About five years ago, a family friend was visiting Delhi from Karachi. Compared to his hometown, India’s capital was a well-ordered place, a functioning city with free and open public spaces. He was especially enamoured with Hauz Khas Village, built by Alaudin Khilji and impressed by the fact that “The ugly sight of hundreds of armed police and private guards and myriad security roadblocks so pervasive in Karachi, is absent in Delhi.” (‘The city of djinns’ by Vaqar Ahmad, Dawn, September 29, 2013).
The appreciation of Delhi as a modern, cosmopolitan city, by a friend from across the border no less, was a matter of pride. Watching Padmaavat in the capital this week, that pride evaporated, only to be replaced by a sense of fear, shame and foreboding. At first, the absurdity of the prelude to the film is almost comical. “Are you sure you want to risk it?”, asks a concerned colleague. “The theatres have pulled it down,” according to another. After frantic calls, and constant reassurances by a somewhat annoyed multiplex employee, it becomes funny really, the serious concern over a movie. Then, we see the video of school children as young as four, and teachers and employees of a posh private school, being intimidated by the defenders of martial valour, of the modesty of a fictional woman by threatening a real one who portrays her. The concern of friends and colleagues is still absurd, like everything else surrounding Padmaavat. It’s no longer making anyone laugh.
The approach to the cinema hall is replete with the “ugly sight” that the family friend complained of in Karachi. Armed men in uniform, barricades and searches can work it two ways. At the building that houses the research wing of the DRDO, they can, perhaps, provide a sense of security and comfort. Before watching a movie, they make you feel besieged; searched, questioned and watched for just wanting some fun at the end of work.
Apologies, that last sentence was disingenuous. It is likely that only ardent Sanjay Leela Bhansali fans (if there is such a thing), would risk the self-righteous wrath of the rampaging Rajputs. My friend and I wanted to watch the film for reasons ranging from supporting a filmmaker’s right to be judged on his work alone (or so we would like to believe), and a more believable reason — to fulfil our curiosity over what all the brouhaha has been about. Preening with the delight of risking life and limb to watch a film, we enter the hall.
There is no question of relaxing even when we are finally seated. Large policemen next to the usher keep watch, likely in case undercover Karni Sena agents have sneaked in. Then, the national anthem begins to play. Since it is no longer compulsory to do so, it is clearly a voluntary display of nationalism on the part of the multiplex’s proprietors. The ordeal of making it to the movie made us forget that inside too, the little coercions were already present long before the Karni Sena loomed large.
Then, at last, it began. Nearly three hours of nonsensical platitudes about what a Rajput is supposed to be, about the honour of Rajput women and the gross black-and-white contrast (literally) between Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) and Alaudin Khilji (Ranveer Singh). The Karni Sena should thank Bhansali for making such a wonderful propaganda film. It is, perhaps, a sign of the time that the only question at the end of the film is why a Khilji-celebrating organisation did not have a problem with him being depicted as a bisexual, savage ruler governed by his appetites. For women and girls, the message is: The only value you have is in your “honour”, in your body. The Rajput “victory” comes when Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) commits suicide rather than give herself to an “invader”.
In Pakistan, it has taken years of military dictators, a theocracy and the state making clandestine deals with extremists to turn its cities into places of fear and insecurity. In India, from the film itself to the people that object to it and the capitulation of governments, it appears that we are speeding along that road with a lot less effort.