Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scattered thoughts on narrative context, ideology-oriented criticism and the Padmaavat discussion

[Note: this post isn’t “about Padmaavat” as such – not having seen it yet, I can’t say anything specific about the film – but it derives from some of the conversations around it, especially the recent Swara Bhaskar piece “At the end of your magnum opus, I felt reduced to a vagina – only”]

[A new post -- written after watching Padmaavat, which I liked very much -- is here]

At writing classes where I talk about film and literary criticism, narrative context gets discussed a lot, and a stimulating conversation along these lines began at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication last week when, just as I was wondering if I should mention Padmaavat, the students did it for me.

These were intelligent, introspective students who came across as being liberal and engaged with social issues, but also had some reservations about Swara Bhaskar’s recent article. Both at the big-picture level of “why impose our contemporary moral codes and ideas about individual freedom on historical figures?” and at smaller, more specific levels. For instance, one of them said it was problematic to paint the film as being exclusively about women being sacrificed at the altar of patriarchal “honour”: Rajput men also went out and died for what they saw as a just cause; there was a common code of conduct in the face of invasion by someone who was considered the enemy. Another noted that Bhaskar had conflated Sati with Jauhar when they are different things involving different levels of agency and coercion.

My take: I liked some things about Bhaskar’s piece. It was thoughtful, made its points firmly and passionately, but without adopting the “this is so offensive, it mustn’t exist” stance that we routinely get from people who want to silence things that make them uncomfortable. (I stress this because I’m sure there are plenty of gloating social-media reactions that try to make a false equivalence between critical pieces like this one and the bullying diktats and threats issued by the Karni Sena etc.) Also, it’s refreshing when someone within the film industry is willing to express views that may raise the fraternity’s hackles.

Like the SACAC students, though, I had a couple of issues. Some thoughts:

-- Film being a powerful, seductive medium, it’s understandable – as someone living in a world that seems to be regressing in many ways, and where the likes of Donald Trump and the RSS hold positions of power – to feel discomfited by the knowledge that a filmmaker with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s reach and his very particular artistic sensibilities has spent hundreds of crores on a huge, glamorous film about a woman celebrated for committing
Jauhar (and played by a very popular star). Here is a director whose images and use of music can be so overwhelming that, irrespective of context, it can sometimes feel like his cinema is endorsing or celebrating whatever it depicts. To a degree, I get the exasperation of those who say “At this point in our cultural discourse about gender inequality and sexual harassment – when we are in the MeToo/Weinstein/post-Nirbhaya moment – HE had to make a film about THIS?”

But once the choice of subject has been made, creative freedom exercised, what then? As a professional critic, or as a reasonably analytical viewer grappling with the film, is it okay to employ the progressive-ideology lens to the exclusion of all else (and in some cases, even at the expense of clear-sighted criticism)?

Bhaskar says:

The context of art, any art is the time and place when it was created and consumed. And that’s why this gang-rape infested India, this rape condoning mindset, this victim blaming society is the actual context of your film, Sir. Surely in this context, you could have offered some sort of a critique of Sati and Jauhar in your film?
I’ll come to that last sentence in a bit. But first, this matter of context. Yes, films carry subliminal messages; no one can pretend that a historical/period film made in 2018 was created in a vacuum; in the first place, many filmmakers who choose historical subjects do so because the narrative resonates with something in the present day, allowing connections to be (subtly or overtly) made.

But how far must one take this idea that the “context” of a historical film is the present day? Does catering to modern sensibilities mean airbrushing the troublesome aspects of the past, thus putting us even further out of touch with history than we already are? (Many of those things are, of course, still very much part of our world – during my class, a student mentioned “all those old 1960s films where women were shown touching their pati parmeshwar’s feet”, and I pointed out that many women across different societies still do such things today – but that's another discussion.) Does it, for instance, mean making a film about Abraham Lincoln and being over-careful not to show the man using words like “negro” or behaving less than civilly with his own slaves – even though he almost certainly did such things within situations that the film otherwise covers? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (one example among many period films) has been criticized for the opposite reason that Bhaskar criticizes Padmaavat: for its sanitizing of its hero so he comes closer to the 21st century view of what a great emancipator should be like, thus making things as morally unambiguous as possible for the contemporary viewer. (Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi did similar things on occasion, despite Nehru’s advice to Attenborough in the early 1960s not to deify Gandhi because he was too great a man to be deified.)

My point is not that either of these criticisms is less or more valid. (Or to facilely compare Lincoln and Padmaavat.) But it’s possible to respond to both criticisms with the same counter-argument: that when telling a story, including dramatizing real history, a writer or director can choose what to show or omit. (And of course, when he does this, we might be able to conjecture something about his priorities and attitudes.)

