The Body of Food: Meat, Morals and Bhansali’s ‘Padmaavat’ in India 2020

Photo: DNA India

By Dipanjali Singh

Newspapers continue to be littered with accounts of discriminatory dietary profiling which ensure the criminalisation of the intake of meat. The recent ban on dog meat in Nagaland, Biryani at Shaheen Bagh, the recurring instances of mob-lynching by Gau-rakshaks, the National Museum barring the display of non-vegetarian dishes from the Harappan Menu – all stand testimony to the ongoing curation of a normative Indian diet and the listing of its aberration. Fuelled by tenets of Hindutva, the notions of purity are coupled with the ever-so-adaptable ‘civilising mission’ that often belies a hazardous messiah complex. These are attempts to validate and affix a ‘national culture’ by encoding character/moral traits into gastroethnic tropes. Food is a marker of individual, collective and historical identity and hence stamping a few as legitimate and the defining of its illegitimate ‘other’ serve as a pliable tool for discrimination.

The diet of the barbaric other often consists of meat. The notion of ahimsa and the disgust towards animal flesh become central to the psychopolitics of vegetarianism and its advocacy. In the recent case of banning dog-meat in Nagaland, petitioners demanded a ban on the trade and consumption of dog-meat condemning the ‘cruelty’, urging the Chief Minister of the state to take ‘humane’ steps and stop the barbarity. Surely their love towards animals is not to be restricted to dogs. As per this logic, meat-eaters are crude and immoral and must be urged to denounce the consumption of meat – a necessary step towards their moral elevation and the formal effectuating of their humanity. These assertions cannot be innocent to the prejudiced notions of ‘purity’ which they bolster. They comprise of innocuous pledges of non-violence and love extended to non-humans, until they don’t. Then, Mohammed Akhlaq is accused of keeping beef in his fridge and lynched.

The diet of the individual is perceived to be a representation of their moral bearings. India’s slow criminalisation of meat-eating also reveals deeper prejudices it harbours. It is in the country’s popular culture and its various iconographies that one finds a refection the moorings of the society. Take the example of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat and its symbolics of diet, ingestion and the body. Allaluddin Khilji is characterised as one who revels in debauchery; unthinking and ambitious, he seems to be fuelled by a mere whim. He is depicted as engaging in a homoerotic relationship with Malik Kafur – perhaps a sorry attempt at wanting to expressly establish the sensual abundance he hankers after. Much of the movie is vectored along the lines of the dangerous virility of this Muslim man which serves as a threat to the sanctimonious sexuality of the character of Padmaavati. It becomes significant here that Allaluddin Khilji, face smeared with mud and blood, is represented as tearing flesh off the bones, animal skin serving as insignia in his dark, decadent room. In the goriest of scenes, he dons thick, uncombed fur, his face forever contorted into a menacing grimace. The iconography one quite instantly picks up outlines non-repulsion towards the animalistic and the flesh. Khilji is defined against the sublimated carnality of the righteous; he is cast into traits which reveal a lack. What is apparent is the sustained effort at fashioning Khilji’s gastro-sexual regime and the drawing of links between the two components. Foucault in the second volume of The History of Sexuality conflates the idea of diet and sex and speaks of both as ways of ‘caring for one’s body’ and how one ‘managed one’s existence’. More often than not, the depiction of the sexual excesses or barbarism of characters is transcoded into their diet consisting of meat. The audience is prepared for the lechery of Khilji’s character through his diet, his style, his language – important pieces to the characterisation and moulding of his on-screen persona. The most violent characters Bollywood has forged are depicted as meat-eaters, especially beef, a deliberate attempt at linking their scripted violence to the lack of disgust towards flesh.

Ironically, this disgust is not extended to acts of hunting in Padmaavat. Both Shahid Kapoor’s Ratan Singh and Deepika Padukone’s Padmaavati are introduced to the audience and to each other whilst they hunt a deer in the forests of Singhal. This game is sacralised and becomes a sheer royal pursuit, neither deemed as an affront to the pursuit of dharmic non-violence nor representative of the lust for blood. It is the ingestion of meat which, through recurring depictions, is evocative of uncontrolled carnality and a disposition which gloats over blundering violence. Such depictions have deep and lasting import – they become implicit associations in one’s mind determining much of one’s social interactions. The meat-eater is constantly pinned as the untrained mind, lacking self-control. The reassertion of a set of diktats and cultural codes which establish a definite hierarchy of diet fortifies caste and class privilege, lending itself conveniently to the ongoing nationalistic rhetoric much of which is anchored on exclusion.

Such renderings are predicated on the colonialist logic of bringing the barbaric into the benign fold of civilisation. For this to work, the barbaric is actively curated and culled out of histories and cultures which do not sit well within the template of the self-proclaimed flag bearers of enlightened progress. Popular culture only helps to validate these claims through its interdiction of personal dietary choices. Vegetarianism becomes a sublimated yearning for purity. In India, this is happening through an insolent disregard of class, caste and ethnicity as it continues to problematize the corporeal in the pursuit of elevated ideals tailored to suit privilege. One is left to ponder the undertow of violence which marks such assertions advocating the selective, myopic pursuit of non-violence.

Dipanjali Singh is currently pursuing her Masters degree in English from University of Delhi.


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