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The Conundrum of being a Sanjay Leela Bhansali Heroine a.k.a ‘The Indian White Feminist’

^ When they say women can be anything they want provided they look like a flawless Rajput goddess

Our in-house movie enthusiast and writer of  last holiday’s much anticipated Facebook movie reviews, Megha Mehta (Batch of 2019), takes one for the team and reviews a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie (Padmaavat) for her new fortnightly column: Movies with Megha.  

I’ll admit, I am the unapologetic Bollywood addict in my group of friends. I am that hypocritical bitch who seems all intellectual and cool to hang out with on the outside, because she throws around words like savarna and caste-consciousness and patriarchy, but one SRK movie on Sony Max is all that it takes to reduce her to a puddle. I share the same kind of toxic relationship with Hindi films that certain people may with pornography, or Mills and Boon or certain questionable erotica novels – you could read reams of literature on how a certain media form promotes exploitation and subordination of your gender and still not completely boycott it because it appeals to something really basic within you, this primal need to stick to the comforting stereotypes you’ve been brought up with instead of having to perform the exhausting cognitive work of processing information without them.

One of my favourite unapologetic Bollywood tropes is the Bhansali film. If Karan Johar represents the neoliberal elite of Bollywood films, with his focus on the First World problems of urban upper-caste families and couples, SLB represents a kind of twisted alt-right-his films promote feminist and anti-brahmanical ideals as well as neo-conservative ideologies in exactly the right proportion required to appease gullible cinema goers. In fact the reason why his films might be more popular than KJo’s is because they appeal to broader savarna middle class sensibilities by painting them in the form of romantic fairytales. Even though they are largely ahistorical, they give the impression of being set in a particular historic context, which is why the drama, though over-the-top, is excusable. They allow you to escape to a fantasy world which is far removed from your own but is still filled with curiously relatable emotions and characters. However, either four years of critical thinking in law school have finally had their effect, or else he has lost his illusionary touch-for I found the fantasy world of Padmaavat hard to digest.

Reams have already been written on jauhar and the communal and casteist undertones underlying his latest epic fantasy offering. Padmaavat indeed promotes the communal agenda without even trying to be subtle about it. It’s an about-turn from Devdas, which all about a savarna fuckboy who goes on auto-destruct mode because his parents have a stick up their ass about being landowners. The striking contrast in the film is not between Shahid Kapoor’s literally whitewashed Ratan Singh and Ranveer Singh’s animalistic, barbarian Khilji, but between Ratan Sen’s relationship with Padmaavati and Khilji’s with his first wife, Mehrunnisa (played by the stunning Aditi Rao Hydari). Ratan Sen and Padmavati are the ideal modern Hindu CoupleTM: she kicks ass but subject to her husband’s discretion, whereas Mehrunnisa represents the fragile Muslim woman who must be saved from her evil, polyamorous Mohammedan husband’s appetites, cue UCC and triple talaq.

As for the jauhar debate, please note that cinematic depictions of mass suicide usually focus on the pain and panic prevalent in people’s minds at the time – Rang De Basanti’s scene on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre still sends chills down my spine. The experience of watching women screaming in terror as they jump in a well to avoid being shot is one that automatically traumatizes the audience. In Padmaavat, the trauma of watching women burning alive is sought to be diluted by showing them as walking calmly, in sync, with proud smiles on their faces. Jauhar as defined by Padmaavat is not a tragedy-it is an act of resistance, a final ‘Fuck You’ to Khilji and his like.

The scene certainly serves as grounds for introspection into the larger ideological contestation in the feminist movement: To what extent are certain acts, harmful to women, capable of being justified through the rhetoric of ‘choice’? To what extent do women possess ‘choice’, if any?

What really remains an enigma amidst all this is the central figure of the film and all the controversies surrounding it-Padmaavati herself. Who is she? First off, she’s the prime example of a lazily written ‘Strong Female Character’ trope. The film begins by showing her wounding Ratan Sen with an arrow while hunting, and ends by showing her jump into a fire to evade capture by invaders (She’s an atrocious shot so that might explain her lack of faith in her self-defense skills). Like Mastani in Bajirao Mastani, her ‘warrior princess’ side is demonstrated only once in the film, though she atleast gets to indulge in some strategical maneuvering against her opponents, unlike poor Deewani M, who is reduced to being a Manic Pixie Dream Dancer.

Why was it necessary for SLB to include a scene like that in the film, given that she spends the rest of the film wearing 20 kilo lehengas/sarees and behaving like a 13th century version of an Ekta Kapoor heroine? He could have easily shown her bewitching Shahid with a classical dance or through some flirtatious repartee, as he has in his earlier films (Why is it necessary to always have the couple fall in love in the middle of a battle anyway, god knows in real life most of us are too lazy to even pass the remote to each other).

