When art infringes on certain territories, we rush to blame the artist-creator. We decry loudly that art is but a reflection of society, and that every artist has a moral and civic responsibility to heed this maxim while in the throes of creation.
The artist does not create in isolation. After all, the artist’s work is meant to be consumed by an audience. But does the responsibility rest only with the artist?
My view is that the responsibility quotient needs to be shared by the artist, and the audience. And ‘therein lies the rub’.
The huge commotion that ‘Padmavat’ has generated led me to the theatres. I am a big fan of the historical genre. When the film was released, I was ready to transport myself into the 13th century – a time of tribal loyalties, bloodthirsty marauders, and noble kings and queens.
I came away from ‘Padmavat’ with more questions and concerns though. My 21st century sensibilities were outraged every time outdated and wildly patriarchal notions of ‘honour’ were presented. Don’t even ask about the one-dimensional characterisation! Alauddin Khilji was no saint, sure, but he wasn’t all devil either. History records that he had a fine appreciation of the a
rts, was a shrewd and capable commander, as well as a ruthless ruler. There is complexity in all humans. That was totally missing in the narrow ‘us-versus-them’ mentality exhibited by Bhansali. Khilji is depicted as a savage animal while the Hindu Rajput king is the epitome of culture and honour.
Pretty problematic, I’d say. When the queen spouts lines like, “I have to take your permission even to die/commit jauhar”, I fumed. There has been a lot of talk online about the glorification of ‘jauhar’ or ‘sati’, the practice of self-immolation by fire, after the death of a woman’s husband. It was definitely tne of the most shameful episodes of India’s long history. And yet, Bhansali picturized this terrible climax in slow motion, with the queen heading towards the fire with a beatific smile on her face. I wasn’t impressed. As a woman, and a movie-goer.
In fact, it brought to mind a scene from a book, “The Far Pavilions”, by M M Kaye, where a young woman is being led towards a similar fate. She had been drugged with opium to keep her from running away from the terror of being burned alive. The hero shoots her from a hidden vantage point, deeming that would be a kinder, and quicker, end. That was a more realistic portrayal.
Whichever way you look at it, the film has muddied the waters. However, destroying public property, or threatening to cut of the actor’s head, is in no way excusable. Just as the audience may feel outrage at some notions depicted in the film, the director has every right to present his point of view. You don’t like it – write about it, speak passionately against it, discuss what you didn’t agree with. There are multiple ways of engaging in democratic discourse.