“All art is quite useless”
“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”
“Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.”
After almost a year of rigmarolic churning of volcanic events – from vandalism, to criticism, to criticism of the vandalism and criticism, and finally full-throated endorsement – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat seems to have reached a moment of critical enervation, triggering an intellectual sluggishness of monolithic and polar responses. The film, and its legal and extra-legal instances of censorships fomented such frenzied passions that almost all sides of the political spectrum, from the right to the center to the liberal-left to the left were smouldered by the contentious ‘fire’ that is known to have been metonymic with the Padmaavati legend, and what Bhansali is alleged to have glorified in his artistic artifact! It is impossible, henceforth, to read or view Padmaavat as just another controversial film, the weighty political stakes on all sides make it a near difficult endeavour to estimate the film solely with regard to its aesthetic standards. Indeed, it has been made possible to comment, critique, debate, discuss, agree or disagree with the infernal schemata of the film, without even having watched it. In the wide array of responses and counter-responses, open-letters and stand-up comedies, when people seemed to have lost sight of the artistic object and forgot to interrogate as to why this objet d’art united the left and the right in their critique, I would attempt to gather my scattered ruminations on the question of desires, art and censorship vis-à-vis Bhansali’s film. Whether or not Bhansali’s film is an artistic failure or success is not my concern here; nor do I seek to write a ‘review’ of the movie, I leave that to scholars of films to debate. I would approach Padmaavat as a student and teacher of literature, interested to look at the film as a cultural text.
I came across the story of Rani Padmini for the first time in school, in Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini, which was prescribed as a rapid reader for our Bengali course in the tenth standard. This historical novella, a collection of nine stories or episodes, charted the glorious and not-so-glorious history of the Rajputs through the characters of Shiladitya, Bappaditya, Padmini, Hambir, and several other known and unknown prince and princesses of Rajasthan – their valour, rage, passion, desire, ignominy, love, deeds, misdeeds, adventures and misadventures.
Three years before, in the seventh standard, we had read about Alauddin Khilji in the chapter on the Delhi Sultanate in our history textbook. Interestingly, there was no mention of Padmini in the history classes; it was only with Tagore’s text in a literature classroom, that such a bearing between two disparate dynasties could be witnessed. Inspired by Colonel James Tod’s Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan, or The central and western Rajput states of India, Abanindranath Tagore – painter and litterateur – fictionalized accounts of history, produced under a colonial regime, for a specific reading audience of his times. His text has no dates, all particularities of evidential realities effaced under the register of concocted imaginings – these narratives are at once history and fiction, particular and inaccurate, generating awe, wonder, and engraved in golden letters by the charmed spells of Aban Thakur, as the great story-teller was popularly called. In all possible ways, therefore, I had inherited my knowledge of Padmaavati or Padmini, as she is referred to in Tagore’s text, through fiction or fable, in an ‘inaccuracy’ or ‘inauthenticity’ that I would like to hold on to, politically, in my critique to respond to the responses that the altercations surrounding the film generated.
One of the primary allegations against the film, brought about by the Karni Sena right after the trailer got released, was that Bhansali has historically distorted the “truth” of Padmaavati, represented the queen in bad light, thereby insulting and defaming the entire Rajput community. After the Karni Sena went on a rampage, threatening the director, actress and government with notice of further violence, if the film gets released, Padmaavat subsequently underwent a few modifications – including the titular change from ‘Padmaavati’ to ‘Parmaavat’, the poem on which the film is based; a curtailment in the screentime of the ghoomar song, alongside the covering of Deepika Padukone’s exposed waist through computer generated graphics. Liberal and centrist voices, such as that of Amarinder Singh’s condemned the ban but held on to the moniker of ‘authenticity’ and asserted that “nobody has the right to distort history” and “cinematic license does not give anyone the right to twist historical facts.” Bearing the tonal similarity with that of the chief minister of Punjab, Barkha Dutt too writes in her review that “the movie has every right to exist” and she “would always defend that principle against censorship and hooliganism” but “she hate[s] the message the film conveys” as it was nothing more than “misogyny dressed up in diamonds and drama.” The film also came under the radar of severe criticism and backlash from those on the left: a deluge of articles, reviews, Facebook posts and statuses deemed the film as historically inaccurate, Islamophobic, homophobic, misogynist and a piece of propaganda art that feeds into the discourses of contemporary Hindutva politics. Some critics also panned the skewed temporal turns that the film takes wherein no rationale is offered behind Padmavati’s prenuptial Buddhism and post-marital devout Hindu allegiances. The itch of ‘authenticity’ and ‘accurate’ representation loom large behind the allegations and counter-allegations flagged by those on the left, right and center; amidst all, the questions of aesthetics, cinema and art almost never or seldom addressed!
