The catch in watching a film that has created heavy hype and hoopla is that one ends invariably disappointed, BY Sushil Kumar, senior IAS officer.
So, it was with Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB) ‘sPadmaavat; one found immediate resonance with timeless lines like ‘much ado about nothing’(avoiding equally famous one about a tale full of sound of fury signifying nothing,lest another controversy is created about a word contained therein).
As they say, a creative work is alwaysa by-product of the creator, context, circumstances and the times. Indeed, Padmaavat is so, not once but three times over: one of a sixteenth century allegorical epic poem ‘Padmaavat’ penned by Malik Muhammad Jayasi (MMJ); second, contextualization of events occurring three centuries earlier in the text; and thirdly,cine creativity of SLB and current contentious timesand ideas.
One is indeed lost in search for meanings to make sense of hysteria and hubbub over history depicted in the film even though the film is based on a fictional epic poem. On digging, one also discovered that SLB’s name is indeed a metaphorical marker about the movie: we all know, ‘Sanjay’ is a famed story tellercharacter in great Indian epic, theMahabharata, who narrates the entire drama unfolding at Kurukshetra to blind Dhristrashtra. So, are Indians ‘blind’ to see that ‘Padmaavat’ is only a fictionalstory of another fictional story and both utilizing unlimited liberality allowed in literature? And his second name ‘Leela’ equally describes his penchant for narrating dramatic tales in form and format of a ‘leela’ (a play)- a philosophical way of looking at all human drama, much like Shakespearean description of world a stage (play) and people playing characters and disappearing after playing the part (in ‘As You Like It). So again, can’t Indians take the film as merely another play, or leela, that changes constantly with context and circumstances.
The film is merely a continuum of Sanjay’s well known sensibilities and cine-story telling, sans any surprise whatsoever. Both MMJ and SLB have utilized their creative freedoms, poetic licencesand cine creativity, in their respective creations five centuries apart. Though both mixed the myths, metaphors, folklore, hearsay with historical characters, MMJ’sPadmaavat is celebrated as an epic poem ever since (included translations in several Indian languages), latter has created ceaseless controversies.
The subject and characters of both ‘Padmaavat’(s) are contextualizedin rapidly changing fourteenth century India, but unfortunately for SLB, latter Padmaavat is being contextualized in current times creating unnecessary controversies. The raging controversies that film has generated is proving the famous postulate of lauded historians like Romilla Thapar, Irfan Habib, Harbans Mukhia who continuously caution against dangers involved in interpreting past events and ideas with benefit of presentideas. Earlier R.S. Sharma’s, Wendy Doniger and James Laine’s books and observations about India’s past history have also created similar sentiments of outright rejection.
Let’s see Padmaavat from this perspective: The film basically is a screen adaptation of MMJ’s Padmaavat-a self-acknowledged fictional and allegorical tale populated by characters like Padmavati, Ratan Singh, Brahmin courtier Raghav Chetan and Alauddin Khilji, of which only the last one is a real historical character;rest are chiseled out of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poetic license.This intermixing of fact and fiction in literary creation wasn’t new and had been done many times over in history.
MMJ’s Padmaavat told a tale, involving universal human emotions of love, beauty, sacrifice, desire, lust, honour and their transient and impermanent nature. And that was done so beautifully that it was translated in several vernacular languages and celebrated for over four centuries. Reason?Padmaavat was taken for what it was and is- a literary work. So far so good, but then why so much trouble now? We shall see.
There wouldn’t have been much trouble if SLB remained fully faithful to the original text. But he thought that like MMJ exercised poetic licence, he could also use creative freedom available to cine creators and interpreters – that of mixing fact and fiction, forgetting that in literature it is the norm. But not so in cine creativity specially when current times are charged ideationally as well as ideologically. And that is when all hell broke loose.
FILM-O-GRAPHY AND TEXT/CONTEXT: Let’s analyse SLB’s cine-sensibilities symbolized in his filmography: His filmography speaks louder than words in truly reflecting his art, aesthetics, persona and world view.Even a non-serious cine goer cannot miss a ubiquitous thread running throughhis filmography. But for two films namely Khamoshi and Black- which dealt with disabilities- his cine-world and world view is singularly characterized by what all is colourful, best and beautiful – near perfect specimen of people and places, portrayed in bold colours,couture and culture; a reflection of ravishing, resplendentreality far removed from anything approximate truth or real.In other words, a sanitized depiction of reality with all rough edges nearly removed or reduced.His particular sensibility and love for Gujarat comes through (i) in profusion of bold colours of red,brown, yellow and even black (ii) life and living as pure joy and beauty that is fit for celebration,festivity, gaiety, dance and music (iii) outdoor locales of desert, old havelis,palaces, forts and architectural buildings (iv) love for traditional values of family life etc.
