Dear Swara Bhaskar,
I will not start this letter with admiring your work because you always came across a woman who is fierce, sensible and confident enough to take a response to your opinion without taking it personally. Nobody is more aware of the strength and presence you bring to the table every time you come on screen than you are. Even in your public and press interactions I can’t help but admire the basic yet nuanced understanding of things your view on things, especially related to women empowerment is something I have not only always agreed upon but often used them in arguments as well, and often won. You are one of the very few in Bollywood who is not scared to death to be associated with the ‘F’ word, you know feminist, something that is so refreshing coming from someone who belongs to the make belief and detached world of Bollywood.
But in the recent open letter of yours that you wrote to Sanjay Leela Bhansali after Padmavat, honestly made so little sense to me that I am baffled that you of all people had such a reaction. Apart from an actor, you are also an avid consumer of Bollywood and Bhansali’s brand of cinema as you have elaborated in your letter, then how can you not give the director a fair chance.
Padmaavat, essentially is an epic and needs to be treated like one. The director has left no stone unturned to transport you back to that era and if his attempts were successful then try to see the movie from the perspective of that era. Having the sensibility to argue for women’s right to live is the hallmark of a global 21st-century citizen, but if you let the millennial sitting in the chair of a multiplex judge the moralities of 13th-century queens and princesses, are you really being fair to them? And would those having the sensibilities as yours be in sync with a period appeal of the film?
There is also probably a need to give the Rajput women some credits for their decision. When a beast who you know will reduce you to a mere sex slave is at the door, is jauhar not an understandable decision, even if not popular? Like one has the right to live a life after rape, it is also within the realm of their rights to not get raped and to choose their fate. Think of it like the modern day debate about euthanasia.
Also, you need to understand that whether it is a historical narrative or a literary adaption, there are just certain fundamental points that you have stick to. Would it be fitting if a movie based on the legend ofPadmaavati didn’t end with a Jauhar? Even with such a glorifying and somewhat accurate portrayal of the character of Padmaavati, saying it was difficult to release the movie would be an understatement, imagine what would have happened if he changed the climax. The only possible solution then is to perhaps not touch the story at all, and if you harbor those opinions, (which I am sure you do not) you enter the Karni Sena zone. Additionally, the climax, superbly dramatic and cinematically very powerful, can also be seen as a metaphor of the burning rage for the tormentor that ultimately consumes you. I know it sounds extremely far-fetched, but to me, so does your take away from the scene.
The fact that you yourself mentioned and I totally agree, about being uncomfortable while watching the scene, goes to show that simply because it’s a beautifully shot sequence with oodles of dramatic cinematic charm, is not necessarily glorification. Sanjay Leela Bhansali doing any less for a scene as dramatic as that would just not be Bhansali enough. He is an auteur and should be given the space to be one, else why bother.
Coming to being reduced to a vagina comment of yours, if I try very hard to understand where you are coming from I kinda get it, but what do you think is more empowering? A very nuanced and critical analysis of a flaw that is somewhat manufactured or a movie that is wholeheartedly dedicated to the bravery and courage of what perhaps is one of the very few historical/fictional female characters of that era whose exceptional beauty is not all that defines her.
I happen to call myself a proud feminist and I am surely not writing this with a burning desire to defend Padmaavat as a movie or Bhansali as a director neither is my purpose to undermine your voice and concern. However, I cannot help but notice a certain trend that bothers me. I do not advertise the opinion the film is a flawless masterpiece; in fact, the film is far from that. Personal preferences aside, I can’t help but cringe at the way Aditi Rao Hyadri’s character suffered the humiliation and beastly treatment. In fact, it is probably the most disturbing aspect of the film according to me. For somebody with your sensibilities, it amazes me that you would pick on the ‘Jauhar’ bit, which is actually how things happened and was necessary for the narrative of the film and do not even devote a line to call out the disturbing treatment of Aditi Rao Hyadri’s character. Is it a subtle reflection of watching the movie with a pre-judged notion. I do not attempt to accuse of having personal biases, but your opinion is just a reflection of this trend that I have started pointing in general.
Liking Padmaavat or not is a creative or aesthetic choice that no one can be or should be deprived of and healthy and informed criticism of the film is something I firmly believe would enrich Indian cinema in general. But, writing off a film as misogynist or sexist when the intention of the film was exactly the opposite would probably deter other filmmakers from choosing subjects of the same genre and then we would be back in the dark ages where the only quality to be associated with women of yore was their beauty. Let not the ongoing feminist debate in the country drown the well-meaning efforts on the part of filmmakers simply because of over-analysis because God knows we are in dire need of those and there aren’t many.