‘…some lovely, perilous thing…’
The question of historical accuracy and authentic representation opens up the nature of art in general and the function/role of the artist in particular. Does the artist have an ethical responsibility towards the images they choose for their art? Theorists and critics down the ages have enagaged with this problematic and I am not willing to enter in detail into that discourse, given the limited scope and space of this article. In Book X of The Republic, after expressing his “awe and love of Homer”, Plato exhibits his disdain for mimetic or imitative artists (poets and painters) for they do not speak the “truth”. Such artists, whose works are thrice removed from reality, only seek to create an “appearance of reality” but never the reality itself. Plato explains: “A painter will paint a cobbler, carpenter, or any other artist, though he knows nothing of their arts; and, if he is a good artist, he may deceive children or simple persons, when he shows them his picture of a carpenter from a distance, and they will fancy that they are looking at a real carpenter.” Plato, whose central concern was to create an ideal republic was vexed over the question of education: in his Socratic dialogues he expressed his desire for a pedagogic model that would train individuals to be good, responsible and better citizens of the republic. The art of Homer or other imitative poets, therefore Plato admits, would never be “able to educate or improve mankind.” In other words, Plato issues a cautionary note against the impact of such a bad education, capable of manipulating, influencing and corrupting young individuals, thereby deviating them from the paths of ideal citizenry. Plato’s vexation doesn’t seem to have faded into obscurity; in the context of the Padmaavat controversies, the demand for authentic and accurate representation on screen, and an emphasis on ‘politically correct’ art suggest that in our appreciation and criticism of films and texts, we still hold on to and function within, what Ranciere terms as “the ethical regime of the arts.”
In his theoretical ruminations over the subject of film, Pier Pasolini in Heretical Empericism observes with regard to spectatorship and the artists’ use of images in cinema that: “cinematographic communication … seem[s] to be arbitrary and aberrant, without the concrete instrumental precedents which are normally used by all. In other words, people communicate with words, not images; therefore, a specific language of images would seem to be a pure and artificial abstraction.” He goes on to elaborate on this aspect of filmmaking and states: “there is no dictionary of images. There is no pigeonholed image, ready to be used. If by any chance we wanted to imagine a dictionary of images, we would have to imagine an infinite dictionary, as infinite as the dictionary of possible words. The filmmaker does not have a dictionary, he has infinite possibilities.” Pasolini’s remarks, standing on the other side of Plato’s, not only hint at the impossibility of an authentic or accurate representation but also assert the nature of communication that images entail. The absence of a definite dictionary of images shifts the impetus of education outside of the cinematic register; cinema does not or cannot unilaterally influence/educate, either in good or bad ways, the spectators. Rather, the absence of definitive images makes the spectators active participants or stakeholders in the production of meaning; the enterprise of meaning-making always lies at the interstitial space between the artist and the spectator. Let us take for instance the closing scene of Padmaavat, which has raised many brows and accumulated the ire of critics; Bhansali is accused of glorifying ‘jauhar’ thereby romanticizing the notion of honour that is attached to women’s bodies. This final scene showcases hundreds of Rajput women, clad in bright red sarees, smearing each other’s foreheads with vermillion, taking circular turns around the well before moving towards the pyre in slow motion. These are women of varied kinds – young, old, pregnant, aristocrats, servants – chanting the name of the goddess in unison and rushing towards the moment of closure, both of their lives and the film. This long shot spans over almost five minutes and has been dubbed as misogynist by several critics. Let us examine what is at stake here: in the two affective responses to the visual medium – the carthartic and the alienating, the former following Aristotle and the latter following Brecht – Bhansali’s film seems to evoke the latter. There is an obvious distantiation among the representation and the audience, not only in terms of temporality, spatiality and class, but also with regard to action. That the scene, among many other things, manages to generate an instinctive disgust/horror among the audience is perhaps where the effect of the sign consolidates; instead of drawing the audience into its fold through active empathy and identification, Bhansali’s image produces a moment of disidentification for the spectators, an instance of resistance against the dominant patriarchal ideology. The singular denotation of ‘jauhar’ fractures itself into multiple connotative effects through a negotiated and oppositional reading of the image. Such an alienating or disidentificatory gesture speaks directly to the “infinite possibility” of images that Pasolini speculated. This scene holds the possibility of an alternative reading through an ‘affirmative sabotage’ (to borrow Spivak’s phrase) of the text and changing its protocols from within, yielding a different interpretative result.
