Rashmi Sawhney

Present(ing) History’s Specters



One of the key aides of time-study — if there ever was such a thing — is the camera, which separated the soul of time from its body. For many communities, the photograph was a symbol of death; an apparatus that extrapolated life out of the human body, as an imprint. Perhaps that is why, when people die, we garland their photographs, the closest remnants of life. For Roland Barthes, encountering his deceased mother’s photograph marked a punctum, a bruising affect that fills the scene (of the photograph) with a higher value. This is an affect that condenses time into the space of a photographic frame. For Barthes, the photographic frame contained elements that could be impersonal and informative, which he called the studium, or prickly and personal, like the punctum. A recorded image, always brings the past into the present, in it’s moment of spectation, of simultaneously appearing and being watched. History crashes like tidal waves into the present and towards the future; any attempt to grasp the contemporary, requires an acrobatic split across multiple time-frames. If what we call the now or the present, is at core a marking of duration, like water held within a dam, separated from its natural flow, all technologically recorded images belong to the present. 

Visual images (I refer here only to analog and digital images produced through the use of camera technology, so photographs, films, video, scientific and medical images etc.) belong to a different temporal scale than that afforded by the classical distinction between history and the present. The fundamental assumption by historians is that in order for history to be written, there must be a line separating the past as a reality that is no longer present (and therefore can only be represented) from the ways of writing about the past, which are part of the historian’s present. In a significant reassessment of the discipline and its methodologies, Partha Chatterjee and Anjan Ghosh (2002: 12) admit that “ways of writing are inextricably entangled in the ideologies of the historian’s present” and suggest therefore, that to ‘do’ history is also to ‘make’ it.[1] As the distinction between the visual and the textual gets increasingly blurred in the digital age, it may not be amiss to think about images as part of the process of writing, and thereby to ask what a visual historiography might look like. At the heart of this question is the ability to make a distinction between ‘documents’ that constitute ‘facts’ and those that lie in more grey zones like memory, myth or fiction. In our present moment, this is a technological issue, deeply connected with the ontology of the film or photographic image, as well as questions of archiving, circulation and classification. However, more pressing is the fact that any recorded image, instantly belongs to (or documents) a past reality, and therefore, all such images also constitute history in all its liveness. The timescale of history as episodes of social, political and cultural events, and history as a thick network of continuously produced visual images, urges us to make a shift from being able to see (and render seen) the distant invisible, to seeing (and showing) anew the present hyper visible. The irony, of the recorded visual image, is then that it always necessarily belongs to both past and present.

The Indian legal system takes a clear view on the legitimacy of visual records: in keeping with the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, photographs were not accepted as evidence in the absence of negatives until 2000, when the Act was amended in the light of the Information Technology Act, and special provisions were made for accepting digital evidence through the inclusion of Sections 65 A & B. Historians and film theorists have grappled with the challenges thrown up by the digital image and archive, which somehow makes the material appear more ‘current’ than of its own time, besides raising questions of authenticity. Nonetheless, the digital image/archive cohabits with its analog twin; lookalikes that are nevertheless entirely different entities. In the confused possibilities of our present, how do visual images navigate the asynchronous temporalities of historical time and technological time?


