Bollywood star Deepika Padukone is Padmavati in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming film, based on a story by Malik Muhammad Jayasi set in 1540 A.D.  

Deepika Padukone (DP) took some time to chat about her hopes and fears with India Currents Culture and Media critic Geetika Pathania Jain (GPJ) on the topics of jauhar, intolerance, and the limits of artistic freedom.

[To provide context to this discussion. Press reports regarding opposition to the film, Padmavati have been increasing in number. Members of a group called Shri Rajput Karni Sena, have vandalized property and even assaulted Sanjay Leela Bhansali. There is opposition to an alleged love scene between Padmavati and Allaudin Khilji (played by Ranveer Singh) in the film. Deepika has been speaking out against the intolerance, and has even engaged in a sparring match with Subramanian Swamy on this topic. Bhansali has been provided police protection after death threats were leveled against him. The release date has been postponed indefinitely at this time.]

GPJ: Deepika, congratulations on your upcoming film, Padmavati. Our readers at India Currents are super excited about it and looking forward to it. Do you have a message for our readers?

DP: Please tell India Currents readers that we are very proud of the film we’ve made and we are equally equally excited! There’s been so much anticipation about the film, about its release, based on everything we’ve seen so far, and we can’t wait to share this experience with everyone.

GPJ: So you’re working with Ranveer Singh again, and he has a darker role as Alauddin Khilji in this film, an anti-hero who invades Chittor. How does it work, as an actor?

DP: It’s very hard! In two films, we are cast opposite each other as eternal lovers, you know, you have RamLeela and you have Bajirao Mastani, and then to put us in a film where we are in a hate story, so to say, it’s emotionally very very hard.

GPJ: I’m going to ask you about some of these controversies that we have been hearing in the press. It seems there is some concern about how the film will be received and whether there is the potential to hurt the sentiments of some groups of people. Do you have any comments on that?

DP: Firstly, I find it appalling just to see how people are reacting, certain groups of people are reacting,  or what they’re reacting to. Just based on hearsay, without having any facts to back what they’re saying. It’s kind of hilarious and appalling at the same time.

GPJ: You are referring to the protests against the film.

DP: And the only people that we’re answerable to is the (Indian) censor board. And we’re not going to succumb to these threats or to this pressure and we’re not going to live in fear. Because we’re not answerable to them.

GP: I’m going to quote a line from Ajay Gehlawat, a film historian, who discusses Bhansali’s strategy of using “historical accounts to retell a contemporary story?” Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen similarly note that “History is always written and re-written from the point of the present.” Do you want to comment on that?

DP: I feel like people need to trust. We’re very proud of the film that we’ve made. It’s the story of a woman and her story and the sacrifices that she made for her people. And we should be celebrating this moment. Instead, it seems to be completely the other way around, and for what? And what can anyone say without even having seen the film?

GPJ: Well, like the rest of the world, I have not seen the film yet. But just the title, Padmavati suggests that it’s a female-centric film, that it’s the story of this amazing woman who lived in the fourteenth century, and of course when we look at her from contemporary eyes, it’s hard to put ourselves in that situation. Could you comment on the practice of Rajput women committing jauhar, a form of mass suicide to avoid capture and sexual violence during war?

DP: I don’t think I can question that, to be honest. Times change. Things that are relevant then may not be relevant now. And vice versa. So I don’t think we can really question what they did or didn’t do, or what they practiced or didn’t practice. But for me, it’s much larger than that. For me, like I said before, it is about the woman that she was, the courage that she had, what she believed in, what she stood for, her intelligence, her vulnerability, those qualities that make her a woman. That’s the inspiring part for me.

GPJ: When we talk about the growing intolerance and backlash in India, would you feel that working in Bollywood film industry is losing its charm?

DP: If anything, we serve a purpose – people turn towards us because we are the one industry that gives you moments where you can escape from reality. Where you can feel love, feel unity, feel positive, feel happy, laugh. Cinema is that powerful. And it’s sad that people don’t see it. Or, certain groups of people choose not to see it. And I think no amount of opposition from a small group of people will kill the spirit of the much larger audience that understands the power of cinema. And it’s definitely not going to kill our spirit. If anything, it’s fueling it further.

GPJ: That’s good to hear. As you said, Bhansali films are all about the spectacle, stunning scenery and choreography, the songs and the beautiful ghoomar dance that we’ve been seeing. Certainly it seems like it will be a visual treat and hopefully one that will bring people together rather than divide them. Congratulations on your beautiful dancing and you look luminous in the film.  And I think our India Currents readers will be very excited to see you on the screen! Stay strong!

Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Critic at India Currents.

Dr. Geetika Pathania Jain is a former Culture and Media Editor at India Currents. An award-winning writer and editor, Geetika earned her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin and attended Purdue...