Dangerous stereotypes couched under song and dance – a film review of “Padmaavat”

So, I usually don’t do film reviews on this blog, because a) most of the films I watch are those artsy-fartsy indie films no one has ever heard of (BTW, has anyone seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? I really wanna see it) and b) my film reviews aren’t actual film reviews in that I talk too much about myself and less about the movie.

But you know what? It’s Birthmonth, this is my blog, and I have recently seen a film that’s generating a lot of buzz, but not in the way that I think it should have. So I’m going to write about it, because that is what I do!

The three main characters of Padmaavat. From left to right: The Good and Noble Rajput King, the severely airbrushed and much-better-looking look-a-like Rajput Queen Padmavati, the Ruthless and Immoral Muslim Conqueror Alauddin Khilji. Photo courtesy of India Today

For readers who are not familiar with Bollywood, Padmaavat, the latest high-budget blockbuster that was scheduled to release earlier in the year, was finally released last week. Why the delay? Because Indians are really sensitive. In this case, a right-wing nationalist group was upset about the depiction of a fictional character: a Rajput queen who commits herself to the controversial practice of jauhar rather than fall under the dominion of the Muslim invaders.

The fact that this movie was based on a fictional story doesn’t seem to matter to certain factions of Indian society (Muslims are also not immune from this – The film Bombay, if I’m not mistaken, was banned in my city of Hyderabad, because the protag, a Hyderabadi Muslim girl, marries a Hindu man)

There were death threats to the director and lead actress. The filmmakers had to make changes to the film to be more accommodating. So when the film was finally approved for release, it was somewhat of a celebration… but not really.

I haven’t been following the full reception of the film. But feminists on the internet have been very critical of the depiction of the horrendous practice of jauhar and its glorification in the film. In a way, it does glorify it, even though there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the film emphasizing that it does not. But I saw the movie, it does.

There was a powerful line that Padmavati, played by Deepika Padukone, my look-a-like (it’s a highly contested running joke in my family – I wish I looked like her. But I’m not gonna lie: sometimes when I’m feeling particularly delusional, I think I could be her younger, uglier sister), gives at the end: something to the effect of rather than allow that ruthless man to have full access to my body, he won’t even get to touch my ashes. A part of me was like, “Yeah! You ain’t gonna get my jelly! Eat mah dust, bee-yotch!” But another part of me was like, “Oh, so all the women and girls have to kill themselves now?”

BUT, what hasn’t been talked about are the stereotypical depictions of Muslims as ruthless invaders without any morals whatsoever. The one Muslim character that we do feel some sort of sympathy towards is the wife of Khilji, the ruthless invader who killed his uncle to be king – again, the trope of Muslim women needing to be saved from their heartless barbaric Muslim husbands.

This, as I was talking about to a friend earlier this morning, is dangerous in a society where Muslims are increasingly vilified and under attack. Perpetuating the idea that Muslims conquered India by the sword only serves to reinforce the idea that Muslims do not belong in India. I’m sure the BJP is lovin’ it… while eating their veggie BigMac! Actually, it might be banned in BJP-majority states, so maybe not.

But it wasn’t just that all but one of the Muslim characters in the film were worthy of contempt; the defending Rajput side was glorified to such an extent that I had to roll my eyes throughout much of the film. It only serves to reinforce the dichotomy already presented: Native Hindus (with the exception of the Brahman defector): good, moral, full of principle and integrity. Invading Muslims: ruthless, immoral, duplicitous.

I walked out of the movie almost in surprise, because I didn’t think it was horrible. It was definitely a feast to watch: some good performances, great cinematography, vastly-improved special effects (other than the distracting airbrushing of Deepika. She’s already so beautiful; was that really necessary?).

But I didn’t walk away thinking it was great (I can’t remember the last time I’ve loved a Bollywood film and had no complaints). I took issue with the depiction of Muslims in the film as I watched it. I was almost expecting it, to be honest. As an Indian Muslim who’s very conscious about this frighteningly precarious fact, it’s not something I can ignore because, “Oh look! What a beautiful room!” (or whatever it was SRK said in DDLJ). The more time I have had to sit on it, the more upset I am. Not necessarily because the technical aspects were poorly executed. The story without any context was fine. But given the politically charged times India finds itself in and the real power the film industry has over the population, it’s actually quite dangerous, or at least highly unsettling.

If you’ve seen it, what are your thoughts? Mr. Rafia thinks I’m too critical (not of people, but of things that essentially have no feelings: movies, music, food, etc.. Everyone is a critic in some way; I prefer to fuel my criticisms in such a way so that I’m not hurting actual living individuals).

Heck yeah, I’m Critic Ruffs (TM)!

ETA on 2/4: I get a text from my older sister telling me that the term is jauhar (mass immolation) instead of suttee. Po-tay-toe, poh-tah-toe, I say, since technically she was a widow and jauhar is a form of suttee. But she takes potatoes seriously.

3 thoughts on “Dangerous stereotypes couched under song and dance – a film review of “Padmaavat”

  1. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed Bollywood movies, they offered an alternative to the usual Hollywood movies you could often not watch with your whole family present. I love the glitz, the glamour, the singing, the dancing, and the amazing clothes….it is just so much fun. I was a consummate watcher from the 90s all the way to the mid 2000’s: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Raja Hindustani, Mohabbatein, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Devdas, Hum Tumhare Hain Sanam, Lagaan, etc…

    I’ve seen a great deal of articles pertaining to the current controversy about this movie. I think you’ve pretty much summed up why the stereotypical portrayal of an entire segment of society is problematic. But, these narratives are often facile, and tend to gain traction at times of social upheaval. I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I must say I’m not exactly itching to see it either. I’ll probably watch it at some point though :)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with you. I think Bollywood went downhill sometime after 2000. That’s when I stopped really watching films. But now that I have no connection to my Indian roots, I’ve slowly started watching them again. I’ve yet to fall in love again. I still hold 90s Bollywood in a special place in my heart though. They made my childhood.

    I really do wonder whether this was consciously done. Why pick this story among so many others? I’ve been really dismayed to find out that some of my favorite actors now support the BJP :(

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is disheartening to find out that people whose talent you appreciate are actually not such good people in real life. It seems that in India, unfortunately, at the moment there is an uptake in identitarian extremism. To make a movie such as this one in such a climate is the epitome of recklessness.


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