‘…not heavy, not sensuous/but perilous…’
In my reading of the film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat seems to be a narrative of competing desires in all their possible manifestations/expressions – irrational, reasonable, raging, lusty, revolting, desperate, submissive, transgressive, precarious, flaming, tragic – and since all desires are destined to non-fulfilment and non-fruition, the film is simultaneously a narrative of failure. Oftentimes the desires crisscross ways, stand in the way of others, erect walls of jealousy, envy, and passion but is never consummated: Malik Kafur desires Khilji, Khilji desires Padmaavati, Padmaavati desires Ratan Singh, Kafur desires the place of Padmaavati in Khilji’s life, Nagmati desires to occupy the position of Padmaavati in Chittor and several other bursts of desirous flames in Bhansali’s text, fated to meander the paths of non-rapport both within and outside of the screen. What remains at the end are the ashes, smoke and fire – the residues of unfulfilled desires of all characters. One of the queer takeaways from the film, apart from the ebullient, homoerotic subtext of Alauddin Khilji and Malik Kafur, is this realization of desire in its aporetic configurations; the impossibility of understanding its framing without the twinning operations of pleasure and pain, the excruciating pulls of eros and thanatos, that inform the moments of jouissance for the cinematic characters, as well as the spectators.
While all other characters are presented as mere symptoms against the backdrop of an insipid Rajput landscape, where an overwhelming idealism drives the characters to a point of unimaginative righteousness and virtue, Alauddin Khilji seems to be the only character who is rendered full personhood in Bhansali’s text – he is capable of extraordinary cruelty and savagery, driven by an almost deranged streak, but is also prone to extreme vulnerability when in the company of Malik Kafur, the only one he ravingly endears. Uninhibited, Khilji is capable of poetry and couplets, breaks into a song upon his first encounter with Ratan Singh, dances to the lure and tune of his inamorato, Malik Kafur. He occupies the maximum cinematic space and after a point, one realizes that Padmaavati is a secondary character in the film, her trope being used to explore the labyrinthine psychoscape of a ruler, driven by a streak of madness and passion. It is not without irony, therefore, that people are coming out of the theatres with full throated praise for Ranveer/Khilji, even the most rabid Islamophobe or the one slating the film of promoting Islamophobia, cannot deny the seductive charm and bewitching spell that Ranveer/Khilji has cast on the audience. It is here, that, there seems to be an operative différance at the level of the narrative, a repositioning of the titular and narrative stimulus from Padmaavati to Khilji, Hindu to Muslim, ‘good’ to ‘evil’, ‘conformist’ to ‘queer’. If we believe in an anti-normative politics of hedonism and outlandish imagination against the face of a majoritarian grandstanding, then with the bait of desire Bhansali ensures that the ‘phobic’ gives way to the ‘philic’.
What then infuriates us, perhaps, is this unmanageable and involuntary border crossings that our desires make: always forcing itself away from the paths of unadulterated uprightness; submitting to the very object that is deemed inappropriate in our politics and pursuit for democracy and equality; fissuring the teetery lines between our fantasies and political beliefs. In short, Khilji lays bare the very nature of desire to the spectators in a metacognitive moment, enabling them to come to terms with their own fantasies and revealing that the only ‘law of desire’, perhaps, is its lawlessness; and the only promenades that desire plods and strides are those of political incorrectness; finally, that the site of desire is always that of conflict/contention. Years ago in the discipline of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan had conceptualized the notion of the ‘death drives’ that underline our fantasies – it pushes us towards suffering, destruction, and death – literal and metaphorical. In Écrits, building on Freud, Lacan theorises the death drive as “an attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle, to the realm of excess jouissance where enjoyment is experienced as suffering.” The death drive manages to operate at two levels: the cinematic script and spectatorship. At the level of the script, it is the symptom that permeates all characters – they are driven towards the unattainable object and in the case of Padmaavati, it is realized literally in the act of her self-immolation, the dangerous image of her ingression into fire with a serene calmness and smile on face. At the level of spectatorship, it manifests in the tremendous enchantment of the audience towards Ranveer/Khilji, the object whose representation seems to be ‘politically problematic’ to contain within our fantasies. Needless to say, then, it is not only Padmaavati who manages to put up a serene smile on the face of death, but we all seem to enjoy our symptoms! The film, like all other forms of art, effectuates this violent realisations about the sado-masochistic nature of our desires, the inherent kinkiness of our fantasies that takes us away from ourselves in desiring the very object that unsettles us in our politics and personhood, undoes our sense of coherence, fixity, and stability. It is for this that Picasso deems art as ‘dangerous’ for it lets us encounter our dark, secret, and violent selves.
