There is a well known book on the eminent director Steven Spielberg’s making of the movie ‘Schindler’s list’. The book was written by a polish reporter who worked with him and was fascinated by how Spielberg dealt with a highly sensitive and emotional topic as holocaust in Poland. As he writes, ‘Spielberg went to Poland to talk to numerous survivors, read avidly on everything on the subject, talked to people who told him about their memories to understand the subtle emotions that people carried in order to understand the tragic reality that remained enveloped for a community’.
I had read that book at a second hand store. The book is a revelation on how you make works of art, especially books and films on sensitive topics such as war, genocide and gulags.
The author talks of the core theme of the novel Schindler’s list as being the pain of the community that is not understood and difficult to project on screen. The pain the Jews felt at being thrown out of their homes having lived in for centuries, being herded like cattle in trains to be killed in mass extermination camps and the silence of the world, all were issues that stared them in the face. He writes of the dilemma of the director as not just how to show the pain in day to day events as it actually happened but also the emotions the present generation Jews still carry about that chapter of their 2000 year old history.
Of all the writings I have gone through about Rani Padmini (Rani Padmavati), I find the story by Abonindronath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore, to be one of the best. When I first read it as a teenager, I understood and felt the dilemma of the queen at being responsible for the suffering of her people. As Rani Padmini began to realize that her beauty is the cause of so many deaths in Chittor, her desperation and holding herself responsible for it is was described poignantly by the author. I understood that she wasn’t a vain, narcissistic woman who was self absorbed. Her ambivalence, her dilemma not only I felt in every sentence of the story, it was so real that it took my mind to a land where valor and honor ruled supreme and kings and queens faced a tragic reality together. Nowhere while reading it I felt she was egoistic as a queen but the people of the fort loved her and she loved them back befitting a queen. That made it worse for her as she saw the upcoming massacre.
To me the stories of Spielberg and Bhansali have an uncanny similarity but their styles as a film makers come as just diametrically opposite to me while dealing with sensitive issues. Both directors depict an issue and an era where lust, greed and power tried to overcome every human moral virtue of what was good in society. The irony is that while one researched it by going in the hearts of people, studied in depth to make it a story depicting human condition, the other is how a mass tragedy is converted into a mindless entertainment and turned into an insensitive drawl.
I remember a visit with my father to Chittor fort when I was fifteen. We were taken around the fort in a tonga, a horse drawn cart. I have forgotten most of that journey except three things the tongawala showed us. The first was the mirror in which he said Allaudin Khilji saw Rani Padmini, the second where the women of Chittor committed Jouhar and the third where Allaudin Khilji rested for three days in Rani Padmini’s palace before going back.
His voice was full of grief as he told us the story and showed us around, especially the second place. The story, he said, he had heard sitting at the feet of his grandmother with other children. His voice full of emotions was soon replaced with pride as he told us why the Ranas of Chittor are called Maha Ranas and no train from Chittor will ever go to the center of Delhi [it was true then]. At that time they stopped before reaching New Delhi station. He talked of the warriors, Gora and Badal and described their valor as how they were central to the story of Rani Padmini.
The grief of the Rajputs and perhaps much of the rest of India over that incident is not over and perhaps won’t be for a long time to come. The Jouhar, where thousands of women immolated themselves, are an image every Rajput child carries inside as his or her identity. Through stories, the grief has been passed on from generation to generation. Till the time efforts are made for a closure through acknowledgement, through poetry and literature by later generations, the trauma of a society will not be laid to rest and will continue to haunt.
Sadly the films with the likes of Bhansali and Bollywood do nothing of the kind. They don’t bring a closure. They do the opposite of that. They open raw wounds again and fragment us as a society even further due to their insensitivity.
The film by Spielberg on the other hand took a giant step towards bringing in a closure by portraying a painful chapter of Jews with sensitivity, research and humility. A reason lost to the film makers of Bollywood and why they fail to achieve this goal that can bring in healing of a lifetime. They don’t understand such movies are about survivors and their feelings, first and foremost. Witness the actress, Deepika Padukone saying, ‘We have regressed as a nation’. No, we haven’t, Ms. Padukone. The whole of Bollywood industry needs to grow up from a culture of insensitivity into a mature industry.
The image of Jouhar has become an indelible identity for Rajputs and perhaps for many Indians who will hold on to this past of their ancestors that is fragmented and full of humiliation for an entire race. The images existed then as an island of resistance in midst of brutalities by Mughals. Today their existence is challenged by historians and liberals who try to crush it saying that our past should not be defined by the survivors and their memories but by the very absence of it.
If a director like Bhansali would have made Schindler’s list, would he have shown Jews dancing in groups wearing fancy costumes before being herded like cattle in trains for gas chambers? Would Deepika Padukone acting as a Jew, be having a fantasy about some Nazi officer singing a song? Why not in the name of artistic freedom or in the name of free speech, some might say.
