By Rajashree Ghosh
INDIA New England News Columnist
December rolled in with the flutter of green and red colors heralding that Christmas is near. Hanukkah joins in and makes an occasional presence with its signature blue and white.
The stories behind each of these festivities are consuming – the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem and the wise men following the star heralding the birth of the savior. And the miracle of Hanukkah that turned darkness into light even today dispels the evil. These take us all away from dark moments ushered in by politics in the nations, extreme views and abject disrespect for humanity. A sad, new normal has presented itself.
Waiting to find more distractions from current times, I was looking forward to watch a new film made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali – “Padmavati.” My expectations were and still are that I will get to see opulent sets, grand attires, some good acting, and a compelling story.The story of queen Padmavati has been part of our history lessons in India. Whether in folk lore of the Rajputana region or in pedagogy, her beauty, her sacrifice were qualities that were strung around the story as virtues that needed to be imbibed. From the little that we have seen of the film snippets, actress Deepika Padukone exudes that beauty and carries herself with dignity and grace. I am sure the other actors bring their mettle to the table as well going by their past performances and Bhansali’s direction.
As we know, for those of you who are in the same boat as I am, those three hours and more of perfect escapism have been denied to me. Alas, I am part of the audience that is not allowed to see any artistic rendition of a historical character. I have not had a say in the matter. I was not going to watch a Hindi film for the sole purpose of a lesson in history. For that was the job of my history teacher and she was good at what she did because I love the subject. Thank you, Mrs. Bajaj! And through that learning process one cannot stop the urge to humanize and often personalize a character which the film would have allowed me to do.
But I did get a wee chance when I performed the role of Devaki enacting the scene of Krishna’s birth during Janamashtami celebrations in a Catholic school. Oh, the excitement for me! To play a historical character that saves her new born child for the greater good of humanity – boy, did I have responsibility! As much as I adored playing my character, Devaki swapped her child with another’s to save her own. This factoid gnawed at me for years to come. Much later I was to realize how complex each character can be and stories can have multiple interpretations – each drawn from perspectives and belief systems. No one is all good or all bad and the varied shades make up for rich personalities in the past and even now. I don’t expect Padmavati in film or folk tradition will be portrayed any different – we may or may not like her.
Performance art, theater, and films are works of art and it is a known fact that art pushes boundaries. Artists in history have always butted heads with conventions and works of art once considered transgressive are now being hailed as masterpieces. Case in point, Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” that now adorns the Sistine Chapel in Rome was once considered immoral because of depiction of unclothed human beings. There was obvious discomfort about nudity and sexuality and loin cloths were painted over since. There are many such examples where art raised questions and conversations. In the more recent instance, in the United States, Gibson’s “Passion of Christ” provoked reactions because of the extreme violence depicted and also there were allegations of anti-Semitism. People are still responding to it.
Cut to “Padmavati,” do we know what is inciting such violence and censorship? The silence of the powers that be is deafening. We, the potential audience have not viewed it so we are not in a position to say one way or the other. It seems like we are caught in the middle of the battle lines – the artists and the opposed. I wonder if these two entities are not entirely impermeable. Looking from the outside in, is there anything the artists are undermining that warrants such severe threats? What is the uncomfortable truth they are grappling with? A dream sequence between the heroine and the villain? How many times have we seen that in Bollywood films?!
The whole situation presents a paradox. It has increased visibility in favor of the film. It also shows that art has the ability to provoke political unrest reaffirming its power. And yes, most certainly art does have social responsibility – to its audience. Who does not want to enjoy a well-made film with a story from the pages of history and folk undertones?
Maybe the way out is to embrace every story and find meaning in celebrations which break up continuity of time. The miracles of Hanukkah and rejoicing the baby born in the manger are complex yet meaningful stories. Each one of them! The broader message is can we take a stand about a story or a character without undertaking the journey of the storyteller? It is when we are part of the collective narrative – initiated by the story teller to an audience – is when we can ask, respond and understand. In the words of Chimananda Ngozi Adiche, the Nigerian writer, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity…”
If all stories matter then certainly – Padmavati needs a chance to be told.
(Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.)