Let us closely look at one instances from the film for a better explication of the argument that I am trying to make. There seems to be an obvious coupling of images in several scenes running throughout the movie: the scene where Ranveer/Khilji voraciously eats chunks of meats has come under the rage of critics for its barbaric and savage depiction of muslims; but the scene where fiery eyed Ratan Singh, chanting ‘jai Bhawani’, sacrifices an animal does not get interpreted as aggressively savage or degrading the image of Hindus. Ratna Kapur, in her book Erotic Justice, writes: “the Hindu male must not be effeminate, but must be virile and masculine. However, the Muslim who is hypersexual is a threat to the nation. His intentions are maligning.” Shadowed by the colonial regimes of power and representation, where the Indian-Hindu man was rendered effeminate and powerless before their aggressively-masculine colonial masters, the brutish Muslim masculinity seems both desirable and detestable. It is this unbearable moment of simultaneous love and hate for the Other that constitutes what I term as border-crossing; their source of origin is the same darkness that inform our violent fantasies that we do not wish to encounter.
I started with Zizek’s argument that cinema does not give us what to desire but tells us how to desire! However, if there is no fixity in the object of desire, if desire is that ‘thing’ which is ever-shifting, metamorphosing, and repositioning itself, impossible to define and pin-down to the particular, then one can speculate that cinema teaches us ‘nothing’. It is, to go back to Plato’s formulation, an imperfect pedagogic model that does not teach individuals to become ethical, responsible citizens. Borrowing the title from Pedro Almodóvar film, Bad Education, Lee Edelman in his latest work imagines queerness as bearing semblance to bad education, an improper, imperfect, and impossible pedagogic model that “aspires to teach us nothing. Rather than a site of emptiness, however, that nothing comprises the pulsion of jouissance, the insistence of the drive, and the uncognizable pressure of what conduces to no meaning.” If in its inaccuracy and inauthenticity, Islamophobia and Misogyny, Padmaavat imparts ‘bad education’ to its viewers, then in its corruptible images and deviance from the proper training of minds to become ethical/responsible individuals, can the film be read as queer – both in terms of plot/narrative and as that which is ‘excess’ of it. What remains as residue, is to borrow Khilji’s lyrics, a sense of khalibali, messiness and chaos that is the site of all our desires, pleasures, and queerness.
Bhansali’s film, therefore, discloses the unbearable slant of our desires and the affective paradoxes that configure our experiences of enjoyment or pleasure. In recognizing the site of pleasure as fraught and rife with conflicting desires, and unendurable vexations, Bhansali’s text hints at the limits of the ‘political’, thereby, enabling us to imagine other forms of negotiations with power and being in a fascist world. It is this recognition that constitutes the site of the political in the film: in a world that forbids, punishes and kills for the pursuit of desires, a nation where we protest against the injustices meted out to Hadiya and Ankit Saxena in the name of love, how do we hold on to the idea of desire as dissidence and continue to acknowledge the tyranny/fatality/deadliness of desire itself? Such (dis)pleasures of Padmaavat unsettles, displaces and disconcerts us, and of course, we do not want to watch it! As a concluding moment, to bring together the ideas of censorship and art, I would like to end with Rancière’s words: “I don’t think that the power is inherent in the work as it stands because for me the problem is that there is no politics of art; there is a politics of aesthetics. This means what is important is not the idea that the work can have this or that effect … Thus, the effect, the aesthetic effect, is not the effect of a work in the sense that a work should produce this energy for action or this particular form of deliberation about the situation. It’s about creating forms of perception, forms of interpretation.”