The Historical Film: Between Historical Time and Technological Time

I’d like to push this logic to its limit case through the example of the ‘historical’ film, in particular Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2017 film Padmavati, which has been causing a mighty furore around the depiction of the film’s central character Padmavati, a queen in Mewari folklore, who may possibly have existed in the 14th C, although all known accounts suggest otherwise. The historical film is a curious creature: it is loosely based on an episode from the past, that in the strict methodological terms of history, no longer exists, yet is brought ‘back’ into the present through acts of reconstruction and representation. As a formerly colonized nation, we have perhaps taken the task of constructing our histories so seriously, that we have taken history itself to task. The curious co-mingling of two genres, i.e, history as an ‘authoritative’ text and popular cinema as a fictionlised story, gives rise to a hotbed of emotive responses, which in India, more often than not, lead to threats, vandalism, shrill accusations, ‘hurt sentiments’, bans, censorship, and in the case of Padmavati, even suicide/murder. Witness this: the body of 40 year old handicrafts trader Chetan Saini, was found hanging from Jaipur’s Nahargarh fort on the 24th of November 2017, with a note engraved onto a rock saying “hum putley jalatey nahin, latkatey hai” (we don’t burn effigies, we hang them). It is unclear if Saini’s death was suicide or murder, and if it had anything to do with the Padmavati case at all, yet the engraved text makes that connection in the fashion of a morbid curatorial intervention. Earlier that morning, a group of people had gathered outside the Azadpur Metro station in Delhi and burned an effigy of the film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. On November 22, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani declared his government would not allow the release of Padmavati as the state was gearing up for elections. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had even earlier declared that the film distorted facts about the Rajput queen Padmavati and would not be released in his state, even if it got certification from the Censor Board. Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh held Bhansali responsible for hurting the sentiments of the Rajput community, and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has sought edits in the film to remove ‘objectionable sequences’. The sequence under question is an alleged ‘dream scene’ depicting ‘intimate romance’ between the 14th C Muslim ruler Allaudin Khilji (played by Ranveer Singh) and the upper caste Hindu Rajput queen Padmavati (played by Deepika Padukone). Although the film’s director and cast have denied the existence of such a sequence (sic), and protesters haven’t seen the film yet, the scheduled release date of 1 December has been deferred due to the controversy. The protests against the film, led by the right wing Rajput Karni Sena, have included vandalism of cinema halls, the burning of effigies, threats to “chop off Deepika Padukone’s nose,” and even the declaration of a reward of $1.5 million by a BJP leader, to “anyone who beheads Bhansali and Padukone.” On the 30th of November, Bhansali was asked to appear before a Parliamentary panel on Information and Technology, chaired by Lok Sabha member Anurag Thakur, with 30 members including L.K. Advani, Paresh Rawal, Raj Babbar and Prasoon Joshi. Joshi, whose job as the Chairperson of the CBFC is to facilitate – not hamper — the screening of films, raised objection to the fact that the film had been shown to a small group (8 persons, to be precise) of Bhansali’s friends before a certificate had been issued by the CBFC. Joshi has since proceeded to institute a committee of historians, who will help the panel to reach a decision on matters of (mis)representation and historical accuracy.

The deep connection between mob violence, politics and cinema in India is nothing new, and we have previously witnessed allegations of ‘historical misrepresentation’ almost as an unfailing ritual practice.[2] However, the case of Padmavati throws a new spin on old habits, since there is no firm historical evidence of the existence of a queen called Padmini/Padmavati in the 14th C, and the account on which Bhansali’s film is based is that of 16th C Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic Awadhi poem, Padmavat, written in 1540, roughly 224 years after Allaudin Khalji’s death. However, the people of Mewar believe in the legend of Padmavati, and to this extent she is a character reified in folklore, which despite a historian’s ire, one might take the liberty of terming as ‘popular history’. The retaliations against even a fictional romantic encounter between a Muslim king and an upper caste Hindu queen follow in the footsteps of the great anxiety about inter-religious sexual relationships, encapsulated in the violent term ‘love-jihad’, coined by Hindutva forces.

One of the many allegations about Padmavati has been the claim that a Rajput queen would not have danced in the manner Deepika Padukone does, in the songs that can be watched on youtube, ahead of the film’s release.[3] It is easy to dismiss this as a ludicrous statement – which indeed it is – but perhaps we should pause to consider how conclusions about plausible behavior get transferred from folklore to cinema. Historians have stated that no known portrait of Padmini existed in Ratan Singh’s court, and the only archival referent materials available are paintings created out of imagination, not portraits. It is also known from the historical accounts available that Alauddin Khilji may have been a tyrant but he was also a henpecked husband, with two constantly quarreling wives, leaving little scope for domestic bliss, let alone extramarital romance. Various articles that have emerged in the wake of the Padmavati episode suggest that there is not much truth to Jaisi’s work, and he may infact have been trying to create a work of the magnitude of Amir Khusrau’s masterpiece Ishquiya.  Khusrau had chronicled the romance between Alauddin Khilji’s son Khizr Khan and Deval Devi, daughter of the Gujarat raja’s abandoned wife Kamla Devi, who had been brought to Delhi during Khilji’s campaign against Gujarat in 1297. Jaisi seems to have introduced the fictitious character of Padmavati, who either commits jauhar (sets herself on fire to avoid being taken captive by Khilji), or commits sati by throwing herself on Ratan Singh’s pyre, for dramatic effect; accounts vary, and there is no clarity about this matter. In any case, Padmavati kills herself, for the sake of one man or another, an act of bravado, which Bhansali considers fit to aggrandize and bring back into public ‘history’ at a time when regressive Hindutva forces are all too eager to wipe out any traces of Muslim existence, past or present. 

