I’m not going to get into the presentation of Jahuar in Padmavat again, I touched on it in my no spoilers review, and I will get to it possibly tomorrow in my full SPOILER summary. But I do want to have a conversation about conversation, and how it works and how it starts and spreads, based on Swara Bhaskar’s open letter objecting to Jahuar in Padmavat versus the response to it that is being sent around today.
First, I am going to reprint the entirety of both letters so you can read them for yourself. This is your first lesson in appropriate discussion, do not form an opinion or comment on something until you have read it in its entirety, not “excerpts” that have been reprinted:
Dear Mr. Bhansali,
At the outset Sir, congratulations on finally being able to release your magnum opus ‘Padmaavat’ – minus the ‘i’, minus the gorgeous Deepika Padukone’s uncovered slender waist, minus 70 shots you apparently had to cut out.. but heyyyy! You managed to have it released with everyone’s heads still on their shoulders and noses still intact. And in this ‘tolerant’ India of today, where people are being murdered over meat, and school children are targets for avenging some archaic notion of male pride, that your film even managed a release – that is I guess commendable, and so again, congratulations.
Congratulations also on the stunning performances all around by your entire cast — primary and supporting. And, of course, the film was a stunning visual treat. But then all of this is to be expected from a brilliant auteur like yourself, a man who leaves his stamp on everything he touches.
By the way Sir, we know each other, after a fashion. I don’t know if you remember, but I played a tiny role in your film Guzaarish. A two-scene -long role, to be precise. I remember having a brief chat with you about my lines, and you asking me what I thought about the lines. I remember feeling proud for a whole month that Sanjay Leela Bhansali had asked me my opinion. I watched you agitatedly explaining to junior artists in one scene, and to the jimmy jib operator in the second scene; some minutiae of the particular shot you were taking. And I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! This man really cares about every little detail in his film.” I was impressed with you Sir.
An avid watcher of your films, I marveled at how you pushed boundaries with every film you made and how stars turned into fierce and deep performers under your able direction. You moulded my idea of what epic love must be like and I fantasised about the day I will be directed by you in a protagonist part. I was and remain a fan.
And I want you to know, I really fought for your film when it was still called Padmavati. I grant you, I fought on Twitter timelines –not on the battlefield, and I sparred with trolls not raving manic Muslims; but still I fought for you. I said to TV cameras the things I thought you were not being able to say because your Rs 185 crore were on the line.
And I genuinely believed what I said. I genuinely believed and still believe that you and every other person in this country has the right to say the story they want to say, the way they want to say it, showing how much ever stomach of the protagonist they want to show; without having their sets burnt, their selves assaulted, their limbs severed or their lives lost.
Also, in general, people should be able to make and release films and children should be able to get to school safely. And I want you to know that I really wished that your film turn out to be a stupendous success, a blockbuster breaking box office records, whose collections itself would be a slap in the faces of the Karni Sena terrorists and their ilk. And so it was with great excitement and the zeal of a believer that I booked first day, first show tickets for Padmaavat, and took my whole family and our cook to watch the film.
Perhaps it is because of this attachment and concern that I had for the film that I am SO stunned having watched it. And perhaps that is why I take the liberty and have the temerity to write to you. I will try and be concise and direct though there is much to say.
- Women have the right to live, despite being raped sir.
- Women have the right to live, despite the death of their husbands, male ‘protectors’, ‘owners’, ‘controllers of their sexuality’.. whatever you understand the men to be.
- Women have the right to live — independent of whether men are living or not.
- Women have the right to live. Period.
It’s actually pretty basic.
Some more basic points:
- Women are not only walking talking vaginas.
- Yes, women have vaginas, but they have more to them as well. So their whole life need not be focused on the vagina, and controlling it, protecting it, maintaining it’s purity. (Maybe in the 13th century that was the case, but in the 21st century we do not need to subscribe to these limiting ideas. We certainly do not need to glorify them. )
- It would be nice if the vaginas are respected; but in the unfortunate case that they are not, a woman can continue to live. She need not be punished with death, because another person disrespected her vagina without her consent.
- There is life outside the vagina, and so there can be life after rape. (I know I repeat, but this point can never be stressed enough.)
- In general there is more to life than the vagina.
You may be wondering why the hell I am going on and on thus about vaginas. Because Sir, that’s what I felt like at the end of your magnum opus. I felt like a vagina. I felt reduced to a vagina–only. I felt like all the ‘minor’ achievements that women and women’s movements have made over the years– like the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to education, equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, the Vishakha judgement, the right to adopt children…… all of it was pointless; because we were back to basics.
We were back to the basic question — of right to life. Your film, it felt, had brought us back to that question from the Dark Ages – do women – widowed, raped, young, old, pregnant, pre-pubescent… do they have the right to live?
I understand that Jauhar and Sati are a part of our social history. These happened. I understand that they are sensational, shocking dramatic occurrences that lend themselves to splendid, stark and stunning visual representation; especially in the hands of a consummate maker like yourself — but then so were the lynchings of blacks by murderous white mobs in the 19th century in the US – sensational, shocking dramatic social occurrences. Does that mean one should make a film about it with no perspective on racism? Or, without a comment on racial hatred? Worse, should one make a film glorifying lynchings as a sign of some warped notion of hot-bloodedness, purity, bravery – I don’t know, I have no idea how possibly one could glorify such a heinous hate crime.
Surely Sir, you agree that Sati, and Jauhar are not practices to be glorified. Surely, you agree that notwithstanding whatever archaic idea of honour, sacrifice, purity propels women and men to participate in and condone such practices; that basically Sati and Jauhar, like the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Honour Killings, are steeped in deeply patriarchal, misogynist and problematic ideas. A mentality that believes that the worth of women lies in their vaginas, that female lives are worthless if the women are no longer controlled by male owners or if their bodies have been ‘desecrated’ by the touch of ; or even the gaze of a male who doesn’t by social sanction ‘own’ or ‘control’ the female.
Practices like Sati, Jauhar, FGM, Honour Killings should not be glorified because they don’t merely deny women equality, they deny women personhood. They deny women humanity. They deny women the right to life. And that is wrong. One would have assumed that in 2018, this is not a point that even needs to be made; but apparently, it does. Surely, you wouldn’t consider making a film glorifying FGM or Honour Killings!
Sir, you will say to me that I am over-reacting and that I must see the film in its context. That it’s a story about people in the 13th Century. And in the 13th century that’s what life was– polygamy was accepted, Muslims were beasts who devoured meat and women alike, and honourable Hindu women happily jumped into their husbands funeral pyre, and if they couldn’t make it to the funeral, they built a pyre and rushed into it — in fact, they liked the idea of collective suicide so much that they gleefully discussed it over their daily beautification rituals. “Verisimilitude” you will say to me.
No Sir; Rajasthan in the 13th century with its cruel practices is merely the historical setting of the ballad you have adapted into the film Padmaavat. The context of your film is India in the 21st century; where five years ago, a girl was gang-raped brutally in the country’s capital inside a moving bus. She didn’t commit suicide because her honour had been desecrated, Sir. She fought her six rapists. She fought them so hard that one of those monsters shoved an iron rod up her vagina. She was found on the road with her intestines spilling out. Apologies for the graphic details, Sir, but this is the real ‘context’ of your film.
A week before your film released, a 15-year-old Dalit girl was brutally gang-raped in Jind in Haryana; a crime bearing sinister similarities to the rape of Nirbhaya.
You do know that acts like Sati and raping women are two sides of the same mindset. A rapist attempts to violate and attack a woman in her genital area, penetrate it forcibly, mutilate it in an effort to control the woman, dominate her or annihilate her. A Sati- Jauhar apologist or supporter attempts to annihilate the woman altogether if the genitals have been violated or if her genitals are no longer in the control of a ‘rightful’ male owner. In both cases the attempt and idea is to reduce women to a sum total of their genitals.
The context of art, any art is the time and place when it was created and consumed. And that’s why this gang-rape infested India, this rape condoning mindset, this victim blaming society is the actual context of your film, Sir. Surely in this context, you could have offered some sort of a critique of Sati and Jauhar in your film?
You will say that you put out a disclaimer at the beginning of the film claiming that the film did not support Sati orJauhar. Sure Sir, but you followed that up with a two-hour-45-minute-long paean on Rajput honour, and the bravery of honourable Rajput women who chose happily to sacrifice their lives in raging flames, than to be touched by enemy men who were not their husbands but were incidentally Muslim.
There were more than three instances of the ‘good’ characters of your story speaking of Sati/Jauhar as the honourable choice, your female protagonist – epitome of both beauty, brains and virtue sought permission from her husband to commit Jauhar, because she could not even die without his permission; soon after she delivered a long speech about the war between Satya and Asatya, Dharm and Adharm and presented collective Sati to be the path of Truth and Dharm.
Then in the climax, breathtakingly shot of course – hundreds of women bedecked in red like Goddess Durga as bride rushed into the Jauhar fire while a raving Muslim psychopathic villain loomed over them and a pulsating musical track – that had the power of an anthem; seduced the audience into being awestruck and admiring of this act. Sir, if this is not glorification and support of Sati andJauhar, I really do not know what is.
I felt very uncomfortable watching your climax, watching that pregnant woman and little girl walk into the fire. I felt my existence was illegitimate because God forbid anything untoward happened to me, I would do everything in my power to sneak out of that fiery pit– even if that meant being enslaved to a monster like Khilji forever. I felt in that moment that it was wrong of me to choose life over death. It was wrong to have the desire to live. This Sir, is the power of cinema.
Your cinema particularly is inspiring, evocative and powerful. It can move audiences to emotional highs and lows. It can influence thinking and that, Sir, is why you must be responsible as to what it is you are doing and saying in your film.
It was with great difficulty that a group of reform-minded Indians, and the provincial British Colonial governments and Princely States in India abolished and criminalised Sati in a series of judgments between 1829 and 1861. In independent India, The Indian Sati Prevention Act (1988) further criminalised any type of aiding, abetting, and glorifying of Sati. Your act of thoughtlessly glorifying this misogynistic criminal practice is something you ought to answer for, Sir. As your ticket- buying audience, I have the right to ask you how and why you did this.
You must be aware that modern Indian history has recorded some more recent Jauhar– like acts. During India and Pakistan’s bloody Partition some 75,000 women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion. There were numerous instances of voluntary and assisted suicides by women, in some cases husbands and fathers themselves beheaded their wives and daughters before men of the ‘other’ religion could touch them.
Bir Bahadur Singh, survivor of the riots in Thoa Khalsa in Punjab, described a scene of women jumping into the village well to commit suicide. In about half an hour, he recalled, the well was full. The women on top survived. His mother was a survivor. Singh, recalls author Urvashi Butalia in her 1998 book The Other Side Of Silence, was ashamed of his mother for living for the remainder of her life. This is among the darkest periods of Indian history and ought to be remembered with shame, horror, sadness, reflection, empathy, nuance; not with thoughtless sensational glorification. These sad tales of the Partition, too, are a less obvious context of your film Padmaavat.
Mr. Bhansali, I will end in peace; wishing that you make many more films the way you want to, and are allowed to shoot and release them in peace; that you, your actors, your producers, your studio and your audiences remain safe from threats and vandalism. I promise to fight trolls and television commentators for your freedom to express; but I also promise to ask you questions about the art you make for public consumption. Meanwhile, let’s hope that no zealot member of any Karni Sena or some Marni Sena gets the idea to demand decriminalisation of the practice of Sati!
Desirous of Life
And here is the response letter that is circulating today:
Feminism: The advocacy of woman’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.
Now that’s the dictionary definition of the word. But how can anyone advocate about ‘equality of the sexes’? A woman has a vagina, the door to life. It has the power to procure ‘life’, which no man, however hard he tries, can ever do. The question of equality is settled there, once and for all.
There are some film-makers, artists, actors who feel they are the torch-bearers of ‘feminism’ in the new-age cinema.
So here is what the ‘true’ & ‘real’ depiction of feminism in recent films – A woman, betrayed by the lover/groom picks up a bottle of alcohol and walks the streets while an old ‘hindi’ song plays in the background…she managed to something that men have been doing when betrayed. So that’s equality. Men – 10 women – 1 (the films have just begun to become progressive so please don’t mind the score). Just forgot to mention, in the same movie a dialogue goes – “Jab aadmiauratsepareshaanhota hai ye daaru hiuseysaharadeti hai. Isi liyeshadikebaad har mard peeta hai, biwichillaatirehtihai par aadmi ka ghamkaunsamjhe” (This is the gist of the dialogue, not the exact dialogue)
In a recent short film, a woman, tired of doing the daily chores in the kitchen, pulls a chair and begins to sip on juice (a la her husband and other ‘men’). Equality achieved. Men-10… women – 2
In another film a daughter smokes and shares a cigarette with her father (which only a boy could do till now) is lauded and celebrated as feminism. Equality again. Men -10 Women – 3
Now coming to the people who found Padmaavat regressive and found their feminism challenged by it.
Did they feel like a ‘vagina’ when Rani Padmaavati almost orders her husband, who obliges, to throw out the lecherous priest? She takes a decision, as a vagina.
Did they feel like a ‘vagina’ when Rani Padmaavati decides to show her face to Khilji in a mirror? Though it was her decision, as a vagina.
Did they feel like a ‘vagina’ when Rani Padmaavati goes to ‘rescue’ her husband who had been abducted? Again, a decision against the system, as a vagina.
They must have felt like a ‘vagina’ when she chose ‘fire’ over ‘rape’? It was her ‘call’, her ‘decision’ as a vagina. Right, wrong, strong, weak is up to you to interpret as a ‘penis’ or as a ‘vagina’.
The word feminism is so misused and so mis-interpreted off late that it feels like an abuse. To women, to the ‘vagina’… to the great feminine power. To the only gender that has the power to procure life.
Films, ads, opinions that portray women doing things that men do are lauded and celebrated as ‘feminist’. Feminism is reduced to women smoking, drinking, gambling etc on screen. Abey aadmitohhameshase ‘fucked-up’rahe. Ab auratein equality kechakkarmein ‘fucked-up’ ho gayi. Ho gayafeminism. Men – 10. Women -10. Lo daal lo equality jahandaalni hai.
Yes, women were repressed and India was patriarchal, it still is. But feminism is not about women doing things that men do.
Feminism is about taking a stand. Taking a decision and standing by it. About having the freedom to choose. It’s a thought that gives you freedom to just be. Not become equals or equally chutiyatic (wait that’s ‘vaginal’) as another gender.
When you took your whole family and cook for the film, didn’t you know it is going to end with a jauhar? Why act so surprised? Oh because you wanted him to include a comment on the practice? Ok then… as if the number of disclaimers were not enough. It’s the story of womens’ valour and their brave, harsh, radical decision. Their choice. That my dear is feminism. The power to be able to choose.
What perhaps was a victory for the filmmaker was the blinding of khilji as he entered the fort precincts, by burning embers thrown at him by the women. Such was the power of their fire within that they didn’t let the enemy lay their hands upon themselves. Why make them small and guilty of an act that they chose to protect themselves in the face of lynching and a life of slavery? Why judge that day from 700 years ago with ‘what would I do today’? It’s a film based in the 13th century when women preferred and chose death to rape.
Then don’t watch historicals, here or abroad. A ‘gladiator’ would perhaps shake your sensibilities of a slave in today’s context! Or a Troy might again make you feel like some other body part… A squishy liver perhaps. Since we cant appreciate art, lets violate it. With karnisena on one side and the vaginas on the other. Lets demand jauhar from the makers and feel victorious withsensationalising it with our judgements and parameters.
It was Padmavati’s choice and free will to not give herself up to Khilji. The question about life after rape does not arise. She, out of her free will, chose to embrace the fire rather than the tyrannical Alauddin. How is that any less empowering? It was a matter of choice and not forced upon them by their husbands! So, Padmavati was not a ‘rape victim’ who was so shamed that she didn’t have a right to live, as you make it out to be in your letter. Amazing what you all make it into. Was your open letter about Padmaavat or the regressive ‘Bhoomi’?
And factually speaking – ‘Sati’ was a practice (forced tradition) where women self-immolate themselves (mostly by force, sometimes by will) after the husbands’ death. Similar tradition called ‘Saka’ was observed by men who face a certain death in the battlefield. ‘Jauhar’ is only and only out of free will. As a woman. And as a ‘vagina’.
So people who feel like a ‘vagina’ after watching Padmaavati, should continue to feel like a ‘vagina’ for they would never understand the power it has. The power to create and run the world. Such people are the biggest road-blocks for ‘feminism’.
Now, let’s talk how writing is presented! DO NOT look at the specific points of the two letters, look at how they are written.
Swara repeatedly used the phrase “I feel”. She is speaking of her personal reaction to the film, and then from there is trying to explain why she felt that way. She is also careful to establish her credentials as someone who went in sincerely open-minded, with a good impression of the director and a record of defending the film. And to explain who she is personally, an actress who has worked with Bhansali although she is not famous. Finally, my understanding is that her letter was published through a legitimate source, not just through her FaceBook page, but through an edited website that chose to publish her.
She is also careful to acknowledge the limitations of her argument. That this is a historic film about a particular period, and she understands that. And she uses very very specific examples to prove her point, directly from the film. That a heroic character three times refers to Jahaur as a “good” thing, and the specifics of the way the final sequence was shot. She does the same in her historical examples and is careful to site specific sources each time, done to the publication date of the book.
(She does not say that she co-starred with Farooq Sheikh and Deepti Naval, but that alone establishes her as not just a “rising actress”, but a talented actress who has rubbed shoulders with greatness and can recognize it)
Now, let us look at the response letter. First, the authors never use “I feel”. They instead use declamatory sentences, as though everything they are saying is objective truth, not personal. By seemingly erasing emotion, they in fact reveal that they are too emotional. There is no ability to carefully separate their personal reaction from objective truth.
Second, the authors make no attempt to introduce themselves or establish their credentials. Which has lead to much misinterpretation. I had to do some digging to find out who, in fact, these people are. Partly because the letter is being reprinted without attribution and there is nothing within the content that specifies.
(Here they are, a male and female team. They have scripted reality shows, wrote the dialogue of Ram-Leela, and wrote Raabta. They are up and coming but not quite yet arrived. They will definitely benefit from this publicity)
This is a minor writing team that has no official attachment to the film Padmavat. They have standing to address this issue in terms of what they think and feel, however the way the letter is phrased and the obscurity of their credentials has made it appear that they speak for the filmmakers themselves. The refusal to give specific position of themselves is an indication that they in fact have no position. And that they are trying to create a misunderstanding as to who they are, to imply a vast array of official positioning.
And this letter was not posted by any legitimate source, no one asked them to respond in print or invited their response, or edited it, or is ready to protect it against libel, or give it an official forum, or anything else. It is merely something these two people wrote on social media in such a way to invent reprints.
Finally, let’s look at the phrasing of their argument. It is combative. There is no effort to inform necessarily, merely to prove someone wrong. While Swara uses respectful language requesting that Bhansali consider the results of what he puts onscreen, the other authors instead choose to use a general “they” and proceed immediately to attacking her personally, telling her not to watch historicals, calling her foolish for going to the film with her family and not knowing what to expect. They never use Swara’s name, because if they did so, they would be transparent in attacking someone. But the message is clear.
And then there is the content. While Swara provided incredibly specific examples that are easy to refer back to and read for yourself, they provide only generalities.
There is a reason that educated people use specific examples in arguments such as these. The purpose is a profitable debate. If Swara says “in this book there is an account of a specific incident” or “recently it was reported that this thing happened in this place to a person with this name”, that allows you to then look up that book, look up that incident, and come back and say “Your evidence is flawed, my interpretation of the event you quote is otherwise, you did not provide full context for the book you mention, here is my alternative interpretation”.
Think of it like doctor’s determining a diagnosis. Doctor A says “the patient has a rash, a fever, and a sore throat. Therefore, it is disease X.” Doctor B looks over the chart and says “the rash is minimal, the fever only appeared recently, and the sore throat was reported yesterday but has since faded. Also, I see in another part of the chart, that their back is aching. Therefore, it is disease Y.”
Swara has provided a very detailed chart for her patient and is prepared for anyone to come back to her and discuss the facts she has offered, give alternative interpretations, or offer other facts. But instead, while Doctor A gives evidence and conclusion, Doctor B is refusing to even look at the patient or give any support, and rather saying “Doctor A, you are ugly and stupid. And also, the patient has Rickets. Because I say so.” Let me expand, Swara as Doctor A has a medical degree which is posted on the wall, and begins her conversation by saying “I was trained in this field, I have lengthy credentials, now let me give you my opinion based on these features that I have noticed.” While Doctor B is saying “I could be a doctor, I could be a stranger off the street, you don’t even know my name. But you should trust me to treat you. Because Doctor A is a stupid woman, and I say, based on no evidence, that you have Rickets.”
All of this is not to say that I do or do not agree with Swara’s opinions. But I respect the work she put in to accurately presenting them in a manner that can lead to fruitful discussion and learning. I respect her focus on being as clear and specific as possible in what she is arguing. And of course, I respect her right as a human being to have opinions and feelings and express them as clearly as possible on a forum in which she has been invited to speak.
(And I respect her for being nominated for a FilmFare this year. She does NOT need publicity at this moment, she has only spoken out because she wishes to speak. Another small indication of when someone is worth listening to and when they are not, do they need the publicity?)
These other random interlopers, I do not respect. Nothing in what they have written makes me think them thoughtful, intelligent, educated, or reasoning beings. They could even be correct in their conclusion, but the manner in which the presented it tells me that I should do my own investigation and draw my own conclusions rather than giving any weight to theirs.
It’s not hard, simply say “I feel” when you are stating an opinion rather than a conclusion. If you don’t have facts, say “I don’t have facts to back this up, but my impression is.” You don’t need to know everything, you simply need to be aware you don’t know everything (because no one can). And if you do not seem to be aware of that, then I doubt your ability to be aware of much else. Questioning yourself is the clearest sign of reasoning intelligence. A statement without self-questioning is only useful as an example of the kind of intelligence that is not worth regarding.
And so that is how I will use this. As a lesson in the kind of internet writing that is worth my and your time and thought, and the kind that is not. The kind of internet discussion we should all aspire to, versus the kind we should be ashamed to participate in. Hopefully it will be useful in that way.