The ‘Padmavati’ Debacle: Bollywood Progressivism Against Protests is Too Little Too Late

[Featured Image: Facebook/Padmavati]

by Sundeep Hans   

Things have gotten quite ugly for the upcoming Bollywood blockbuster “Padmavati.” Its December 1st release date has been delayed with no new date confirmed as of yet. Protests are a part of any democracy, and protests about movies, especially those based on real people or historical events, are common enough in India… But what’s happening now is something else.

There have been numerous death threats against the star Deepika Padukone and the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Each threat has gotten progressively worse. Some have called for the cutting off of Padukone’s nose, a form of punishment famously depicted in the Indian epic Ramayana, while others are baying for blood in the form of beheading or burning to death both Padukone and Bhansali. In fact a bounty of $1.5 million was placed on their heads by a politician from the Bhartya Janata Party (BJP), India’s governing party.

All of this over a film nobody has yet even seen!


Members from the Rajput Karni Sena, claim that the movie distorts and demeans the life of the legendary Hindu Rajput queen, Rani Padmini, aka Padmavati (who by the way, may or may not have existed), by showing a love affair between her and a Muslim invader via a “dream sequence” and having her in a dance sequence with her midriff exposed (I don’t know where they had their secret screening because there is no love affair bit between the two in the trailer anywhere. Definitely saw a little midriff though, but she was wearing a sari, so…). They have publicly supported the death threats, threatened a nationwide strike, and claimed responsibility for destroying the films sets in Rajasthan.

This is horrible.

I’ve seen the videos of the guy calling for cutting off Padukone’s nose and the violent crowds burning effigies and shouting for her death…the maniacal righteous indignation is frightening.

It’s wrong and the fact that it’s going unchecked by the Indian authorities is unacceptable. Protests are a natural and healthy part of a democracy, but this type of violence/threats of violence should not be.

I want to be as clear as possible when I say that I wholeheartedly disagree with all that craziness. Clear?

Now it’s time for some hard truths… Bollywood please take a seat while I check you.

Bollywood’s brand of progressive liberalism is heavily coloured by elitism. The lack of general ‘wokeness’ across the board should be a huge red flag that Bollywood doesn’t really get it. How else do we explain the incessant churning out of the misogynistic film after misogynistic film and then celebrating itself for its progressiveness?

How Bollywood seemingly keeps making historical films riddled with inaccuracies and reimagining potentially controversial story angles that sometimes hurt the “religious sentiments” of various communities. This is an actual thing by the way I didn’t make it up. People can be punished under the Indian Penal Code for “outraging someone’s religious sentiments.”

It is known and yet…

Do you all remember “Mohenjo Daro”? That stinking pile of dung, which was promoted like crazy and sold as an epic historical fiction while showcasing characters wearing costumes that were ridiculously inaccurate and also culturally offensive to some. How about the movie “Bajirao Mastani”? Another collaboration between Bhansali and Padukone, and, oh yeah, Ranveer Singh was in it too (eye roll). If the constant recycling of the same lead actors/director/genre isn’t annoying enough for you (the trio did “Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela” as well), it also faced protests for its inaccuracies. “Mangal Pandey,” “Mary Kom,” “Jodhaa Akhbar.”

Sometimes it isn’t the whole film either, but a particular song from a film. “Aaja Nachle” came under fire for using an inappropriate term for a particular caste.

There is a censor board (which I have feelings about, but won’t get into because this will get too long) which is, at times, is too stringent for silliness and not stricter on issues that could cause potential discord. It’s interesting to me that if we go by what is actually shown in the trailer, it’s surprising that nobody is protesting against the one-dimensionally negative depiction of the Muslim characters, namely Khilji (played by Singh). From promotional pictures, even Raza Murad’s character has been given the ‘look’. Apparently, Bhansali gave Singh biographies of Hitler to study to really get into character, and Singh got so psychologically impacted that he needed to see a psychiatrist!

(Side note: I really don’t think they thought they’d get the response they’re getting, and this whole story about Singh and how they were promoting his ‘toil’ and his Jared Leto-ing for the negative role was going to be their schtick. Now that they got real problems, it’s fallen by the wayside).

Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji in ‘Padmavati’ [Photo Credit: Screenshot/Viacom 18 Motion Pictures]
Muslim invaders in historical movies are always these completely evil guys with eyeliner. Well unless they’re Hrithik Roshan in ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, but remember even that movie had protests? You see these types of depictions fall within the acceptable realm for the nationalistic right-wing narrative. These depictions might fall under the “hurting the religious sentiments” umbrella but it might be seen as anti-Indian to say so lest you be seen to be in support of the foreign invaders of the past. Have you heard that some politicians from Uttar Pardesh have taken the Taj Mahal off the tourist attraction list because it’s anti-Indian?!

I’ve written about the Bollywood elite and their power and privilege in the past. And while these protests aren’t about the nepotism problem that runs rampant in the industry, the inherent inequality and social stratification that exists in India in general and Bollywood in particular still plays a role in this story.

The power and privilege afforded to Bollywood stars and filmmakers by virtue of their position at the top of the proverbial food chain enables this type of ‘Teflon’ mentality. Bollywood stars are literally worshipped as gods and goddesses by some people…and due to the nepotism problem, many of them are also heirs of powerful film dynasties. These people are rich, and they are powerful. With a fan base of millions and millions of people, they are also incredibly privileged. Unfortunately, this privilege is usually not acknowledged and so often goes unchecked.

We saw this in the nepotism debate. Many actors and actresses were so dismissive of this real issue of inequality because it did not personally impact them. So tone deaf, so elitist! Nobody wanted to admit the role their own privilege played in their lives. Privilege on its own isn’t ugly. It is this lack of acknowledgment of said privilege that makes it so. It is this lack of acknowledgment of the privilege and power one possesses whilst continuing to benefit from both that has blinded Bollywood folks to the realities of the world.

[Read More: Kangana Ranaut Calls Out Karan Johar and Nepotism in Bollywood]

They do not realize how much they really do live in a bubble. They’re the elite, a minority in a country that is for the most part still steeped in poverty, beholden to a tradition of inequality, and seeing a resurgence of ‘Hinduvta’ or Hinduness (a quickly growing, loud and proud right-wing Hindu nationalism). Please see the above reference about the Taj Mahal. These people want to eradicate any history that isn’t Hindu history from the annals of Indian History. They aren’t playing either! Retaliation, in the form of mob violence, has been swift for any real or imagined slight against Hinduness. For example, stories of Muslim teenagers being beaten or killed for eating beef are peppered in newspapers across the country. People have been lynched!

This is what has been happening to the regular Joe Shmos in India. Before this mess, the worst of it for some Bollywood folks had been vitriolic tweets from the twitter trolls (I’m looking at you Rishi Kapoor!). After an incident that left a set of ‘Padmavati’ destroyed, Padukone said that as a nation India had “regressed”. She was subsequently and mercilessly trolled. After the horrid threats against her, her pre-existing security detail was immediately bolstered.

The situation has been getting quite serious out there for the regular people for a while now. That it has spilled over into Bollywood has made the headlines globally. I think it is high time serious discussion is had and real policy changes come into place to ensure security and preserve art. Bollywood folks need to be a part of that discussion, and not only when they’re impacted directly or only in a way they’re comfortable — they need to go all in. But going all in requires some deep soul searching. It requires you to truly see yourself and the role you are playing. It requires you to check yourself.

Is Bollywood ready for that kind of introspection? I’m not sure.


Sundeep Hans was born in Toronto, raised in Brampton, with a slight detour via Punjab. She has a great job, where her work involves collaborating with clinical and community leaders on initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion in the region to reduce barriers for health care access in vulnerable populations. She has a Master’s degree in Global Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Southern California, and is almost finished with her post-graduated certificate in Ethics. She loves to read, travel and talk to anyone every chance she gets. You can follow her on her blog and on LinkedIn

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

‘The Romantics’: Revisiting the Legacy and Grandeur of Yash Chopra With Filmmaker Smriti Mundhra

The Romantics

If you are a South Asian, born in the ’80s or the early ’90s, chances are your ideas of love and romance are heavily influenced by Hindi films — that first gaze, the secret love notes, that accidental meeting somewhere in Europe, over-the-top gestures and dancing around trees. While reality may have been far from what was promised on reel, you still can’t stop pining over a hopeless romantic, with chocolate boy looks, chasing you across the earth and many universes; in the life here and the ones after. Somewhere deep down, you still dream of that possibility despite your husband sitting and sipping his morning coffee right next to you. And much of the credit for weaving this dreamland, that we can’t resist happily sliding into, goes to the legendary Yash Chopra. Award-winning filmmaker Smriti Mundhra’s docu-series, “The Romantics,” that released on Netflix on February 14, chronicles Chopra’s prolific career; offering an illuminating look into the highs and lows of his journey, his unblemished vision for Hindi cinema and sheer love for filmmaking. 

