When director Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast Deepika Padukone as the Rajput queen Rani Padmini in his film Padmavati, he had little idea that the extreme Hindu right might find her closer to Ramayana’s “vamp”, Shurpnakha.
Ravana’s sister, Shurpanakha, through ages has been the epitome of a bad woman in Hindu mythology — promiscuous and immoral. A woman who seeks men out, who wants to steal someone’s husband must be punished. The best way to rein in a woman with sexual agency is to maim her. That’s the fate Surpankha met when she tried to lure both Lord Rama and Laxman – because the brothers decided to have some fun at her expense by tossing her proposal for marriage over to one another, in the epic Ramayana. Laxmana cut his nose — apparently to protect Sita from being attacked by her. But one could also read it as a punishment for defying accepted norms of behaviour for women.
The reason, we recall this part from an ancient epic, estimated to have been written over 2000 years ago is because Shree Rajput Karni Sena chief Mahipal Singh Makrana has threatened Deepika Padukone that she might meet the same fate as Shurpanakha if Padmavati is not stalled.
“We never raise our hands on women, but if we are provoked we will do to her what Lord Ram’s brother, Lakshman, did to Surpanakha (cut off her nose),”
—-Makrana said in Kota. (Source: Times of India)
As if the mad conviction that the Rajputs alone have claim over Rani Padmini’s mind and body and any creative rendition of her legend and folklore must pass their scrutiny wasn’t problematic enough, this mindless vilification of Deepika Padukone for just doing her job sets a dangerous precedent.
It’s appalling, how a bunch of men basking in Rajput pride and valour are threatening to maim a real woman in order to protect the supposed dignity of another woman whose existence is disputed by historians. The reason, Deepika has united these angry men under the same roof is primarily because of two reasons –
- She called India regressive.
- She dances and “bares her midriff” in the song “Ghoomar” for which she has been called a “naachne wali”
It appalling, absolutely appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? Where have we reached as a nation? We have regressed.
— Deepika Padukone on Padmavati protests
In the same vein, a Meerut-based Thakur leader has offered Rs 5 crore to anyone who beheads Padmavati director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and actress Deepika Padukone.
“Anyone who brings the head of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone will be rewarded with Rs 5 crore. Rani Ma Padmavati had sacrificed her life with 12,000 other women in mass immolation (Jauhar), and Bhansali has raised a question on her courage by showing her in bad light in his film. This is unacceptable. Either both of them should leave the country or get ready to be beheaded,” said Thakur Abhishek Som, national president of Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Yuva Mahasabha. (Source: Times of India)
These threats in themselves prima facie make for a case of criminal intimidation.
Deepika’s statement might have offended many a hyper nationalists, but the fact of the matter is, when your actions defy the constitution – the very foundation of your country and derives legitimacy from mythology and folk-lore, you portray yourself as regressive. The constitution sides with Deepika, as it protects women against such violence and also protects our right to freedom of speech and expression. Yet the reason these fringe groups are able to rattle her up without any fear of reprimand is simply because they have found a convenient reference in a Hindu text or folklore to legitimise their action.
Independent scholar, Nandini Bhattacharya Panda, who has authored the book Appropriation and invention of tradition: The English East India company and Hindu law in early colonial Bengal, speaking to inUth explained that there is nothing new in men using traditions and customs to chain women and use them as pawns to further their politics. “Even Britishers used this policy, which in turn was imbibed by Indian men. When British used the flawed customs targeting women like Sati and child marriage, which do not have their origin in the sastrik tradition of Indian mythology or history to prove that Western ideas were superior to Indian traditions, Indian men retaliated by claiming ownership over women and their dignity to fuel their anti-colonial politics. They did so with a certain vehemence. So, there is nothing new in this trend that you see right now.”
Addressing the issue, mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik wrote on Twitter: “Pride comes before a fall. Always been uncomfortable with people who are ‘Proud’ to be XYZ. Such people kill and mutilate others for ‘pride’. You are what you are. Pride or shame doesn’t take that away.”
Pattnaik also questioned the very basis of glorifying mass self-immolation by women led Rani Padmini, the reason Rajputs deify her: “SLB made a film that glamorises & valorises the idea of a woman vountarily burning herself to protect ‘honour’ of her macho clan. A macho clan whose honour demands women voluntarily burning themselves should have rung alarm bells. It did not. Sigh.” (Sic)
The politics of Padmavati
What is sad that even as Padukone gets death threats for speaking up against these protests which hinder her freedom of expression as an artiste, Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani has chosen to score a political brownie point over her opponents.
She took to Twitter not to condemn such attacks on the film but to corner Shashi Tharoor for reportedly saying that the Congress leader had questioned the valour of Rajput leaders by saying that some Rajput rulers didn’t fight back Britishers, instead bowed down before the colonial rulers.
क्या सभी महाराजाओं ने ब्रिटिश के सामने घुटने टेके थे??? शशि थरूर की इस टिप्पणी पर क्या कहेंगे ज्योतिरादित्य सिंधिया, दिग्गी राजा और अमरिंदर सिंह? https://t.co/1GY9RiPut4
— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) November 17, 2017
Other BJP leaders have also sided with Karni Sena. Here’s what Nitin Gadkari had to say:
“People have the right to be offended… filmmakers should not distort historical facts. Padmini is part of our history and filmmakers should maintain sensitivity.”
BJP leader Subramanian Swamy launched a personal attack on Deepika saying, “Cine actress Deepika Padukone giving us lecture on regression!! Nation can progress only when it is regression from her perspective.”
One fails to understand why do ministers and prominent BJP leaders feel compelled to take sides, when the Censor Board is yet to see the film. And at the same time why do they fail to take action against such open threats of violence against a top actress of Bollywood? Whether SLB’s take on Rani Padmini’s life is authentic or not is a separate debate. But the question is why does the sympathy of the state always lie with such violent fringe groups? Why can’t the state for once and all send out a strong message that it tolerate any extra-judicial muscle flexing in the name of community pride. And that pulling out instances from mythology wouldn’t help them get away with criminal intimidation. Or is quoting mythology the new licence to terrorise people?