To some, it is a gilded historical drama, following Padmavati, a Rajput queen, who was so beautiful that the Muslim Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji waged a war over her. It is a film that auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali produced elegantly, with resplendent and captivating scenes. To others, it is a film of controversy and religious misrepresentation, so much so that protests broke out in India, opposing the film's release. In fact, members of Karni Sena, a religious organisation, even took matters into their own hands, for they stormed the film set and physically assaulted Bhansali.
To me, Padmaavat is a bit of both these perspectives, though I am inclined to agree more with that of the latter. However, to evaluate religious portrayals in Padmaavat, one must first understand Bollywood as a genre.
Bollywood Cinema is oftentimes described to be one that is ostentatious in nature, brimming with ornate splendours, so much so that this extravagance becomes excessive. Oftentimes, however, hidden beyond the glitz and glamor of Bollywood are certain cinematic details which deserve further inspection and evaluation, lest they otherwise go unnoticed. In Padmaavat, this would be the misrepresentation of the Muslim community. This, aforementioned, served as a catalyst, fuelling the rage of numerous caste groups in India.
Perhaps why the mischaracterisations of Muslims in Padmaavat is perceived to be so contentious is that the film was directed by a Hindu auteur. In India, Hindu-Islamic relations have always been fraught, with religious disputes tracing back to the 14th Century, during the Muslim conquest of Hindustan (or medieval India). Even now, religious violence between these Muslims and Hindus still persists. After all, whilst Padmaavat may be set in Hindustan, many themes and issues the filmdiscusses bears much currency, thus making it falls into sensitive territory. And it is not solely Padmaavat which falls into stereotyping in discussing Hindi-Islamic relations, other Bollywood films like Raanjhanaa, Jodhaa Akbar and so many more (un)consciously do so too by heroising Hindus in contrast to Muslims.
In fact, I distinctly recall a scene in Padmaavat, in which Khalji viscously wrestles soldiers in the midst of an arid desert. Through such cinematics, Khalji is exoticised by Bhansali, and presented as a boor almost. This is a key example of how even othering, and hence Orientalism, can be present in Bollywood films.
Indeed, 'the Other', often a marginalised member of society, has an identity superimposed upon them by the majority. In Padmaavat, as is this essay's context, Muslims are invarently othered through the lens of a Hindu auteur. As such, audiences’ understanding of who a Muslim is would be: he/she who is not Hindu.
It is impossible to discern whether stereotypes perpetuated by an auteur intentionally or unintentionally mean to widen social rifts. However, what we do know is that cinemas are powerful forms of media, able to subtly assimilate notions and ideas into one's mind.
Character diversity is increasingly pivotal in cinema as our world undergoes globalisation. Inclusive characters promote social inclusivity. It is hence the solemn right of auteurs to portray such characters with sincerity and respect. I do acknowledge there is a difference between legitimate misrepresentation and comic stereotyping. In fact, the latter grows more prevalent in Hollywood nowadays; it is integrated in sitcoms like Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish for light-hearted humour which is till grounded in truthfulness and realism.
However, what differs between legitimate misrepresentation and comic stereotyping is how humanely characters are portrayed. Not all protagonists need to be perfect; however, they should be characterised as well-balanced and grounded so audiences can develop a sense of sympathy towards them. Indeed, we need to take into account the feelings and sensitivities of various communities in the depiction of a character to ensure these communities do not feel hurt and unheard.
Certainly, this is a lesson not only the Bollywood genre needs to walk away with, but also other genres of film. Even today, we hear cases of racial and religious stereotypes in film industries all over the world. For instance, in Filipino and Korean cinemas, the practice of whitewashing characters in films has contributed to cultures of skin bleaching because fair-skin is considered to be what is beautiful. In addition, in American cinemas, Chinese stereotypes were quite prevalent in the 1960s especially, with characters tailored to fit the personas of either 'the submissive butterfly' or 'the dragon lady'. Meanwhile, in Singaporean films, a trend of "casual racism" is emerging in which film characters bear exaggerated racial traits like accents so as to add 'humour' to films.
When these misrepresentations make it to the big screen, they draw criticisms, for we ponder: when exactly shall I be portrayed in films the way I see myself? The answer to that question is indefinite; it all depends on how willing and able film industries are to change for the better.
Even as I watch films like Padmaavat which have poor portrayals of certain characters, I still find myself enjoying them, as their plots or cinematic details may be exquisite. This then begs the question: Can I enjoy a film, despite wilfully knowing there are stereotypes surrounding it?
I believe so; being aware of these stereotypes means we view these films from a different perspective, from a difference lens. Stereotypes subtly assimilated in films may hence not influence our perspectives and viewpoints to as large an extent should we knowingly consume them.
That being said, I still do advocate for legitmate stereotyping to come to an end in all genres of cinemas, not just Bollywood. This is something that grows increasingly pertinent as our world becomes more globalised, diverse. Ending these stereotypes would be the first step in learning to respect another culture. Through garnering sufficient awareness, I hope this problem can be confronted, and come to an end in due time. Times are changing, and it is time we embrace diversity with loving, open arms.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali assault: 'Padmavati' actors Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor break their silence - Times of India. (2017, January 29). Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/sanjay-leela-bhansali-assault-padmavati-deepika-padukone-breaks-her-silence/articleshow/56832864.cms
Berkley Center for Religion, & Georgetown University. (n.d.). British Rule and Hindu-Muslim Riots in India: A Reassessment. Retrieved from https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/british-rule-and-hindu-muslim-riots-in-india-a-reassessment
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
After Rajputs, Muslims want ban on Padmavati for showing them in 'negative light'. (2018, January 2). Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/jaipur/now-padmavati-hurts-muslim-sentiments/story-t4nSqsLwkxMgBRiMjNFogL.html
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Tan, A., & Zhang, L. M. (2017, July 2). Putting 'casual racism' in the spotlight. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/putting-casual-racism-in-the-spotlight