-- About this:
“Surely you could have offered some sort of a critique of Sati and Jauhar in your film?”

In a narrative film made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, what would such a critique look like?

I think we can all agree that it would be tonally off and laughably didactic to have a sutradhaar-like character, almost addressing the camera directly, making a speech about why Jauhar is bad. But there might be subtler ways to do it, even in a Bhansali film, and I had a short thought exercise about this with my class. What if SLB had decided, while remaining faithful to the internal logic of his narrative and to his own vision, to include a supporting character who was so ahead of her time, so individualistic (in a milieu and period that did not encourage individualism) that she voiced her desire to continue living, even if it meant being captured by Khilji? Life – under any conditions – being more valuable than patriarchy-defined honour. This small, anachronistic part (and it would have to be a small part, given the film that Padmaavat has set out to be) could be played by an actress known for strong, independent characters in today’s indie cinema, someone like Shweta Tripathi, or Radhika Apte, or Bhaskar herself.

But would that be enough, or might it make things even worse by establishing an alternate perspective and then coolly demolishing it in the interests of the main narrative? My feeling is that at the end of such a film, there would still be hardline liberal critics saying “But… hers was such a small, marginalized voice, and it was drowned out in the end by all those the glorious images of Deepika consigning herself to fire.”

The point again being, once Bhansali has made the decision to deal with this subject, it is pretty much guaranteed that some sensibilities will be discomfited – independently of how well-made or poorly made the film itself is.

-- Other, non-Padmaavat-related thoughts about narrative context: things I bring up in classes and constantly think about when I hear, e.g., about Karan Johar being told to apologise to Mohammed Rafi’s fans because a character in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil said something dismissive about the great singer. Or during firsthand encounters such as the one where a friend – an excellent writer and journalist – astonished me by alluding to “that racist scene in Queen” (the one where Kangana Ranaut’s sheltered, parochial Rani reacts with some alarm to a black man).

It is widely understood (though alas, not at all widely practiced) that a serious critic should avoid confusing the voice or actions of a character within a film/book with the ideological position of the narrative itself. This is not to say authors and filmmakers don’t have lenses (everyone does, including the liberal viewers to whom it is blindingly obvious that their stance is the only correct one) or that there is a mathematical formula for assessing such things: these assessments are naturally subjective, and with certain types of controversial films or books, long and passionate arguments in each direction can be made endlessly until the internet crashes or our species weeds itself out.

But speaking for myself, I find that too often viewers want to rush to easy judgements about a film based on something unpalatable that happens in it. And all the better if the judgement is one that will get them brownie points from readers and acquaintances who demand that a film be a vehicle for a clearly spelt out progressive message. More prescriptive than descriptive.

For instance, I have written before about the bizarre labelling of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1982 film Naram Garam as “misogynistic” (that very strong, very over-used word again) by a prominent critic of the time, based almost solely on a scene where an old, impoverished man who is worried for his young daughter asks the Amol Palekar character to take this “beti ka bojh” off his hands. Never mind that it is completely credible, within this narrative situation, that this man would say such a thing. Never mind, too, that the young woman in question (Kusum, played by Swaroop Sampat) is the most sympathetic, poised and probably the most intelligent character in a film filled with buffoonish or irresponsible men.

(Incidentally there is a Rani Padmini link in that film. Among the men who look at Kusum through their own prisms, rather than as a person in her own right, is the Shatrughan Sinha character, who dewy-eyedly worships an ideal of Good Womanhood and sees Kusum as a modern-day Padmini. This “misogynistic” film treats his delusions as comedy and, I would argue, also offers a sly commentary on Sinha’s macho and paternalistic screen persona.)

-- But there is also a subtler point to be made about the complicated process of artistic creation: I’m not sure I can make it well, but here’s an attempt.

I know film buffs, professional critics among them (one of the best of them, Baradwaj Rangan, wrote two recent posts defending Padmaavat), who are willing and able to make clear-cut distinctions between cinema as cinema and cinema as social/ethical document. In the sense that even if they agree (to take two iconic examples) that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a celebration of Hitler and Nazism, and hence “immoral”, or that DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation finds the Ku Klux Klan admirable, they can still assess them purely on cinematic terms.

I am more conflicted on this point (at least when it comes to explicit propaganda such as Triumph of the Will), and that’s all I’ll say about this for now. But I have a different sort of problem with ideology-oriented criticism: too often, it puts blinkers on a critic’s eyes. It encourages reductive readings that begin by asking a simplistic, one-note question (“What is the author’s/filmmaker’s POSITION on this hot-button subject?”) and then manufactures a simplistic, one-note answer (“THIS is his position”).