Who will care if the sensitivity of a race whose women killed themselves regularly to protect their honor be lost in that process to the future generation? Didn’t the British believe we Indians are regressed and ruled us based on that hallowed principle. Isn’t it a question of freedom of expression?
A spokesperson for congress recently said that female literacy rate in Rajasthan is more important than the current Padmavati debate. Sure, why not Mr. Spokesperson? Self respect and honor – they come only after we learn to speak English? They are meaningless till our society becomes English language savvy and people are able to speak in a polished manner? Till then we will let others define it for us?
A familiar argument of colonial times given by ‘Barra Sahibs’, ‘Why discuss certain things in front of natives? Natives can’t think after all’.
A columnist, a socialite, who represents a vast mass of intellectuals, too wrote in a national daily sometime ago. In her article she said she wants to protect the battle of this beautiful queen from the most savage attacks she has faced, more savage than the attack on her honor by Allaudin Khilji, in her opinion which is the current one. Perhaps a queen lusted at and at the center of a humiliation, the lives of thousands at stake is difficult to imagine for her. Perhaps she has forgotten that feelings of humiliation existed in those days too, in a far more raw and savage form than it is today. There were no hiding spaces for those who became the center of it unlike now.
She says cinema occupies its own universe. No, it doesn’t Ms. Author. Cinema is part of the same universe that you and I, a million Indians living in slums breathe in day after day and feel in their bones. It is reflective of your life, my life and is the universal human condition that governs the genocides, the fate that befell our people regularly from invasions and led to Jouhars. The longings and sufferings of those women while they immolated themselves in the fire or the Jews who were gassed in concentration camps remains a voice that hasn’t died.
If you cared to pause and heard the voices of the people you were making a film about Mr. Bhansali, you wouldn’t have made them dance and sing the way you did. You would show a voice of a people whose descendants then would have faith in you because someone is respecting their memory. Memory remains a raw nerve even after centuries of silence, Mr. Bhansali that will good for you to remember when you make your next film.
The Jews who died in camps, the women who immolated themselves still serve as a beacon of hope and light to millions of people. It is something the directors of Bollywood have yet to understand it seems whose vision of everything is entertainment first and is typified by dancing in front of the camera. Queens, Kings, survivors, their persecutors including all dance in abandon in Bollywood movies to show a peculiar human condition no film critic has figured so far. Who will tell them it doesn’t express the deeper emotions of mankind and its tumultuous history? The emotions that emerged during the times societies were in trouble and faced annihilation, the ambivalence and doubt that plagued them is of another kind.
The author of the above said column writes that the legend of Padmavati was invented by a Sufi saint and Rajputs are not the sole owners of her legend. Why, did Sufi saints have nothing better to do than create mythical Hindu women characters?
History has countless interpretations as is claimed by our secular brigade. Only the one by survivors doesn’t figure in that according to them. And of course many interpretations are created by paid historians to sow confusion and doubt in the minds of survivors of the future generations so that the version of the victors remains the only one. The victims in every age had to fight to get their voice heard. When they didn’t their voice turned into deathly silence and was used for entertainment.
Like millions of others I also saw the trailer of the dance sequence of Padmavati. I felt full of disgust that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Whether that dance was done by Rani Padmini or not is not what bothered me. The image I carried of her was of a stoic noble queen who felt for her people and stood as a symbol of courage that was noble, just and upholder of human dignity of her people. When I had read the book by Abonindronath Tagore, I had felt an impending and unforeseen tragedy in the air that will wipe out her people forever and change the history of her land forever. When I saw the trailer, I felt none of those emotions.
The Bollywood film industry has not touched sensitive themes in a way like their counterparts in other parts of the world have done. Ours is an industry in transition, growing out of showing entertainment films to making films that may have a surreal, disturbing and painful quality. The genocides, the partition, riots and mass violence belong to that genre. I wish our filmmakers and actors would realize that sooner than later and make it following one cardinal rule. The survivors and only the survivors need to find their voice, their pain through the artwork and feel it has been heard and brought out sensitively. That is the rule every great art work and writer and director follows. In the process it may open a raw wound again but it is needed when truth is shown after being suppressed for long.
It is perhaps the first right of the survivors and not that of media, intellectuals or even historians to define that reality for us and to say whether that pain has been addressed or not.
The Rajputs, her descendants of the royal family, are the survivors of the horrendous carnage that took place centuries ago in the name of bigotry and lust. It is the descendants of survivors of those who deserve to be heard even if it is a whisper. Not hearing it can turn it into release of avalanche of emotions for the descendants.
When you make a film on trauma, a carnage that is as real in your heart as if it happened only yesterday, it is imperative to listen to that voice and that voice alone before anyone else. Otherwise it is the perpetrators voice that dominates and takes the center stage.
Our land has gone through many atrocities and the memory of those events remains suppressed but alive. The voice of the victims has been relegated to the background as not worth listening to. Let us listen to that voice now and hope that it reigns this time.