What is fascinating are the multiple acts of translation that form a loose, if shaky bridge, between the 14th C and the 21st C. It is said that Indians exist in multiple time zones; the fact that public perception of mythical time can make strange demands of some sort of indexation upon the entirely modern temporality of cinema, with grave repercussions on the freedom of expression, suggests that a theory of the now/the present/the contemporary cannot be flattened into a global universal. There is a peculiarity to the popular South Asian/ Indian sense of the present or now, which far from being postmodernist or modernist, exists as a complicated contract of negotiations with an extended (often, concocted, as in this instance) past. Thus, the contemporary in popular culture and cinema is very different from the way in which the contemporary as a concept has been deployed in the discussion of art or dance, for example, where it denotes the clear possibility — and indeed need — for a break with historicity. In cinema studies, nomenclature has taken the shape of geo-political/spatial terms (eg. world cinema, transnational cinema, regional cinema, national cinema, left bank etc), or an aesthetic form (surrealist, expressionist, noir etc), or an upfront declaration of departure from the norm (indie, new cinema etc). While time is written into the very being of cinema (as ‘moving’ image), it does not constitute the core lexicon of its nomenclature as genres or movements.

One of the great limitations of cinema studies has been that it has prioritized the film ‘text’ as its main object of study. This is not to say that there hasn’t been work that has looked at other aspects of cinematic culture (this body of scholarship is gaining both heft and significance), but by and large, it would not be amiss to say that ‘close textual analysis’ has been the primary methodology deployed by film theorists. In an ironic reverse sweep, the significant influence of Marxist theory that partly led to this mode of analysis, reveals insights only about the superstructure (the final film, as the cultural product, in this case), while concealing the vast labour that goes into constructing the base or foundation on which the film as text exists. Those familiar with the process of film production will know that it takes a great deal of collaborative work and resources to make a film. When a painter or a writer develops their work, they too are in conversation with others, but the act does not (necessarily) involve real-time physical collaboration. It isn’t impossible to make a film single-handedly, especially with emergent mobile phone technologies, however, the odds are stacked against these kinds of films finding theatrical release. Even student or amateur films are made with the help of at least a motley crew. For big budget commercial films like Padmavati, the number of persons involved in its making is in thousands. I will not labour on here about the labour of cinema – although this deserves and demands serious attention – and will limit to a modest consideration of two different perspectives on the relationship between the past and the present as it plays out through cinema, (or more broadly speaking, visual culture) in the Indian context.

History, the Present, and Mechanical Images

There are multiple ways of looking at this relationship (or multiple ways in which it has been looked at), but I will restrict here to two viewpoints, which both grapple with the role (and construction) of history in making our political and cultural present. One is embodied in the work of playwright and scholar, G.P. Deshpande (1938-2013), and the other in the writings of political psychologist and social theorist, Ashis Nandy (b. 1937). Nandy was one of the first scholars in India to take note of the visual popular, but his work has since been dismissed by film/visual studies for its ‘strategic essentialism,’ for romanticizing the pre-modern and a reluctance to comprehend technology (or technological modernity). Nonetheless, Nandy has some interesting insights into the relationship between the past and the present, which he draws out in his book Time Warps: the Insistent Politics of Silent and Evasive Pasts (2002:4):

. . . an ability to play with the past is a necessary counterpoint to the dredging of the past that has become a standard marker of official enquiry commissions all over the world. It is not perhaps a terrible liability that, in South Asia, though the future may not always look open, the past rarely looks closed. I believe that social and political creativity requires this capacity for play. As the intellectually accessible universe expands, and as we confront disowned cultures and states of consciousness about which the presently dominant middle-class culture of knowledge knows nothing, we need more than ever our capacity to recognize the alternative realities we are daily coerced to bury. [4]

The current debate on Padmavati brings to light the counter-points created by the peculiar porosity of the past into the Indian present, encapsulated (in a different context) by Nandy in the chapter ‘Contending Stories in the Culture of Indian Politics (ibid: 13-36).’ Pointing out the long tradition of scholarship which argues that there is a pervasive tendency in the culture of Indian politics to ignore history and linearity — and thereby the direct relationship between (material) progress and the passage of time, often tending towards fatalism – he describes the varied ways in which the urge to exorcise metaphysical time to become properly historical subjects manifests itself, especially under colonial rule. Ironically, this plays out according to Nandy’s account, in similar ways for the liberals and radicals as well as for the nationalists and fundamentalists. Both (or all four) groups seek a strong grasp over history in order to be able to influence the present.

