Nayan, nazar, nayaab Padmaavat's subtle beauty
SIDDHARTH PANDEY attempts to understand the phenomenon of Padmaavat through a new, original light, drawing attention to its politics of aesthetics and sound, while also taking into account the texture of Bhansali's filmmaking
Now that the curtains have fallen and the ninth directorial venture of Sanjay Leela Bhansali has become the sixth highest grossing Hindi film on its 50th day run, one may imagine the last many months as akin to those stunningly shot battle sequences of Padmaavat itself, where desires and passions raged like fire — the film’s binding symbol — primarily in the guise of political correctness and incorrectness. If the build-up to Padmaavat’s release was successfully helmed by some sections, other critics turned equally vociferous in their ideologically righteous observations from the moment the film’s trailer swept YouTube. Perhaps the film will not be remembered so much for its complex onscreen portrayal of beauty, desire, and passion, but for the impassioned theatre of emotions running off screen.
For a landscape photographer and amateur musician like myself, who has long been inspired by the craft of Bhansali’s constantly evolving aesthetics, the phenomenon of his latest venture proved a fascinating ground to understand how deeply our ‘critical’ understanding of art is entrenched in rigidly ideological paradigms. These paradigms — aligned as they are with an ostensibly sensitive and emancipatory vision for society — constantly assert the indisputable value of the much bandied notion that engagement with beauty in a non-ideological manner is dangerous and bad. It might be ok to ‘like’ something for a while, but in ‘reality’ — the claim develops — making and portraying beauty is a matter of ‘uselessness’, as Rachel Saltz of The New York Times so emphatically put in her review of the magnum-opus.
Until the point I entered the theatre after a few days of the film’s release in London, I couldn’t help but get confused by the burgeoning critical milieu that had us charge Padmaavat guilty of misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and every imaginable wrong in today’s (arguably) more ‘aware’ world. I wondered how was it possible for a director to suddenly ‘give in’, when only in his last venture, Bajirao Mastani, the recurrent message was of religious harmony: A message that culminated in possibly the most secular song of contemporary Hindi cinema, ‘Aaj ibaadat ho gayi’, which entrancingly intertwines chants from Hinduism and Islam. I also pondered how could Bhansali become so afraid of the current patriarchal political dispensation and turn ‘against’ women, when in virtually all of his films, women characters — often more central than their male counterparts — spoke and acted with a uniquely fierce sense of inner depth and agency, and belonged to all kinds of social groups, from lawyers, housewives, and warriors to weavers, nurses, courtesans, prostitutes, and princesses. But my confusion melted away into a joyous feeling of relief and appreciation as Padmaavat unfolded before my eyes with an intriguing subtlety — a quality that many critics staunchly refuse to assign to Bhansali’s filmmaking.
The subtlest strand of the film is its “lack of ideological purity”, said another critic. While all art does take birth within certain ideological apparatuses of power and hierarchy, it also partakes a number of other aspects that can simply not be slotted within ‘this’ or ‘that’ group or pattern of thinking, which ideological critiques routinely root for. As one of our leading contemporary writers, Marilyn Robinson, observes: “Ideological thinking is a betrayal of our magnificent minds and all the splendid resources our culture has prepared for our use.” Even so, Bhansali does critique the ideological Hindu right head on (pun strongly intended), by orchestrating the beheading of the Hindu priest Raghav Chetan on the orders of the Hindu queen, Padmavati. In fact, if there is a villain in the film, it is the Hindu priest himself, with the vilification going back to Bajirao Mastani, where again the fountainhead of Hinduism is powerfully undermined for his beliefs and corrupt practices. For its part, Padmaavat’s subtlety also derives from its disinterest in showing any conventional male ‘hero’, because the film consistently leans on the heroine Padmavati and the anti-hero Alauddin Khalji. Maharawal Ratan Singh’s portrayal can hardly be considered heroic in any sense, when his insistence on usools (values) only leads to his captivity and eventual death, deriving criticism from both Khalji (“how honourable are your values,” says Khalji in a sardonically powerful dialogue) and Padmavati (“if your values are so dear to you then chop off my head and nip this episode in the bud,” proclaims the second queen, as she takes the decision to enter the game of wish-fulfilment).
