Padmavati: Is Bhansali’s tryst with ‘imagined reality’ the reason behind apprehension around film?

The continual interest and intrigue that the film Padmavati has generated right from the time it was announced, and the crew was attacked in Jaipur, to now when political parties have called for a ban in the release, seems to have reached a fever pitch as it inches closer to its December 1 release.

Reiterating that Padmavati is his tribute to the sacrifice, valour, and honour of Rani Padmavati, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent video message is also an attempt by the filmmaker to quell the rumours of the existence of a dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji.

On the one hand, Bhansali’s video might rekindle the memories of Karan Johar‘s similar video in the run-up to the release of his Ae Dil Hai Mushkil but, on the other hand, his video message can also be seen in a larger context – one where the filmmaker is trying to tell people that there is no distortion of history in the film.

Bhansali’s penchant for crossing the fine line between history and historical fiction is well documented.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali; Deepika Padukone in Padmavati. Images from news 18

Starting with his 2002 version of Devdas — where among other details, the filmmaker deviated from Sarat Chandra’s novel Devdas with the glaring ‘the Paro and Chandramukhi jig at the Durga Puja, surrounded by a hundred women dressed in white sarees with red borders’ — Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani distorted history beyond belief. The film featured many historical inaccuracies that the descendants of Bajirao Peshwa and Mastani Baisaheb held a joint press conference to put forth their objections to.

Perhaps that is the reason why a debate on the cinematic license where Bhansali could have imagined a dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Khilji transformed into something else exists. The precedent of a Bajirao Mastani somewhere could have also made the Rajputs, who are as proud a community as the Marathas when it comes to their rich history, want to thwart what could seem like an attempt to tarnish their legacy.

Nestled somewhere in between a filmmaker’s artistic expression and the blanket ban for films, just because they can run the risk of hurting sentiments, lies the realisation that history and historical fiction (in the case of Padmavati, the alleged dream sequence) are necessarily not the same thing. Highlighting the difference between the two, author Andrew M. Greeley believed that while the purpose of history is to narrate events as accurately as one can, historical fiction often uses the perspective of characters in a story to suggest that she or he is present at the unfolding of historical events. The latter obviously requires some modification of the events but the question remains just how far can an event be modified?

This ‘imagained reality’ then has the power to change the way one looks at history. In the same light, Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani might have made many pick up NS Imandar’s Rau- The Great Love Story of Bajirao Mastani — the book that is said to have inspired the film — but at the same time the younger generations would also believe that Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) and Mastani (Deepika Padukone), who just met once in their lives, met to dance their hearts out to the beats of Pinga.

Popular culture is a very powerful tool to attempt to recount history, and across the world, there are debates about just how much of what is told is the truth.

The timing of the film’s release is also important; it almost explains why people are so dissatisfied without seeing the film.

At a time when many Indians have begun asking questions about the history that they were taught in schools or many historical facts that have been omitted from the version that they grew up reading, the reaction to a film such as Padmavati would only become intense. Perhaps twenty-years ago one wouldn’t have reacted this way, not until the film released, but now things are different.

Today, social media offers an alternate platform for certain facts not in the public purview up until now. Today, people have also realised that they remember much a lot more from what they see in films and read in books, rather than textbooks in school or colleges.

Irrespective of it all, there ought to be no space for individuals or groups take law into their own hands. Reportedly, Bhansali is yet to submit Padmavati for certification to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and until that happens or the film releases, one should simply wait.