India has a long history of banning, or effectively throttling, works of art, literature and cinema that cause difficulty to the digestive systems of this or that social group, or sometimes to the government itself. If you ran your finger down the list of such works, it is amazing that India has stomach for anything at all. Gulzar’s Aandhi had trouble at the censors because the lead star had grey streaks in her hair, Deepa Mehta’s Fire ran into trouble because it harboured the notion that women sometimes fall in love with women, and Pati Parameshwar was not kosher because it showed women as being servile to men. And now we have problems with Padmavati—for what exactly?
No one speaking against it has seen the film, but the naysayers are sure it is deplorable enough to merit cutting off the nose of Deepika Padukone. The film’s makers have been crying themselves hoarse that the film contains none of the ‘objectionable’ sequences, yet several state governments have ‘banned’ the film.
There can hardly be a case for proscription of any work of art based on suppositions.
But the current clamour over Padmavati on the basis of imagined grievances is not only about freedom of expression. What is really being opposed here is not just the depiction of a certain character, be she mythical or historic, but even the most cursory examination of what has been presented to us as ideal womanhood. In writing Padmavat more than four centuries ago, Malik Muhammed Jayasi cast the heroine of his work in the mould of the Padmini woman, the Hindu idea of an ideal woman.
In the Sufi writer’s imagination, which was drawn from the extant Rajput legend, Rani Padmavati is coveted, possessed and fought over. The opposition to the film signifies the hostility to any examination of such a notion of ideal womanhood. It’s a notion that defines women as the property of a patriarchy and creatures of honour as defined by men. There can hardly be a case to prescribe that as the only identity a woman must have.