Critics like Abhijeet Singh Rawaley and Girish Shahane have provocatively demonstrated how the film is an “intellectual delight” that works with a nuanced, “sympathetic” understanding of Khalji’s character. My concern, in particular, is beauty per se, both visual and aural, whose exploration has certainly sophisticated across the trajectory of Bhansali’s oeuvre. Bhansali’s significance as a key director of our times lies in his fascination with certain aesthetic symbols and tropes that keep recurring with added meaning, educing what the critic Subhash K Jha terms as the director’s capacity to work with “layered language of opulence”. While liberally drawing from the spectacles of yesteryears — from Raj Kapoor classics to the films of V Shantaram, K Asif, Vijay Bhatt, and many others — the director also makes them his own. As the Harvard critic Elaine Scarry perceptively notes, “Beauty is sometimes disparaged on the ground that it causes a contagion of imitation, but this is just an imperfect version of a deeply beneficial momentum toward replication.” Some of Bhansali’s favourite motifs — inspired and self-created — include his love for the shutting and opening of the doors, windows, and gates (Devdas, Saawariya, Padmaavat); women contemplating via weaving (almost every film has a weaving reference); lovers dancing and singing as expressions of celebration, bonding, and separation; the statue of the meditative Buddha as a symbol of grace, poise, and purity (Saawariya, Guzaarish, Padmaavat), and endless nods to weather and natural landscape. The awareness of the last flourishes in Padmaavat, where the heat and dust of the desert and the beauty and appearance of the moon are evoked time and again.
The much discussed meat-eating scene also takes place in the treacherous conditions of the Rann, where Khalji’s greedy pursuit of food is not a ‘general’ comment on Islamic food habits, but actually an internal critique of Khalji himself by his own soldiers, whose rations are nearing an end: “Sainik bagaawat par uttar aayein hain” (the soldiers are becoming disloyal), reports a commander. (As an aside, a scene depicting Muslims delicately eating fruits is placed right in the beginning of the film too). The right’s frequent admonishments challenging Bhansali to make films on non-Hindu cultures hardly make any sense since the director has actually been making films with those very communities as core subjects.
Khamoshi, Black, and Guzaarish empathetically portray Anglo-Indian societies. Saawariya, for all its box-office failure, must be understood as one of the most overt celebrations of Hindi cinema’s — and indeed of India’s — syncretic Islamicate cultures.
I find it remarkable that even a song such as Padmaavat’s ‘Ek Dil Ek Jaan’ featuring the Hindu king and queen leaps into a qawwali in the middle. That a Pakistani critic, Rahul Aijaz, gives 4.5 out of 5 stars to the film should do something to quell our exaggerated fears about the dangerous legacies of an otherwise highly complex filmmaker.
While there is much else to say about Bhansali’s creative journey as arguably the finest auteur of Hindi cinema, I will end with some thoughts on the most controversial part of Padmaavat — the conclusion. Personally, I find it hard to align with any form of argument that takes our current political temporality as the sole reason to show or not show something onscreen. If that was the case, then we shouldn’t be making any films on any kinds of violence, because violence is by definition fundamentally antithetical to a harmonious, ethical, and emancipatory vision of man and womankind.
Further, to argue that ancient practices such as jauhar and sati cannot be legally depicted (as some indeed have pointed out) is also incorrect, for only in the few years old Aamir Khan starrer Mangal Pandey, we had a long sati scene filmed against grand mountains and river. The right to take one’s own life in the face of a number of unusual or extreme circumstances has been a part of human culture and cultural productions for long, with India celebrating the sacrifice of Rani Laxmibai through many statues that immortalise just that one leap before the grasp of death.
Padmaavat doesn’t ‘suddenly’ glorify jauhar through saris and architecture, because grandness is interwoven in Bhansali’s style of filmmaking right from the beginning. The glorification of visuality for its own sake isn’t wrong either, as cinema all over the world has routinely experimented with the potency of spectacles and the spectacular. But the subtlety of the jauhar scene derives not so much from what it shows but rather from what it does not show.
For all its insistence on the constantly harped visual signifiers of ‘nayan’ (eyes), ‘nazar’ (looks) and ‘nayaab’ (unique), Padmaavat only implies the burning, and it is in this suggested implication that the story becomes a fantasy without partaking the goriness of violence. In fact, the film is sensitive to the portrayal of violence from the outset, and it is telling that even while showing the battle sequence between the Mongols and the Khaljis, the narrative shrouds the sequence in a massive plume of dust. The final scene also fits well in Bhansali’s oeuvre since the filmmaker is consistently intrigued by the poetics of death and separation, be it Devdas, Guzaarish, Ram Leela or Bajirao Mastani.
In Padmaavat, however, the absence of the visual burning of bodies translates into an intriguing presence of the fire’s crackling sound that inlays the haunting cast tune before the main narrative sets off. It is this politics of sound that seals Bhansali’s virtuoso craftsmanship not only as a director but also as a musician, for he understands that a fictional legend such as Padmaavat takes birth not so much through the aide of visual signifiers (written or drawn), but first and foremost, via the currency of telling and singing. It is no wonder then that the film’s haunting background score has stayed on with the viewers long after the conclusion, ensuring the sustenance of the legend in its primitive form.
The writer is a Doctoral Candidate in Fantasy Literature and Craft Studies at the University of Cambridge,UK, where he also supervises on a course on ‘Film, Culture and Identity’. The views expressed are his own
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