Dear Ms. Swara Bhaskar,
I read your meticulously written letter to Mr. Bhansali where you say that you felt reduced to a vagina “only” after watching his film Padmaavat. As much as I appreciate the effort that must have gone behind that rather long-ish letter, as an avid reader and someone who knows a thing or two about good writing, I think you could have done without all that repetition. Doing that might have created more space for substance. (Yes, I am assuming you had substance that you probably did not put because of the lack of space)
But Ms. Swara Bhaskar, this letter obviously is not about that; nor is it about our admiration for Mr. Bhansali and his art. Like you, I have always been fascinated by his creativity and the sheer beauty that his films are. Like you, I have also been vocal in defending ‘Padmavati’ albeit without a proof.
So when you wrote an open letter on a “reputed” (mind the quotes) online portal about Mr. Bhansali and Padmaavat-two of the things I care about, I felt it would be okay to tell you why whatever you said is not okay.
Ms. Swara Bhaskar, Before I go on to give you a lesson in history and explain the idea of ‘context’ and contextual approach, let us begin with the basics.
Ms. Swara Bhaskar, here is a very humble reminder that Mr. Bhansali is a filmmaker, an artist whose job is to make films, not give visual lectures in feminism. Mr. Bhansali will not spend 185 crores to make a film that appeals to your feminism.
As a proponent of free speech and expression, I have always felt that banning and blocking creative art is unjustified, equally unjustified is pointless criticism like your criticism of Mr. Bhansali for not making a film that fits your point of view and your idea of how a woman should think of her life.
Also, why put the onus on Mr. Bhansali? Given the resources that you have, how about coming out with a movie of your own, setting the narrative you want to set? Why should someone else’s hard work be subjected to criticism for not doing something that he did not intend doing anyway? Instead, how about doing on your own what you expect someone else to do and criticize him for not doing? Walk the talk, Ms. Bhaskar.
Ms. Swara Bhaskar, In your letter you complained to Mr Bhansali, that while watching the climax of the movie, you felt that your “existence was illegitimate…” and it was wrong of you “to choose life over death” and thus emphasizing on the impact and power of cinema. I want to ask you this, if a three-hour long film can make you question your beliefs or nudge you to feel in a way that is contrary to your beliefs, are your beliefs even your own?
Where is the conviction Ms. Swara Bhaskar, that does not alter even if the entire world opposes it? Where was the voice that says ‘eklacholo re’ and refuses to be bogged down by the society? For those of us who believe in the values we do, films and dramas cannot change it. The next time your feminist ideas and beliefs feel threatened, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Simon de Beauvoir, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai are some writers whose works you could probably look at.
Also, if cinema is the way to eradicate all evils of the society, let us just do away with the art in cinema and have two movies for each evil and that should solve all the problems of the society.
Having established the basics, I will move on to tell you why you need to unlearn and relearn the idea of ‘context’. The contextual approach to interpretation which is a common theme within the liberal arts, asks that the work be studied along with the background and information about the time in which it was written. The contextual approach looks at things as part of a larger picture which includes the customs, rituals, accepted norms and the understanding of the creator, at the time of its creation. So Ms. Swara Bhaskar, no matter how much you pull and distort it to fit your version, the context of Padmaavat remains the 13th century and not the modern day India; your description of which is the “gang rape infested India”. Your interpretation of Padmaavat is closer to a textual approach which takes the works as they are, focusing on the literal text without studying the time and background of their creation. So obviously, applying the wrong approach of interpretation to a historical fiction will give you the sort of flawed observations you have written about.
While the context of Padmaavat is not the “gang rape infested India, this rape condoning mindset, this victim blaming society”, the context of Raanjhanaa and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is. These two of yourfilms set in the backdrop of modern day India are works you should have kept in mind before ranting about the impact of cinema. Raanjhanaa glorifies stalking and your character has been shown to be (hopelessly) in love with a stalker. You had a choice to say no to the film, instead you chose to do the film and write an oped justifying the film and years later you also spoke about it on Rajeev Masand’s 2017 Roundtable saying that you ‘did not see through it’. Did you also not see through Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and dialogues like “Ram jaisa chahenge, Sita waisa hi karegi”? Did you not think of the impact this will have on thousands of young girls in the country? This is why Ms. Bhaskar your letter reeks of a holier than thou attitude.
Here’s how you justified your balancing act:
I turn down vulgar film offers and fairness cream advertisements but there are times when I have to make compromises too. I definitely had a problem with the misogyny in my film Raanjhanaa and pointed that out to the writers. Even Prem Ratan Dhan Payo operated within a socially conservative world. But then I made up for it by doing Tanu Weds Manu.
– Swara Bhaskar, The Hindu, March 26, 2016
That’s about 63 words for just 1 word – Hypocrisy.
Ms. Swara Bhaskar, allow me to point out the technical fallacy of your letter. Throughout the letter, you use Sati and Jauhar interchangeably. While sati was at times was forced on women, Jauhar was not forced. Jauhar, by definition, could not have been forced because it took place when all the men of the kingdom had died in the battleground. It was a choice that women made. The idea that there were women who chose death over a life of sexual servitude from which there was no escape seems beyond your understanding.
Do you really think the life of Sexual slave is better than death? Is breathing, eating, sleeping and then getting rampaged by a sexual predator every night is what you call life?
Do you know ‘Hundreds’ of Yazidi women have killed themselves in ISIS captivity? Do you consider them anti-feminist? Or Dishonorable Women or not women enough?
The fact that women can make choices that do not appeal and fit the modern day western feminist narrative is a concept that seems to evade most feminists today-in this case, you Ms. Swara Bhaskar.
The idea that a saree clad, culturally rooted woman who observes karwachauthas a choice can be a feminist by virtue of exercising equal rights and accepting equal responsibilities seems unfathomable to your ilk.
I understand how most of you dismiss this choice as ‘conditioning’. But please tell me why these choices are categorized as ‘patriarchal conditioning’ and the others as ‘enlightenment’?
Ms. Swara Bhaskar, I appreciate your concern about the condition of women and their safety in the country. But have ever thought about doing more than creating noise and being more than an armchair activist (as your Twitter handle describes you)? I have friends who work and live in remote areas of the country for education and upliftment; you could come and contribute. The people will not recognize you as a Bollywood actress because they do not have the resources to but you will surely learn a lesson or two in a type of feminism that is different from yours.
For me, you Ms. Swara Bhaskar are no different than Karni Sena (sans violence) insofar as you go around raising your voice because someone has not made a film showcasing your point of view or has made a film that is contrary to your understanding of ideas and events. You, Karni Sena and Mr. Bhansali- all of you are entitled to and justified in showcasing your opinions, understanding and its expression but what you and Karni Sena are not entitled to, is holding Mr. Bhansali accountable for having a view contrary to yours.
P.S: For future reference, here is a brief bit from history. Alauddin Khilji was barbaric invader, a pedophile who was known for his perverse sexual acts. Khilji’s harem was not a comfortable bedroom for women to lie down and enjoy their lives but the chamber of a demented mind, who was not looking forward to making love but brutalizing the women he won as spoils of war through his sexually perverse acts.