Bollywood movie 'Padmaavat' draws mixed coverage on Hindu-Muslim themes

About 11 years ago, I was in Rajasthan, India, to research some stories for the Washington Times when I decided to take off a morning and visit one of the stupendous hill forts just north of the “pink city” of Jaipur, so named because of its stunning rose-hued buildings. We went to two of them, but it was the 17th century Amer –- or Amber -– Fort that caught my attention for its open air balconies, latticed stonework and gardens.

It was either there or in a similar palace that I heard of jauhar, a form of mass suicide by royal women and their retinues –- to escape abuse and rape -- should their menfolk fail in battle. A guide showed me bloody handprints on the wall from several of these women, left there before they went to die.

A new epic Bollywood film, which ends when the main female lead commits jauhar, is now out. If you wish to understand the Hindu-Muslim enmities that persist to this day in the Indian subcontinent, read up on “Padmaavat” and the mayhem among India’s Hindus before its recent release. According to the Associated Press:

NEW DELHI (AP) -- There was anger about a rumored romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim invader. There were death threats. There were buses burned and grandstanding politicians.
But when the Indian film “Padmaavat” was finally released on Thursday (Jan. 25) amid heavy security and breathless TV coverage, Bollywood’s latest over-the-top offering turned out to be just that: an opulent period drama with multiple songs and dances and a thin storyline and not the slightest hint of the rumored relationship…
The film is based on a 16th-century epic Sufi poem, “Padmavat,” in which a brave and beautiful Rajput queen chose to immolate herself in a ceremonial fire rather than be captured by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji.
Over centuries of retelling, the epic has come to be seen as history, despite little evidence. The main character of Queen Padmini has become an object of veneration for many Rajputs, the clans of former warriors and kings from the western state of Rajasthan.

A reminder: Rajputs are Hindu. Sufis are Muslim. Enemies of the film didn’t choose to simply boycott it, American style. They did far more.

In November, Suraj Pal Amu, a member of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party from the northern state of Haryana, offered 100 million rupees ($1.5 million) to anyone who beheaded (director Sanjay Leela) Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone.

That’s the equivalent of a Republican member of Congress threatening to behead the director Reed Morano and lead actress Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale.

I looked around for other coverage of the film, which is showing in American theaters, should you want to see a glorious rendition of 13th century India. The Huffington Post ran a piece saying that Karni Sena, a major Hindu group had switched from condemning the film to praising it, but not for riot mobs that tried to keep it from being made. It said:

Back in April, 2017, when Bhansali was shooting the film at the Jaigarh fort in Jaipur, then titled Padmavati, Karni Sena workers barged into his sets, allegedly slapped the director, damaged equipment, raised slogans and used expletives. It showed how scarily easy it is for anyone who has a problem with cinematic expression, and if they have the numbers, can resort to vandalism without fear of retribution.

The Hindu group went to court to try to stop the film; a number of theaters decided not to show it and the tourism minister of the nearby state of Maharashtra asked people not to watch it.

What was lost in the process was precious artistic ground to a mob's veto. It set the precedent that if you had the tacit backing of politicians, raised your voice loud enough, and flexed your muscles, you'd get your way.
President of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena, Mahipal Makrana, said that a 'janta curfew' will be imposed and roads and highways will be blocked… Police arrested several protestors for vandalising a Haryana Roadways bus and attacking a school bus in Gurugram. The video of terrified children and teachers crouching on the floor of the bus went viral, triggering a stream of furious reactions from the civil society. 

Can you imagine street mobs in this country trying to keep a film from being shown?

Oddly, the main male character, Allauddin Khilji, who is portrayed as a bisexual, narcissist Islamic king, didn’t bring out protests from India’s Muslim minority, as far as I could tell. I found one Indian journalist who felt that the negative portrayal of Muslims in the film is a depressing sign of India's increasing Hinduisation. 

However, Al Jazeera tells us the Muslim government of Malaysia has banned the film for its portrayal of Khiliji and the New York Times thought that Muslims, not Hindus, got the bad rap

There’s a ton of interesting pieces on this nearly three-hour-long movie; what it says about past Hindu-Muslim conflicts and about the overwhelming sensitivities of Hindu politicians. If you wish to understand the religious stew that is today’s India, read up on this film. Sadly, little has been written about it in the States and what articles there, such as this Hollywood Reporter piece, misses a few points. 

Also catch a piece that ran recently in livemint.com that is not related to the Padmaavat film, but which talks of a more subtle assault on India’s Hindu-ness. It talks of how globalization is stripping religious and cultural identity from traditional Indian names.

Kaira, Shyra, Akira, Kia, Tia, Sia. Shanaya. These are Bollywood’s cool new names, broadly classified into the “ya” or “ra” nomenclature. The Poojas, Nishas, Anjalis and Nehas of the 1990s are déclassé. These new names carry an unmistakable aspiration to be global.They are unrooted to place, community or any kind of identity except class. They are almost never longer than three syllables and easy to pronounce. They float on coolness and lightness. An ex-colleague memorably christened them “First-World Yoga Names -- FWYN.”
The FWYN appears, at first, to be wholly meaning-free: Who is to say what Sia means or Kia or Kaira or, before Johar told us, Shyra? But they likely claim a global register of meaning -- outside the largely Hindi-Hindu and partially Urdu-Islamic axes of Bollywood nomenclature. In fact, these names are almost completely removed from the old markers of place, religion, community. Who can say where Shyra is from, what Shanaya’s mother tongue is, what kind of food they make at Kia’s home?

"First-world yoga names?" So now what once was -- and still is in some quarters -- a Hindu meditative practice is now an adjective of Indian coolness? This is a good read on modern Hinduism that most Western publications never have. We see too little written of the internal tensions happening over there. 

Read it all, as it too, along with the pieces about the Padmaavat movie, give you an idea of the direction the world’s largest democracy is headed and how peoples’ very names are no longer tied to a Hindu culture. Rather, it's Hindu-lite and no amount of street protests from the nationalists are going to change that trend. 

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