The ‘Pinga’ Controversy, Caste and Subversion: Sneha Gole

Guest Post by SNEHA GOLE

Recently the song ‘Pinga’, from Sanjay Bhansali’s ‘Bajirao Mastani’ went online on YouTube and the song has given rise to a tide of criticism,  mostly from self-professed ‘Puneris’ and ‘Maharashtrians’. Much of the criticism is aimed at what is perceived as the lack of authenticity of the song – that it is unlikely that Kashibai and Mastani would dance together, that the costumes worn by the actresses in the song are historically inappropriate, that a queen would not wear such revealing clothes and dance like an ‘item girl’ along with a ‘courtesan’ etc. While I am in no ways arguing that the song is historically accurate and I can understand the discomfort of those arguing against the song, the tone of much of that writing is troubling to say the least.

While accusing the director of stereotyping, much of this writing is working from an assumption that equates Maharashtrian to Bramhin. One of the posts even talks about how “no Maharashtrian lady would be caught bobbing her head like that” (emphasis mine). Which Maharashtrian women are we talking about? There is also a distinct racist tinge to the criticisms, with a few posts commenting on Priyanka Chopra’s ‘dusky’ skin as unsuitable for Kashibai (with her fair, delicate, ‘Chitpavan’ looks)!

The criticisms have a problem with what they perceive of as the stereotyping of Maharashtrian women, who are supposed to have danced not just the Lavani, but also ‘many other folk forms like the phugdi and zimma’.  What the authors of these posts seem to have forgotten is that the Lavani and phugdi/zimma though arguably both ‘Maharashtrian’ are linked to each other in a hierarchical manner. The Lavani marked for its eros and the erotic performance is also performed as caste-based labour by women of the Kolhati caste, their body and their art appropriated and exploited for the pleasure and enjoyment of the upper caste men. As against this, the phugdi/zimma are typically games played during the mangalagauri pooja, a ritual performed by married women for the long life of their husbands. The Lavani/ zimma-phugadi binary stand in for a set of oppositions – public, erotic, sexualized, lower caste female body on the one hand and the private, ‘pure’, fecund, Bramhin body of the other. Much of the opposition to the song seems to me to come from a discomfort with the transgressing of these boundaries. The problem as it comes through in these writings seems to be much more about seeing the ‘married’ Kashibai dancing with the ‘courtesan’ Mastani, than with historical accuracy. It has as much to do with seeing Kashibai doing ‘lavani ’like steps as with Mastani partaking in the song and dance associated with the mangalagauri pooja.

As Uma Chakravarti argues, in Brahmanical patriarchy the relationship between caste and gender is crucial: ultimately the degree to which the sexuality of women is controlled is the degree to which a caste group is regarded as maintaining the purity of blood and can thereby establish its claim as high. This to me seems to be the key to understanding much of the opposition to the song.

Because historical accuracy would also demand then that the film show that the Mahars were not allowed within the gates of Poona after 3 pm as their long shadows would defile people of ‘upper’ castes, that they were required to carry an earthen pot around their necks to contain their spittle and also sweep off their defiling footprints, that a Sonar who performed religious rites according to the Vedic mantras had his tongue cut off for ‘defiling’ the sacred verse (Chakravarti, 1998). Equally authentic would be depiction of the ways in which the Peshwai controlled the sexuality of women albeit by imposing different gender norms for each caste. This included tonsure and compulsory celibacy for widows coupled with a ban on remarriage for the Bramhin women. If one has to be authentic, the film would have to dwell on these oppressive, exploitative structures of Bramhanical patriarchy and I wonder how many of the vociferous proponents of ‘authenticity’ would be comfortable and accepting of that?

Recent Marathi films and serials, marking themselves as historical dramas have often represented the oppressive gender norms and practices of the era, recasting them in romanticized terms. Films like Rama-Madhav which while depicting the child marriage of the protagonists, recasts it in a romantic conjugal light, or a film like Kakasparsh which individualizes the question of Bramhin widows and recasts the debate on tonsure in terms of individual love and desire would be cases in point. The hierarchical nature of the husband-wife relationship denoted by the use of terms like “Amche he”, “Ikadchi Swari” then come to be celebrated and romanticized as a ‘lost’ conjugality, marking it in opposition to what is seen as the ‘dry practicality’ of the slightly more democratized conjugality of the contemporary. That oppressive caste practices have not been similarly recast to that extent probably points to the recalcitrance of caste as opposed to gender.

It would probably be useful to read this controversy from two more vantage points: upper caste anxieties and regional, Marathi anxieties. On the one hand, the upper castes in India have been given to seeing themselves as embattled and under siege especially in the context of Mandal politics and what they see as the ‘casteing’ of politics. The mobilizations of the Bramhin community in Pune over the last decade and the kinds of statements made by the Sarva Bhashik Bramhan Sangh point to this. That the film is made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (a non-Maharashtrian) in Hindi (not in Marathi by a Marathi director) with the lead cast as Ranveer ‘Singh’, Priyanka ‘Chopra’ (not Marathi actors) also seems to be adding an edge to the criticism. There is a collapse then of what is seen as a slight to the Bramhins/Maharashtrians/ Puneri/ Peshwas with each category standing in for the other.

