According to the synopsis and dramatis personae shared online, the upcoming Bollywood film Pathaan is a patriotic, maybe even a nationalist, film. That hasn’t stopped it from being attacked by those who consider themselves most patriotic and nationalist: the far-right. This comes after the release of a song from the movie, entitled “Besharam Rang”. According to the lyric subtitles on Youtube, it is a song about female desires – which always make some people uncomfortable. It features Deepika Padukone in a series of bikinis – including an orange, slit-skirted one in just the last few seconds. The colour of the last apparel in the sequence has been read as symbolic of Hinduism. In Pathaan, Padukone stars with, and dances with, Shah Rukh Khan, who plays an Indian RAW agent. In real life, Khan has increasingly been attacked for his religious background.
In the last few years, Padukone has emerged as one of the few Bollywood celebrities with a sense of civic responsibility that she displays openly. In January 2020, she visited the JNU campus, the site of violent attacks by a right-wing mob as well as of an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest. It was an act of rare courage in the Indian film industry. As in similar nations, the rightwing galvanizes many smaller distractions while a vast, heavily organized agenda is being put into place. When it comes to cinematic releases, this includes focusing ire, boycotts, demands for bans and worse onto films that contain perceived or fabricated insults to Hinduism (another Padukone-starrer, 2018’s Padmavaat, brought her death threats). Most of the industry maintains a studied, probably scared, silence. But in a subtle way as a person under public scrutiny, Padukone challenges that agenda.
She has responded to this new controversy in a tongue-in-cheek way. Shortly after this scandal hit, she appeared at the FIFA World Cup final in Qatar to unveil the trophy. Her Louis Vuitton outfit also begat trolling – this time, from the fashion (not moral) police. Padukone remarked in an Instagram video that the full-sleeved, layered outfit was very comfortable. In an equally comfortable way – as in a comfort-in-one’s-own-skin way – the range of her wardrobe as seen in the press over just a few days is a feminist statement. She is at a career stage where she presumably has significant agency over her appearance. Which is to say, she wears what she likes – and everyone should be able to as well.
But that’s not all. The LV outfit was also largely made of a material in a soft orange shade. Her lipstick in that video clip? Bright orange.
A friend, not unfairly critical about a lotus that I have tattooed on my body, told me she had stopped wearing her most favourite colour, saffron, over the last several years, because its connotations are too upsetting. But the blossom belongs to me in its own way, for my own reasons. By wearing that eye-catching outfit on the FIFA field following uproar over some beachwear in a song, Padukone made a gentle reclamation of a colour. Quietly, and I suspect deliberately, she presented a reminder about the many shades that make up the palette of humanity.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in December 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.