along the lines of “death is better than dishonor”. That’s the kind of thinking that encourages rape victims to hide what happened to themselves, kill themselves, or be blamed for not killing themselves once the truth comes out. But, unlike the Jaipur protestors, I am going to reserve judgement on how Bhansali chooses to present this story until I see the film.
There is nothing in the historic record that says the Rani Padmavati story isn’t true. But there is nothing to necessarily confirm it either. It was popularized through an epic poem written 200 years after the event (by a Muslim artist, by the way). He himself talks about how the poem is meant to be metaphorical, “According to Jayasi, Chitor stood for body, Raja for mind, Ceylon for heart, Padmini for wisdom, Alauddin for lust, and Ashraf Jahangir Semnani as an ideal spiritual guide”. And so, if Bhansali is choosing to use this story to explore greater ideas of values and meaning in human relationships, he is following along in the footsteps of the most famous version, which was more about taking the legend and using it as an allegory rather than as historic “truth”. On the other hand, what is certainly true, is that the idea of a “rapacious Muslim” and a “virtuous Hindu wife” is something that politicians and political activists in India today are using as an excuse for all sorts of questionable actions. Ranging from blaming the victim in rape cases, to honor killings of cross-religious couples.
Here’s the thing, and I say this as a historian (my undergrad degree was in history and I worked for a local historical society for 2 years): 1. No amount of historical “truth” is worth a life. If lying about history can create harmony and peace in the present, that is a-okay with me. 2. Moreover, there is no such thing as historical “truth”. There is only the quest for truth, the approximation of truth. And the quest is never ending, you cannot say “this is the one true view of this story”, you can only say “at the moment, this is what it appears to be.”
And so, if scholars are objecting to this view of the story, that is fine, it is all part of the quest for truth. But once they start attacking people and trying to incite violence, then they are wrong. Not because their “truth” is wrong, but because their actions are wrong. And actions in the present are more important than anything that happened in the past.
So, that’s the background. What I find much much more interesting is that Karan Johar has had enough of this knuckling under and parsing his words and “respecting sensitivities”;
Now, here’s what’s really exciting to me. Karan, in various interviews and essays, has mentioned that he wakes up every morning to hundreds of obscene hate-tweets. That this is just his life, he has to read them and then move on. And sure enough, in response to his tweets here, he received plenty of “f–” and worse comments. That’s the price he pays for being born what he was and not wanting to hide it. And the price for living his life the way he wants, having a career, having friends, making the art that sustains him, is shutting up and taking it.
But apparently, not any more. I don’t know if it is pent up rage of putting up with this all his life, or finally feeling like his autobiography has put his side of the story out there for all time, or if the physical attack on SLB was just one line too far and he can’t be quiet about anything any more, but here is the tweet that ended his rant: