Bhansali's imagination dilemma: Star Wars is fine, Padmavati is not?

Sanjay Leela Bhansali was slapped and his clothes were torn as a violent mob protested against the alleged “distortion of history” in his upcoming film Padmavati. The incident occurred on the sets of Padmavati in Jaipur on Friday where Bhansali was shooting.

The incident has enraged Bollywood and sparked debates around the political and religious extremism behind the act. We are not about to indulge in any of those debates. Here, our sole concern is films and filmmaking.

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Padmavati is reportedly a love story of Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji. Interestingly, Padmavati is a fictional character, not a historical one. Ranveer Singh plays Alaudin in the film while Deepika Padukone essays the titular role of Padmavati. Shahid Kapoor plays her husband Rawal Ratan Singh.

Hollywood sci-fi films are the biggest earners at Indian box office. No one objects a Star Wars film claiming it distorts our future (imagining the entire human race would be on the brink of extinction is some distortion, what say?) But we have a problem if our filmmakers run their imagination in past.

Historian Irfan Habib has told Aaj Tak that Mohammad Jaysi, a 16th century poet, had created the character of Padmavati for his romantic poem Padmavat in 1540.

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If Padmavati is a fictional character, there is no way Bhansali could distort history with his film.

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Maybe our protesters simply do not understand the idea of imagination, let alone creativity.

When I imagine something, it can be totally out of this world or a combination of what I have seen and read – basically an arbitrary mixture of my knowledge and wishes. Psychology defines imagination as “the ability to form mental images or representations of material objects, apart from the presence of the latter.”

Jim Davis writes in Psychology Today, “Imagination is quite possibly a uniquely human ability. In essence, it allows us to explore ideas of things that are not in our present environment, or perhaps not even real. For example, one can imagine the cup of coffee seen the day before, or one can imagine an alien spaceship arriving in earth’s orbit. They key is that what is imagined is generated from within, rather than perceived based on input from without.”

Bhansali seems to have a history with vandals—most of his films are based in a bygone era and have faced opposition from fringe elements of our society.

His last film Bajirao Mastani (Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone, 2015) faced the ire of Peshwa descendants as they objected to the portrayal of Bajirao and his queen. BJP also joined the protesters who were particularly concerned about the depiction of Kashibai, wife of Bajirao Peshwa, in the film. Priyanka Chopra had played that role.
Ram Leela (2013) faced troubles when the title “hurt religious sentiments” of a group of people. Bhansali had to eventually change the title to Ram Leela – Goliyon Ki Raaslela. Protesters in Indore, Rajkot, Jalandhar and New Delhi blocked roads, and burnt posters demanding a ban on the film’s release over the portrayal of Kshatriyas in the film.
Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014), starring Aamir Khan, also faced troubles and had to struggle through several hurdles. A critical take on blindfold religious practices, protesters claimed it was maligned Hindus and attacked their practices alone. The filmmakers faced protests during the shoot as well. There were violent protests and demands for ban but the movie went on to be one of the top grossers of the year.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s rendition of Hamlet, Haider (2014), was attacked mainly for ‘portraying the Indian army in bad light’, hurting Hindu sentiments and ‘overlooking the plight of Kashmiri Pandits’. The 2014 film, nonetheless, received wide appreciation, both from audiences and the critics.
Earlier, Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar (2008) was not allowed to release in theatres in Rajasthan as protesters slammed it for distorting facts about historical figures like Akbar and Jodha. Several states including UP, Haryana and Rajasthan banned the movie initially. The Hrithik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai-starrer, however, managed to be screened across all states after a few days when the ban was lifted.
Unlike Ashutosh, Bhansali never claimed to make historical films. He makes love stories that happen to be set in a historical era of late. Maybe he started setting his films in historical era as it suits his style of filmmaking – grand, elegant and royal – and gives the perfect reason for the films to be larger-than-life. Thanks to his settings and his skills, no other filmmaker can possibly match the grandeur of a Bhansali set.

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Protesters need to stop and think. If you feel that the filmmakers’ portrayal of history is wrong—although they never claimed they were going to show facts, or history—how about waiting for the trailer of Padmavati, and then if you don’t like it, don’t take your family or kids to the film. Hit the fimmaker where it really hurts.

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Bhansali's imagination dilemma: Star Wars is fine, Padmavati is not?