Producers Reject Historicals as ‘Padmavati’ Controversy Flares Up

There has been a clampdown on future projects which touch upon the subject of former Rajput royalty.

4 min read
Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone in <i>Padmavati.</i>

Call it a macro-impact, a side-effect or a scare. Following the onging inflammatory controveries over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming opus Padmavati, set in the 14th century, Bollywood’s prime producers and bankrollers are running scared.

There has been a clampdown on future projects which touch upon the subject of former Rajput royalty whether real or imagined. Even contemporary stories located in Rajasthan have become taboo.

The unfortunate turn of circumstances for Padmavati has unnerved the top film production houses and the surviving corporate companies. According to a key decision-making executive at one of the international streaming channels -- in the news for green-lighting feature films as well as marathon series - the atmosphere is just not conducive currently to approach “historicals”.

That caveat also applies to themes related to the contemporary life and times of the erstwhile privileged aristocracy, who were deprived of their privy purses in 1971.

Prod the decision-maker, and he surmises, “Perhaps we would be 10 per cent less cautious about scripts set in Rajashtan today or in a bygone era.” Ten per cent? Some quantification, that.

The fact that international quasi-historical series -- The Tudors and Outlander – have amassed immense viewership, hardly counts. Fictionalised history may have met with some niggling criticism in the global sphere , but no calls for bans or censorship. But then even rulings Presidents of the US have been represented on film and television in various shades – from the virtuous to the vicious.

A publicity still of <i>Chittod Ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur </i>which aired on Sony TV.
A publicity still of Chittod Ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur which aired on Sony TV.

Curiously, among the plethora of historical TV series in India, the series Chittod ki Rani Padmini ka Johar (2009) – depicting the love story of the Rani Padmini and Rawal Ratan Singh, threatened by Alauddin Khilji --was aired without a whimper of a protest. It was stopped after 48 episodes, because of sky-high costs and low TRP ratings.

Indeed, the swelling physical threats, vandalism and furore by fringe and political groups have been aimed at high-profile feature films. Relatively a new phenomenon, if it can be called that, the violence has made soft targets of films which revolved around Hindu-Muslim issues (notable evidence: Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan), unconventional sex relationships (Fire, Water) and chapters from history (Bajirao Mastani).

Dramatic licence, interpretation and fictionalisation were perfectly legitimate vis-à-vis scores of films, right from the first Indian talkie Raja Harishchandra (1913) on the benevolent king drawn from the epic scriptures. The black-and-white era yielded the seminal Pukar (1931) and countless film renditions of Mughal and Rajput royals.

For decades, there was no trouble in the movie paradise. Scores of titles could be listed here to affirm that history on cinema isn’t feasible in Indian cinema without the classic framework of songs, dances and high drama.

Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna and Rajesh Khanna starred in Vijay Anand’s&nbsp;<i>Rajput.</i>
Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna and Rajesh Khanna starred in Vijay Anand’s Rajput.

Under the present circumstances, would the revered director Vijay Anand have got away with the title, Rajput (1982), which looked at a potentate who can’t reconcile to the loss of privy purses? Doubtful.

Moreover, more often than not the incendiary protests seek to do their worst way before watching the final product. Objections are raised on the basis of promotional trailers and hearsay rumours that a fantasy lovemaking scene is being picturised,under stealth, on the studio sets. The dance steps of Deepika Padukone for the song, Ghoomar..., aren’t authentic, it’s huffed. Threats are made to cut off the actress’ nose.

Whichever the ruling party may be over the last four decades, the fringe groups have been disruptive and interventionist. Disclaimers in the pre-credit titles are ignored or redrafted to quell protests. The self-appointed banning brigade don’t get it that a film is a film, not a documentary or a docudrama.

Karisma Kapoor played the title role in and as <i>Zubeidaa.</i>
Karisma Kapoor played the title role in and as Zubeidaa.

On an purely personal note, my screenplay for Zubeidaa (2001) was inspired by the life of my late mother. It was based on memories and apocryphal stories told to me about her. Characters were added, omitted and what emerged, was an imagined reconstruct.

Were there any obstacles? Mercifully only minor ones. Director Shyam Benegal was asked for the script by the former royalty of Jodhpur through a Delhi-based newspaper columnist. It was requested that a line of dialogue during a scene depicting an election rally should be deleted. It was the director’s call, the line was deleted.

Sense can and should prevail. Padmavati can’t be subjected to protests which are becoming more bizarre by the day.

And the hidden fall-out is that film projects on the rajwadas, titled or not, are not to be touched, even with a pair of tongs.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)

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