While I sincerely doubt that it was Mr Bhansali’s objective, (he has himself stated that it is his fantasy that two women in love with the same man dance for him, a fantasy he first created in Devdas and Dola re Dola and has  now probably attempted to recreate with ‘pinga’), to me the song is deliciously, if entirely unintentionally subversive, for it in imagination puts the Hindu/ Brahmin/ Married Kashibai on the same plane and in the same frame as the Muslim/ ‘second-wife’ Mastani. For someone who has grown up on Hindi cinema and has come to view Hindi films not as representations of what exists, but as a space that imagines what can be, the song opens out interesting possibilities.

Sneha Gole is Assistant Professor, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune

10 thoughts on “The ‘Pinga’ Controversy, Caste and Subversion: Sneha Gole”

  1. The recent spate of tirade against brahminism has made the polarization of brahmins and other upper castes which is leading to the present imbroglio on every matter concerning brahmins. Recently, there was a controversy over a telugu starring Mohan Babu’s son (‘Denekaina Ready?) Hitherto there were film and songs depicting brahmins as comic characters but there were very few protests. The present ‘Pinga’ song controversy should be seen as the dalit assertion of their rights and the brahminical responsibility . The more the dalit assertion the more would brahmins response be. This is a phase of cultural revolution and should continue till the caste system diminishes.

  2. This was a great read! Thank you so much for properly contextualizing the controversy surrounding the movie and ably delineating the issues involved.

  3. I don’t think the anguish has been understood by the writer.
    It’s not about castes or sects.
    It’s about reality and fiction.
    The movie was announced to be a true historic saga and what has been showcased is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s fantasy.

  4. You are reading too much into the protests. Facts are facts. It is now fashionable to criticize bramhins and bramhinism. Those were the times and they were different. And many wrong things were done in those times including but not limited to caste system untouchability child marriage sati racism imperialism apartheid…. Some of the first reformists have been Bramhins like Maharishi Karve…and most bramhins have changed to a large extent. In fact most people Bramhin by birth in Maharashtra at least have given up shackles of orthodoxy way long back.
    I feel you are only increasing the divide by highlighting such issues and on top of it giving free publicity to filmmakers who will make millions distorting history. Devdas was a work of fiction and open to interpretation.

  5. Indeed, even the response by the Peshwa descendants has more to do with caste anxieties rather than concern for historical accuracy.

    However, some points to mull over:

    1. Mastani was neither a ‘courtesan’ nor a Muslim. She was a Hindu princess received as a sort of ‘gift’ (let’s not impose a modern Western feminist lens on this shall we?) from the king of Bundelkhand.

    2. By reading caste anxieties to the exclusion of historical accuracy (a concern that you find, if your tone and coverage is any indication, insignificant) you are merely exposing your own (anti-)caste anxieties.

    3. You have failed to consider the more disturbing element of the movie, viz. the song named Malhari. Even if our Marathi Brahmins are vociferously against Mr. Bhansali by sheer prejudice alone, do you defend the extreme lack of sincerity in Mr. Bhansali’s portrayal as an exercise of his freedom of expression? Can one then rightfully proceed to make a film about Mr. Bhansali’s great grand father and show him gyrating to Chikni Chameli, without ever bothering to confirm whether he did in fact do so or not?

    Is Mr. Bhansali willing to announce before hand that his film has no connection by fact whatsoever to the actual Bajirao?

  6. Gole has written her article in response to some set of criticisms — but she doesn’t do the decent thing and quote, link or even name the people she is supposedly responding to. The one quote she gives, “no Maharashtrian lady would be caught bobbing her head like that” does not come up in Google except in her own article.

    So it is impossible for an outsider such as myself to tell whether she is right that they (whoever they are) are in fact casteist and racist and generally wicked.

    I think that there ought to be some minimum standard of decency that if you’re going to call people names, you ought to at least quote and link to the people you are referring to, so readers can judge for your correctness for themselves, rather than having to take your word for your moral superiority.

  7. What an atavistic article! Neither did Kashibai want to break “caste” (whatever women’s caste is) and neither did Bhansali!!! Thankfully Gole notices this about Bhansali in her liberalist consumption of capitalist visuality about Peshwa representation. The point that Gole has terribly MISSED is how Bhansali has made a caste IMPOSITION, inscribing this on the bodies of both women. Check: what would the same liberals have felt, if a Muslim king had been de-Islamicized to produce him as Rajput? And BELIEVE ME, Muslim patriarchy exists as deeply as Marathi/Brahmin patriarchy does. Would Gole have found it appropriately delicious if Aurangzeb was de-Islamacized under Hindutva regimes by Bhansali? Would that not have been Bhansali inscribing religion on the bodies of both Hindus and Muslims in History, when neither Bhansali nor those historical players had any clear idea what that notion of religion was? What does it mean to rob an identity in both micro and macro contexts? When would liberals masquerading as feminists start gaining self reflexivity about their own violence and atavism, when desisting from the capitalistic looting of identities, finding it delicious and naming it subversive?? This was indeed really terrible, Frau Gole!

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