Further, we receive little information or context about Padmaavati’s upbringing. Hence the audience is clueless as to why a princess brought up in a kingdom at the tip of the subcontinent, one that seems to allow considerable liberties to its women (as demonstrated by her garb, ability to hunt, and indulgence in eye-sex with men she is not married to), would assimilate into a foreign (Northern) culture to the extent of adopting its purdah, dance forms, dressing style as well as its incredible strategy of self-immolation for countering invading rapists. I know women who feel out of place at their in-laws’ after 10 years of marriage – Padmaavati achieves total integration with Rajput culture after barely 2 years. The film seems to indicate that she has been brought up in a Buddhist society-she nurses Ratan Sen back to health from the arrow wound in a monastery-but we see no introspection from her side on the violence caused due to war and the implication of an act like jauhar. However the film also doesn’t give context on why a Buddhist girl is hunting for sport like a common princess, so difficult to expect logic here.

The contradictions don’t end here. It’s not that Padmaavati becomes a damp squib after marriage-she exhorts her husband to banish the priest spying on them, as opposed to merely imprisoning him and categorically calls out her co-wife for victim-blaming when the latter insinuates that Padmaavati’s ‘beauty’ is responsible for Khilji’s assault on Mewar. She also decides to show herself to Khilji and thereby satiate his desire in order to avoid subjecting her populace to war. This is in defiance of Ratan Sen’s vehement views about how she would be ‘defiled’ if Khilji were even to lay eyes on her. In retrospect, I don’t blame the poor woman for committing suicide given how anal her husband was about Rajput ‘honor’ and custom-it’s quite possible he emotionally manipulated her into subscribing into his ideologies, which is a story-telling exercise the film obviously doesn’t indulge in.

Further, she goes to rescue Ratan Sen when he is kidnapped by Khilji-because dear Ratan Sen was too patronizing and stuck up on ‘Rajput honor’ to take her advice when she warned him that Khilji is a traitorous bitch. In fact most of her problems are not because she is too beautiful, but because her husband lacks political acumen, or common sense for that matter. It’s not that Ratan Sen takes all of her little rebellions lightly-in one scene he explicitly tells her that political matters are none of her business; while in another; he chastises her for risking her ‘honor’ to come rescue him while he is in prison. When they return to Mewar, he has a conspicuously sour expression on his face when the populace sings praises of her more than they do of him and changes the topic to the sacrifice of his vassals when she leaves the scene.

However through all of this, Padmaavati is careful to never cross a limit-the accursed ‘lakshman rekha’ that is drawn for all women but particularly one that exists for a woman belonging to Hindu nobility. She takes her husband’s permission for immolating herself-a plot point that sorely defeats any ‘It was her choice! It’s an expression of active agency, not oppression!’ rhetoric regarding her decision to commit jauhar. She happily touches his feet during Holi, and is careful to cover her head on all occasions when in the company of strange men. Overall, she remains blindingly devoted to him even when half the audience is ready to murder him for waxing eloquent on Rajput ethics while his kingdom is at the brink of destruction.

In that way Padmaavati is not so far-removed from the privileged Indian women of today (including the Bollywood-crazy author of this article), whether such privilege is on account of class, caste, education or otherwise. We challenge the patriarchy, but at the same time are complicit in participating in structures that maintain its operation. We study, we drive, we drink, we smoke, we have pre-marital sex, we indulge in all kinds of behaviours that a Padmaavati would have considered scandalous, unethical even. But then we marry men, and happily subordinate ourselves to their wishes. We integrate ourselves into their families at the expense of our emotional and psychological well-being. We adopt their customs and ideologies in the same way Padmaavati comes to subscribe to her husband’s totalitarian and pernicious caste code. We speak out against rape and sexual assault only when it is committed by men whom we can Otherize-strangers, foreigners, men belonging to other castes and religions-but we insist on ‘benefit of doubt’ and ‘due process’ when it comes to People Like UsTM.

This conundrum is seen across all of SLB’s films-in Devdas, both Paro and Chandramukhi at various points question feudal patriarchal practices without ever breaking out of the system, in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Nandini exhorts her sister to run away after marriage, but is dependent on her husband to re-unite with her own lover, in Bajirao Mastani, Mastani is a warrior princess who ultimately succumbs to torture and imprisonment at the hands of her in-laws. We are all Paros and Nandinis and Mastanis-we challenge the system but we never abandon it. We give up. We ‘settle.’ This ties in with existing projects to ‘discipline’ feminism and to mould it into an ideology that can serve dominant interests even when it appears to challenge them. Therefore going back to the lakshman rekha point, women’s liberation is only tolerable till a certain ‘limit’- SLB’s female characters, fantastical as they are, reveal the operation of this limit. It’s also why Padmaavat is laughing all the way to the box office in spite of glorifying such a dangerous ideology -it represents the current national ideal, a woman who is subservient and subverting at the same time. She challenges gender hierarchies only when they don’t interfere with the ones created by her class, caste, religion and region.  She is therefore the Indian White FeministTM.

The kind of cinema we make both reflects our social and moral aspirations and shapes them. We must critique whether the kind of woman we aspire to be is a SLB heroine – trapped in a contradiction of challenging the patriarchy while continuing to follow other oppressive hierarchies – or whether we intend to aim for something more radical.

Published in Movie Reviews

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