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History, myth & marketing

P P Bala Chandran, Nov 29 2017, 1:27 IST

If you read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as history, you'll find a lot of mythology; and if you read them as mythology, you'll find a lot of history - Historian Arthur Llewellyn (A L) Basham.

What the celebrated British historian said in his own dramatic style was that there is a bit of both in India's epics, and to judge them exclusively as one or the other is tantamount to missing the wood for the trees.

So, did Sanjay Leela Bhansali truly mistake the trees for the wood? Did he fall between two stools while scripting his own celluloid version of the life of Padmavati or Padmini, the 'legendary' queen of Chittor in Rajasthan? Or did he get carried away by his own crotch-level commercial instincts while essaying the flesh and blood tale of a stunningly beautiful Hindu queen and the 'lecherous' infatuation Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, felt for her?

As a filmmaker, it suits Bhansali to turn Padmavati into a mythological character, for that would give him enough logic and space to meld the character into a shape that would be both a legend and a fetching commercial product. In fact, there is always more than a fair amount of inter-dependability between a legend and a product based on the legend when it comes to the sales counter. Instances are too many to recount. And Bhansali, let us concede, is not into philanthropy.

Or, could it be that the director, having fallen victim to his own illusions of grandeur, decided to create a personal mythology out of an ancient legend, or even history, assuming that there was a tangible history around Padmavati. That would have put him, as he vaingloriously assumed, perhaps, in the same league as the ancient sages of both the East and the West, like Vyasa, Valmiki, and Homer, who created some of humanity's immortal epics.

Bhansali is perfectly within his rights, notwithstanding his limited qualifications, to be nursing such a superhuman dream. A writer's or an artist's creative ambition should never invite social or public opprobrium, or magisterial reproach of any kind. Civilised society, as Voltaire would caution, does not make its creative minds stand scrutiny in the dock.

But then, how does such lofty logic fit into the ring of fire that seems to have engulfed the northern landscape in the wake of the film's perceived insult to the totemic identity of a proud community? The film, even before its possible or impossible release, has become the red rag to the concerned community's raging bulls.

Is their collective anger rational? Are they justified in pandering to an anachronistic idea of tribal exclusivity? Is an artist or litterateur supposed to take permission from society or from a people that are heirs to irrational hubris before submitting his work to the world at large? It's time we sorted out these cultural aberrations so as not to cause the withering of the free flower of talent.

First celluloid Padmini

I don't know how many people in the South can today recall a Tamil movie on the same subject. Chittor Rani Padmini, made in the year Bhansali was born - 1963 - directed by Chitrapu Narayana Rao, and starring the Tamil thespian Sivaji Ganesan, Vaijayantimala and M N Nambiar is believed to be the first attempt anywhere in India to make a movie on the Rajasthani legend and, in fact, the source of inspiration for Bhansali's controversial Hindi version, Padmavati.

It was also one of the few serious attempts anywhere in the country to underpin Basham's theory about the inevitable overlapping and peaceful co-existence of history and mythology.

Despite sailing through like a dream in the theatres, the film ended up a damp squib, with no mentionable box-office returns. Only its distinction as the first experiment on the subject remained intact. Unlike Bhansali's adventure 54 years later, there were no protests, no burning of effigies, no threats to turn the lead actress into a Shoorpanakha with a sliced nose and mutilated breasts. And, yes, politics had not grown its ugly fangs then, and the intellectual class was not half as addled as it is today.

The Tamil director was more interested in treating the story of the Rajput queen and her patriotic valour as quasi-history, staying close to the established or the accepted version of the Rajput tale, unlike Bhansali, a modern mind who is more interested in melding history and legend into a personal extraction, a typical Bollywood potpourri of a story, let's say, with commerce in mind. But would we ask as to which of the two artistes is nobler?

Conversely, can we conclude that one is less of an artiste than the other just because they burned and baked their clay in different kilns; or because they wrote their respective scripts with a view to serving two different, mutually incompatible, schools of aesthetics? I think it's like asking whether Raja Ravi Varma was a better artist than M F Hussain, or vice versa. The painter prince and the barefoot artist might have worked in contrasting climes and environs, and, therefore, might have had vastly divergent views on their craft and its philosophy, very much like Leonardo and Michelangelo had on theirs.

But there is no way for society to don the magisterial robe and pass judgement on either. For society, the key is not to judge its creative member with a partisan vision, which enjoins, in equal measure, its creative member not to be a partisan in dealing with his creativity. Whoever first breaks the rules of engagement - the intellectual or the society at large - is running the risk of being harshly judged by posterity.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)

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