But many – maybe most – good creative works do not provide easy answers to such questions. They are often the result of an artist (consciously or sub-consciously) engaging with the many contradictions in his own self, asking questions based on real human conflicts and lived experience rather than sweeping idealistic positions.

In this light, I’m thinking about a scene from the Netflix series The Crown. At the end of the season 2 episode “Marionettes”, set in 1957, changes are being implemented to make the English monarchy seem less remote and elite, to be more in touch with “regular people”. Queen Elizabeth II and her mother are preparing to meet a group of plebeians including a car dealer and a retired boxer, who have been invited to Buckingham Palace for lunch – a first for this royal family, and a considerable shaking up of their world. As they move towards the hall for introductions, the Queen Mother (who isn’t just the Queen Mother but also a grieving widow who believes that the health of her late husband was badly affected by the pressures of his station) delivers a pained and indignant monologue about the thanklessness of their position; about how the monarchy has gone “from ruling to reigning to being nothing at all.
Marionettes”. As they line up before the door that separates them from the “commoners”, mother and daughter are palpably distressed. Hans Zimmer’s rousing music, the long tracking shots, the opulent art design (all very Bhansali-like in some ways!), can combine to create the impression that the show itself is seduced by the idea of the monarchy and that the authorial voice is on the side of the Queen Mother; that that is the only “view” being expressed here.

I disagree. My feeling is that the series sets out to hold – and largely succeeds in holding – many different positions at the same time. In this case: it understands the need for the world to move forward, to become less feudal and more egalitarian; yet it also sympathises with the predicaments of individual people who are being swept along by the winds of change; people who grew up knowing only a certain sort of world and none other, but then found themselves having to accommodate new ideas and moral codes (often at an age when it is very difficult to dramatically change oneself). An empathetic viewer can feel for such a character in a well-made film, even if he loathes the world that this character represents.

Put simply: it often happens that authors, scriptwriters and directors set out to tell a story about a multitude of people (and the multitudes within each of those people) without passing judgement in a heavy-handed way; and yet, so many of the people who experience these books and films – including professional critics who should at least try to be more reflective – are in a rush to Judge, Judge, Judge. (And a corollary to this is that when a critic does write a relatively nuanced or searching piece, readers often miss the nuance or ambivalence and take from the piece only what they were already pre-disposed to see in it.)

[To be continued. Meanwhile, here's a somewhat related piece from 2013, about reactions to the film Kai Po Che]


  1. This is one of the best articles I have read about Swara Bhaskar’s letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali.One can’t change history according to one’s whims and stands and stares at you in all its glory and ugliness.It is rather childish to expect it to change itself and suit the present day narratives and notions of right or wrong. You can’t go back in history and make characters think and behave like us. If a movie is based on history,you can’t change the facts to suit your sensibilities.

  2. Such a thoughtful article, and beautifully expressed.

  3. Jai, thanks, that's a thought provoking piece. Re how Bhansali could have had some sort of commentary on Jauhar - I was reminded of the chilling scene in Tamas: unable to contemplate the horrific fate that awaits them when the mob of rioters turn up soon, hordes of women and children jump to their death, into a well. It is very similar to Jauhar and you understand what must have driven them to it, but the way it is framed, it is less about a jingoistic-celebration of honour and more about the horrors of riots and the toll it takes on lives. I wonder what it would have looked like, if SLB could have infused the scene with that kind of despair

  4. thanks, Radhika. About Tamas: those are two very different modes of expression and while thought-exercises are always interesting, I don’t think one should expect Bhansali to be like Nihalani (or vice versa). Plus, having read some of the more elaborate discussions now, on my FB post as well as Baradwaj Rangan’s blog and elsewhere, the subjectivity of the viewing experience is even more apparent. For instance, I know of people who were genuinely moved and terror-struck by the Padmaavat climax, seeing it as bleak and non-celebratory despite the grandness of the presentation. These conversations really can go on till the end of time.

  5. Radhika: an updated post on Padmaavat - after having watched it - is here.

    Btw, when I have some time, I’ll try to elaborate on something I felt about the well scene in Tamas (which I have fresh in my mind because I watched a two-day screening just a year or two ago). Something about the scene’s staging which I found unconvincing and which briefly took me out of a film that I otherwise liked very much.

  6. Jai, thanks. You may well be right - I watched Tamas back when it was aired and while it seemed a v dramatic scene then, it may not hold up as well today. Also agree that it is SLB's vision - he is entitled to frame it whichever way he wants to. Even your musing about the small role of the dissenter might not have worked, because is not SLB's way of looking at a situation. That is a very subtle way of introducing some peripheral dissent to the idea of Jauhar. SLB is many things, subtle is not one of them