Actress Swara Bhasker wrote an open letter to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali after watching his film Padmaavat. Although Bhansali himself hasn’t responded to it, many others have come forward with their opinion on the letter.
If you leave out all the abuse and trolling, the crux of most opinions against the letter is that Bhansali cannot change history and jauhar is not an imaginary climax to the story of Padmaavat, but an actual one.
From what I understood, Swara wasn’t talking about altering history or the climax, rather she was talking about the directorial approach.
How we look at historical incidents, centuries after they have occurred, is significant.
In Bhansali’s approach to Padmavati’s jauhar, you see faith, there is no doubt about it. But actress and singer Suchitra Krishnamoorthi’s tweet over Swara’s letter stunned me a little.
Suchitra dismissed Swara’s point because the latter has portrayed the character of Anarkali on screen, and since, according to Suchitra, this was a ‘dirty’ character someone who had portrayed it shouldn’t say anything for women.
I thought, the woman who couldn’t understand Anarkali, how could she ever understand Padmavati’s pain! Since I created the character of Anarkali, I felt I should put forward my thoughts on Suchitra’s tweets.
The story of Anarkali came to me in 2006. It was a very small incident. I used to work for a TV channel those days and was searching for videos on YouTube during a night shift.
I found a Bhojpuri song and started watching it. The song was bawdy and had a vulgar video. It was made to titillate the audience. But the voices singing the song were so beautiful that I continued to listen.
For a few seconds in the video, the two women singing the song appear on screen behind a microphone. The song these thin emaciated women with sunken cheeks were singing can be roughly translated to “these green, green limes are really round, touch them and see, you will love it”.
I noticed that despite singing such an intoxicating song, there was no lasciviousness on their faces. I played it over and over and realised that they were singing mechanically. They didn’t feel the song, their hearts were not the source of the provocative lyrics. This was the bit that made me look inside for the pain such singers hide, and it led me to the story of Anarkali.
In a feudalistic society, if a woman is a mother or a sister, she is still a commodity – and if she is a prostitute, she is still commodity. A woman has no identity of her own.
The number of women who have managed to free themselves is so low when compared to the female population of the country that we can’t say with confidence that women are standing united against this age-old enslavement.
They are so used to their fate that they do not find their condition unnatural. So, when Suchitra Krishnamoorthi says that Swara Bhaskar, who played the role of Anarkali, is only pretending to separate herself from the naturalness of Padmavati’s jauhar and it is her double standard, she is not really saying anything wrong.
There is a social history of honouring Padmavati’s jauhar and it is because of the jauhar only that Rajput women idealise Padmavati. But it pains me when a woman who lived with the maker of Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapur) does not see Padmavati’s jauhar as a tragic episode in the history of Indian women. Bandit Queen was the first authentic recital of a woman’s pain in Hindi cinema.
Let us look at our society today, where women are no longer responsible for setting up fires to light the night because we have electricity, where women have mobile phones, which they use to communicate with their lovers regularly. If even in this era we see Padmavati’s jauhar as a final justice for women, then we'll have to accept that our consciousness does not evolve with technological advancement.
Consciousness evolves with parity between the genders, and with believing inequality to be illegal. However, these social ills still have a strong hold over us.
Suchitra is a modern, self-reliant woman. However, she still holds a view that a prostitute is just a pleasure-giving object. This is why she shamed Swara Bhasker – because how can a woman who portrayed the character of prostitute raise a finger at Padmavati?
Anyway, people can think whatever they want and they have the right to do so, but if they express their thoughts publicly, others will surely react.
Swara put her view forward, and people responded. The same way, what Suchitra said also needs to be discussed.
I am surprised that instead of an ideological response, she chose a personal attack. This is where she lost, because the person who couldn’t understand Anarkali’s context of freedom, cannot question Padmavati’s jauhar.
I had the option of letting Anarkali get lost in society’s darkness. But I chose to show her breathing free. I took the story forward with Anarkali’s perseverance and hope.
The society that doesn’t see a woman as more than a vagina, which gives banal responses to the numerous incidents of rape, how will it accommodate Anarkali stepping out of the marketplace and at their doorstep? This is exactly what Suchitra has said – how can one who portrayed the character of a prostitute say such a big thing?
But Swara Bhasker is not Suchitra Krishnamoorthy.
While, in all her political statements, Swara Bhasker has constantly questioned and attacked deep-rooted social assumptions, Suchitra’s tweet has clearly shown what her understanding of society, politics, tradition, and women is.
This characteristic of hers is the reason why she blended so well with the liberated consciousness of Anarkali in the movie. This is why she gets angry and starts shouting at every anti-freedom opinion.
After watching Padmaavat, I had also written that in a male-centric society, women are born with a destiny for sacrifice.
Alauddin Khilji of Delhi considered women to be playthings, and Mewar’s Rawal Ratan Singh also, in giving Padmavati permission for jauhar, denied the possibility of a woman’s identity existing separately from a man.
It would have been great if in the guise of Khilji and Ratan Singh’s story, Bhansali had made a film on the condition of the women in those times.
Krishnamoorthy’s response reminded me of a few lines from the Hindi poem Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan (Rebelling Girls) by the poet Alok Dhanwa. He says,
“Ladki Bhaagti hai jaise safaid ghorde par sawar/ Lalach aur jue ke aar par/ Jarjar dulhon se kitni dhul uthti hai… tum jo patniyon ko alag rakhte ho vashiyaon se/aur premikaon ko alag rakhte ho patniyon se/ kitna atankit hote ho jab stri bekhauf bhatakti hai dhundti hui apna vykatativa/ ek hi saath vashiyaon aur patniyon aur premikaon mein… ab to who kahin bhi ho sakti hai/ un aagami deshon mein/ jahan prayan ek kaam hoga pura ka pura!”
(The girl runs, like riding a horse/ beyond greed and gambling/ so much dust rises from these crumbling bridegrooms…you who keep your wives separate from whores/ and your lovers separate from the wives/ how terrified you are when the woman roams fearlessly searching for her individuality/ together in whores and wives and lovers…now she can be anywhere/ in the ensuing realms/ where wooing her will be a project in itself.)
I hope Krishnamoorthy reads these lines and reflects on her comments.
(Avinash Das is a journalist and ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’ was his second stint as director. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(This article has been translated from Quint Hindi.)