I wanted to look at Indian cinema through the lens of it being a major contributor to the global cinema canon and Yash Chopra seemed like the perfect lens to explore that because of the longevity of his career and the fact that he had worked across so many different genres. His films, for so many of us, defined what Hindi cinema is.

— Smriti Mundhra

As “The Romantics” unveils, in a mere episode — a challenging feat in itself — Chopra did experiment with multiple genres as a budding filmmaker, initially under the shadows of his elder brother B.R. Chopra. From the religiously sensitive “Dharamputra” and the trendsetting “Waqt” to the action-packed and iconic “Deewaar.” It wasn’t until later on in his career that he set a precedent for a Hindi film having a wholly romantic narrative; though “Waqt” did offer the perfect glimpse into what would go on to become Chopra’s cinematic imprint. And then came “Chandni” which ushered in a new era for Hindi cinema; defying the formulaic approach to box office success and making love stories the golden goose.

In the words of more than 30 famous faces, a host of archival videos and interviews, and personal anecdotes, audiences get an extensive insight into the life and career of Yash Chopra and the evolution of his vision through the business acumen and genius of his polar opposite son and a famous recluse, Aditya Chopra. “The Romantics” is not a fancy portrait of a legendary filmmaker but an exploration of what goes into making a successful film family and a path-breaking production house. As viewers, we not only get a peek into the making of a fantasy creator but also learn of the many failures, hurdles and uncertainties that the business of filmmaking comes packaged in, the impact of socio-political shifts on the kind of content being produced and demanded, and just how much control we have as an audience over the fate of the film and the filmmaker.

For both the uninitiated and fanatics, there are some interesting revelations like Shah Rukh Khan’s lifelong desire to become an action hero as opposed to a romantic one and the creative conflict between Aditya Chopra and his father Yash Chopra on the sets of “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge” — a project that, surprisingly, did not seem too promising to the latter. Mundhra penetrates deep into the family’s history and industry relationships evoking some really candid conversations; almost as if these celebs were eagerly waiting for their moment to speak. With one appraising interview after the other, it’s a panegyric that does border on being a tad tedious but there is enough depth and fodder in there to keep one hooked. Kudos to Mundhra for managing to achieve cohesion despite there being more than enough material to chew on. In the process of bringing this project to life, Mundhra also ends up achieving a number of milestones: one that the series features the last of actor Rishi Kapoor’s interviews and two, it brings Aditya Chopra, who, it appears, can talk a blue streak contrary to popular belief, to the front of the camera after almost two decades. The moment when he puts the nepotism debate to rest by referring to his brother’s catastrophic attempt at acting is quite the show-stealer.


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A post shared by Smriti Mundhra (@smritimundhra)

At some point during the four-episode series, you might question if it’s fair to credit the Yash Raj family for being the only real changemakers of the Hindi film industry and for picking up the baton to get Hindi cinema the global recognition that it has. But then there is no denying the Chopra clan’s body of work, their ability to understand what pleases the crowd and their commitment towards growth and progress amidst changing times and technology — Yash Raj Studios is in fact the only privately held and one of the biggest, state-of-the-art film studios in India. Chopra’s career and legacy are in no way under-lit that Mundhra can claim to throw new light on with “The Romantics.” But what she really has on offer here are sheer nostalgia, some fascinating discoveries and an ode to a cinephile and his art with a bit of fan service.

In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, Mundhra discusses why it was so important for Chopra to be the subject of her docu-series, her own learnings during the series’ research and creative process and her accomplishment of getting Aditya Chopra to talk, and that too, at length.

By Nida Hasan

Editor by profession, writer by passion, and a mother 24/7, Nida is a member of Brown Girl Lifestyle's editing team … Read more ›