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Padmavati: Between myth and history
In 1970 an all song musical rock opera 'Jesus Superstar' hit Broadway, New York. It featured differences between Jesus and his disciple Judas. Finally leading to Jesus being betrayed by Judas to the Romans, by his infamous 'kiss of betrayal' at the 'Last Supper'! The Romans finally crucified Jesus.

Though I had not seen the play, I saw the 1973 movie of the same name. With no dialogues, throughout the film there was a lot of hopping, dancing and loud singing to each other. Nobody expected that a Biblical theme to be rendered in that format. Predictably, there was trouble ahead.

The public and art critics applauded the movie, but many Christian groups branded it as blasphemy. Judas had been shown in a more sympathetic light, as compared to Jesus. Tim Rice, the lyric writer defended by saying that in the play they had treated Jesus not as God, but as an ordinary man, '….who was the right man at the right time'! The Jews, in turn blasted the show for fuelling anti-semitism. The musical was banned in South Africa and Hungary. Nevertheless, the movie turned out to be the longest running musical show ever.

'The Last Temptation of Christ', a 1988 book by Nobel laureate Nikos Kazantzkis, also met with strong controversy and violence. The book deals with how Jesus overcame his various temptations, last of which was lust. The alleged relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is finally redeemed by becoming his disciple. Though the book clearly mentioned, that it was not based on the Gospels, a Catholic group planted explosives in Saint Michel theatre in Paris. Interestingly, the archbishop of Paris condemned both the book and those who has blasted the theatre as 'enemies of Christ'. There were series of blasts all over Europe.

There were demonstrations by Far-Right in US too, including at the Universal Studios. An evangelist offered to buy the film negative outright and destroy it. Most of the Catholic countries banned it.

In India, Rajiv Gandhi assured that no one's feelings would be hurt and had the film banned all over the country. In Kerala, the High Court banned a Malayalee play based on the 'Last Temptation'. The same year, Salman Rushdie's book 'Satanic Verses' was also banned in India, leading The Indian Express to lament: '….the ban against the book as yet another disquieting sign of the government's inability to withstand sectarian pressure and of its growing encroachment into areas of individual liberty.

During Nehru's regime, Aubrey Menen's 'Rama Retold' was banned, for 'laughing at Ramayana'. It was a parody, which described Laksman thus: "His moustaches and his brother were the things he loved most in the world." Ravana was shown in a favourable light. From his other books, I gathered that he was an iconoclast. His book 'Prevalence of Witches' was a spoof on ignorance in a remote tribal village in India, where 'people's superstitions get the better of them'.

Around the same time when 'Rama Retold' was banned, a thick volume in Hindi, Gadbad Ramayan by a hasya kavi (Bedhab Banarasi or Gadbad Banaras, I forget which) was doing the rounds. It was a parody on Tulsi Ramayana. Today it would seem blasphemous. I would not repeat any lines here! But then it was widely read and laughed away. I never heard even a murmur against the parody!

Today, it would be difficult to imagine what would outrage certain sections of society, or would be accepted as passable creativity. But religion certainly has excited extreme emotions throughout the ages.

Padmavati, torn between history and myth:

In school we had a book, 'Tales from India', a British publication. The Padmavati story was illustrated by a sketch, in which Allauddin Khilji viewed Padmini in a mirrored reflection. Amar Chitra Katha has a similar sketch, too (see inset). But the import of the story was about a woman fighting for her chastity, dignity and honour, by committing 'jauhar'.

In North India, at least she is held as icon for the ultimate woman of virtue. At that time, I was too young to differentiate between myth and history.

Concerning the very unfortunate rumpus about the film 'Padmavati', Tanuja Kothiyal, who teaches history at Ambedkar University, Delhi writes:

'The violence over the filming of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Padmavati' is a reminder of the wide gap between history and memory. And the anxiety it creates.It is in this context that the idea of Padmini, the ideal Rajput woman, who prefers death to violation at the hands of a Muslim becomes important to Rajput memory. Ramya Sreenivasan's book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India, c.1500-1900, on the multiple Padmini narratives demonstrates how a poetic text composed in Jaunpur, two centuries after the siege of Chittor by Alauddin Khilji, continued to circulate throughout India. Sreenivsan argues that through translations into Indian languages like Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, as well as in English, traditions like Padmavat were selectively appropriated to formulate communal as well as national identities.'

As matters stand today, the film has not yet been scrutinized by the Censor Board. It has sent it back, because a vital column, 'Fiction or history' had not been filled up. Rajat Sharma of India TV claims that he has seen the movie, and did not find anything offensive in the film. So except a few journalists no one has seen the film. How have the people jumped to the conclusion that it hurts the feelings of the Rajputs? But BJP has supported the ban, without knowing its contents! Is it because the Gujarat elections are in the offing?

Fringe groups and others are known to regularly litigate just before the opening of movies. Feigned offense or a bid to extort money from the producers? Or does some obscure group do it, purely for their place in the sun for a while! Or was the outrage really justified?

A New York judge during a suit regarding pornography, said: 'I cannot define obscenity. But I can definitely recognize obscenity when I see it.' Was the film or an art work designed to titillate or to evoke the finer sensibilities of the viewer?

On the other hand Nehru once said, 'Usage and tradition hallow beliefs'.

About the Padmavati movie, we can pass judgment only after we have seen it. Till now our agitated countrymen, political parties and even the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting have unfortunately jumped the gun!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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