As a society, we often fail to distinguish between fact and myth. And the row around Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati and the alleged misrepresentation of the apparently fictional Rajput queen Padmini in it, is a great example of the same.
It is meaningless to argue whether Padmini existed or not. It is equally pointless to argue if her representation in the film (which none have seen) is inaccurate or offensive. She is a well-regarded icon for some and a mere myth for others. It is, however, important to consider what the objections to Padmini's portrayal have to do with privilege, power and politics of a certain kind.
Let's consider the primary objection to the film from the Rajput community. Their charge is that it insults the 'memory' of Padmini, who they celebrate as a pious Hindu woman, a courageous and beautiful queen who did not submit to the desires of a Muslim invader. They argue, without seeing the film, that the filmmaker's treatment maybe turning Padmini's tale of courage into a shallow titillating love story where a queen dances and might even romance the Muslim invader i.e. Alauddin Khilji in an imaginary sequence. For them, this is unacceptable, as she represents an iconic Rajput woman.
They argue, without seeing the film, that the filmmaker's treatment maybe turning Padmini's tale of courage into a shallow titillating love story.
The objections reveal the regressive deep-seated privilege of this community. What it also reveals is selective outrage. This is not the first time Padmini has been represented on screen. Nor is this the first Rajput story to be told on film. The filmmaker has clarified numerous times that nowhere is Padmini romancing Khilji.
In fact, on careful consideration, most of the objections are unclear and at best absurd. Their demand is the film be banned or can only be released if they are allowed to view it first. They have also made a despotic claim that the right to determine how exactly she should be represented. In short, the community is expecting a filmmaker to consult what seems like the private armies of India's erstwhile royalty.
Is this a bid for accuracy or power? The fact that this offense has been led by right wing, upper caste groups that threaten disturbing violence -- as the government remains shamefully silent -- is telling.
This violent and absurd protest does not just threaten artistic freedom, but also seeks to polarize and deliberately bring up history in a fractured way highlighting Hindu-Muslim conflict. Numerous questions emerge.
Is it pure coincidence that this controversy emerges with strong support from upper caste Hindu's when India is growing disenchanted by its right wing government? Is it accidental that this coincides with growing popularity of leaders from the opposition? Is it not impropriety that leaders from across the political spectrum are wading in to further muddy waters instead of supporting the rule of law? Interestingly no religious leaders have stepped into this controversy yet.
This violent and absurd protest does not just threaten artistic freedom, but also seeks to polarize.
The answers to these questions are unavailable. However, do watch the drama and acrimony unfolding in the public discourse carefully. Our erstwhile rulers are telling a democratic country where freedom of speech is considered fundamental, that they will not allow representation or interpretation (of myth or mystery) without their consent or according to their diktats.
If we truly wish to understand this controversy we must turn to the idea of power and privilege in our society. We also must understand the political precursors of this controversy. The controversy erupts with no clear demands right on the eve of Gujarat going into polls. Around the same time, one of India's pop religious gurus suddenly makes an appearance in Ayodhya to revive the Ram Mandir controversy with the intention of mediation with no sanction either from the state or its public. However, soon after he announces that a large Ram Temple is the final solution. Too many coincidences? Perhaps the Padmavati controversy is a part of a bigger narrative?
It is also interesting to examine the tone, tenor, language of this protest. Even though led by numerous female members of the erstwhile royal families, it is remarkably anti-women, and anti-minority. The lead actress and the director have been threatened with violence and disfiguration. Alauddin Khilji who was both an able administrator and well-liked by those he governed has become cruel invader even though he was already ruling Delhi and his administrative reforms benefitted millions.
Even though led by numerous female members of the erstwhile royal families, it is remarkably anti-women, and anti-minority.
Padmini, about whom we know so little is revered neither for her character for her kindness, but her beauty and her decision to eventually commit suicide. Such a narrative reduces a woman's agency and privileges ideas of beauty, and honour above individual choices.
The irony of course is that Bhansali is no Satyajit Ray. He may have misrepresented numerous characters in his historical drama's but then he doesn't claim it to be the final truth either. However, none of those characters probably had political value and hence had no reason to cause outrage. That having been said, he does not need either permission or approval from erstwhile royals to make films about ballad's.
In the end the controversy is all about power. It will be flamed till some time. Some will be swayed by this controversy. Everyone, including the royals will have another run basking in borrowed attention. The film will probably be mediated upon and eventually released . It will be a superhit. Padmini will be forgotten. We will be a little more diminished. Eventually, all will be well. Or not quite.
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