Nandy’s contemporary, the Marxist intellectual and playwright, G.P. Deshpande takes a position that argues for the need for an intimate knowledge of regional history to counter fundamentalism in the present moment.[5] His essay, ‘Violence of Culture: Three Cases,’ opens with a discussion of the case by the Sangh Parivar against M.F. Hussain on grounds of blasphemy, alleging that his paintings of nude Indian goddesses offended ‘public sensibilities’, which was over-ruled in May 2008 by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul in the Delhi High Court as being ‘baseless’. Deshpande points out that Pandharpur, Hussain’s city of birth, was the center of Marathi Bhakti poetry, which was a poetry of protest and rebellion, just as much as it was about love and devotion, and that the language of Janabai’s 13th C poems about Viththala was far bolder than our modern sensibilities would tolerate. He goes on to point out that there is no word for blasphemy in any of the classical Hindu or Buddhist texts, and that over hundreds of centuries, the Indian way of demonstrating love for tradition (perhaps extendible to social history), has been to take liberties with it. The only argument against Hussain, he says, can be aesthetic, and this is an allowance we should be in a position to extend to Bhansali too, in the case of Padmavati.

Given the impossibility of establishing the historical veracity of a meagerly documented folklore 500 years after its time of creation, the only trial that Bhansali should be put through, is for the film’s aesthetic. If one agrees with Chatterjee and Ghosh’s viewpoint that doing (writing) history is also making it, and that the writer/filmmaker is entangled in the ideological sways of their time, then Bhansali’s ongoing tendency to depict ‘history’ as a fantastical spectacle of surplus must be put to scrutiny within the regime of image production.  When ‘manufactured truth’ by way of doctored videos that go viral on social media is the constant reality of our times, as is the heightened tussle to exert patriarchy and Hindu supremacy by controlling women’s bodies (and protecting their ‘honour’), a folk deity reifying sati/jouhar through commercial cinema becomes the spectacular façade of an ahistorical present, unable to make the departure towards either the future or the contemporary. Even more dangerously, these images perhaps yearn to travel back into an aristocratic mythical time; a time of opulence, unfettered pride and ambition, abiding bodily beauty, ethical cunning, and uncanny courage. And they wish to do this detached from the realities of the global contemporary — ignoring masses of the disenfranchised, displaced, disempowered, discriminated – while succumbing to glitzy image regimes that make horrific wars, and caste and gender exploitation, look like high definition candy floss. The challenge upon a historical film is peculiar; it must be the translator between the past and the present, proficient in both language registers, ensuring both narrative and aesthetic allegiance, in a way that vast historical time is condensed into a point of measurement of flow through a thin frame, as technological time and image. Present(ing) history’s specters is like the Pashto poet Khatak’s plea to god:

I call you. But you do not respond.
Are we living in unresponsive times?

The present squirms like bacteria under a microscope, or the wrinkled skin of an actor under harsh floodlights. “Show me all,” we scream. “Unfold before my eyes, like Draupadi’s vastra, layer upon layer, fold upon fold, until I can hold you in my gaze, for longer than your time. Let me snatch you from the arms of Yama, the lord of death, and embalm you in a morgue of ice that will let your dead skin twitch, for just a second longer. Let me feel your breath after it’s spent. Now, do I know you? And do you know me at all?


[1] Chatterjee, Partha and Ghosh, Anjan (eds.) History and the Present. New Delhi: Permanent Black. 2002.

[2] As this article from the Live Mint points out, 68 films have been opposed by various sections of the public on either political or historical grounds since 2008 – http://www.livemint.com/Consumer/x6iWlEPMjsIfEZSrWGuLHI/Padmavati-fights-a-tough-battle-but-its-not-alone.html.

[3] In Bhansali’s earlier historical drama, Bajirao Mastani (2015), the ‘Pingya’ dance sequence with Deepika Padukone (Mastani) and Priyanka Chopra (Kashi) had been critiqued by descendants of the Peshwas on grounds that Bajirao’s wife Kashi suffered from a debilitating condition of arthritis, remained bed-ridden for the most part of her life, and was unlikely to have sprung to her feet for a merry dance with Mastani, who she had apparently met only once in a formal encounter.

[4] Nandy, Ashis. Time Warps: The Insistent Politics of Silent and Evasive Pasts. New Delhi: Permanent Black. 2002

[5] Deshpande, G.P. Talking the Political Culturally and other essays. Kolkata: Thema. 2009.

Image courtesy: Zee Media Bureau

Rashmi Sawhney writes about cinema and visual culture, and heads the M.A. in Curatorial Practice at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore. She is a founding member of the VisionMix network and co-editor of a forthcoming special issue of The Moving Image Review and Arts Journal (Intellect, UK) on South Asian artists’ film and video.

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