Just consider some more examples: The story and world of his first super hit (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) was inhabited by beautiful body specimens of Aishwarya Rai (draped in designer dresses) and Salman Khan, playing out their infantile love leela, in profusion of colours and constant celebration, in the deserts/havelis of Gujarat/ Rajasthan and even exquisite locales abroad, with traditional folk musical beats resonating in background. His Devdas again had beautiful people Aishwarya (again), Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh draped in designer ensemble that modernized a feudal times love story and narrated that in his preferred colours and high couture again (remember the famed heavy ghagra costing lakhs and that many meters long dupatta that also ran after Aishwarya in the last shot). Both films celebrated the centuries old cherished Indian family values.His Goliyon ki Raasleela –Ram Leela repeated the familiar motif of liberal display and interplay of beautiful bodies (Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh), costumes, colour and cultural context of Gujarat. However, in this film, he married the gangster genre with celebration of Indian tradition. The same couple was repeated in Bajirao Mastani, with another beauty queen (PriyankaChopra) added, with usual costumes, colour, Indianculture, combat and conquest. Though contextualizes in the Maratha period, SLB may have deliberately avoided always contentious interpretation of Shivaji. In Bajirao Mastani,the usual grandeur, splendour and spectacle was stepped up into superior scale with Computer Graphic Imagery (CGI) induced battle scenes, court scenes,palaces and forts. Perhaps, the success of Bajirao Mastani spurred SLB to repeat historical fiction genre by going for Padmaavati.
Please note that beautiful people (Ranveer, Deepika with Shahid supplementing), bodies, bodices, brocades, bangles,betrothal,bridal finery, bold colours remain and recur with unfailing regularity in t/his magnum opus Padmaavat.Please also note that even his other films like Koshish, Guzaarish, Black and Saawariya have beautiful people (Manisha Koirala, Salman, Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam, Hrithik Roshan, Amitabh and Aishwarya), even though barring Saawariya, other three films had themes of people struggling with serious disabilities of one kind or another. Though Koshish, Guzaarish and Black dealt with sombre subjects of deaf-muteness quadriplegic and blindness, the films were beautifully shot, in beautiful locales or sets, specially Guzaarish where Aishwarya Rai beauty was captured with somewhatincongruous Victorian attire, aesthetics of architecture. So, irrespective of the storyline, characters and context, SLB projects a personal reality depicting a beautiful world inhabited by beautiful people, meant to razzle- dazzle and create a dream like reality ofrazzmatazz.
But SLB blundered this time, in Padmaavat, in blending history and literary story without taking into account how the current times and contexts have changed. And liberal interplay, even in imagination, of historical fact and fiction has become animpossibility in current times. Though the film is adaptation of MMJ’sPadmaavat, SLB blundered in blending historical and literary characters, with liberal licence and will, without bothering to balance, with a sense of proportion and believability. And that has caused problems. He may have got too carried away by little opposition to similar liberty and license with history that he exercised while making Bajirao Mastani.
In order to depict a battle between good and evil, SLB, for dramatic effect, ended up delineating an uni-dimensional evil character far too pronounced for comfort. One can do that easily for a fictional character, but if done to a historical character, one has to take a somewhat balanced and a rounded view. SLB erred in portraying AlauddinKhilji, as a uni-dimensional character straight out of a beastly tale, given to salivating forever for flesh only. Of course, brutality of Khilji is well known, but so is his bravery in battling and beating Mongols to save India, specially when Mongols nearly decimated the whole world with far greater genocide. His elaborate economic and military reforms, done in a limited reign of only twenty years, actually formed the foundation for later empires of Suris and Mughals in India. His taking a Hindu wife (Jhatyapaliwhose son Alauddinbecame Sultan too) has been left out.The depiction of Malik Kafur as a caricature and as a pansy is too far-fetched.
One can understand SLB couldn’t have added all the elements; but then, he could have easily avoided adding court craft and court intrigue of JalaluddinKhilji’smurder as these are not important in Jayasi’s Padmaavat. Not only that,SLB underplayed rivalry between two wives of Ratan Singh and portrayed Aladdin’s first wife Malika-e- Jahan in glowing terms much contrary to historical facts; on the contrary, she is shown as helping Ratansen (not Singh) andPadmaavatto escape.The characterof courtier Brahmin Raghav Chetan is portrayed as peeping tom even though like in MMJ’s Padmaavat, he is portrayed in convincing Alauddin to attack Chittor ruler. Similarly, depiction ofAlauddinKhilji putting a severed head of Mongol on a spear, in thefilm, is allusional to similar treatment of Jalaluddin Khilji ’s severed head in Delhi. It is indicative of mixing literary fiction with factual history; and that will always be riddled with problems.As stated, perhaps SLB thought that since he got away last time with Bajirao Mastani, he would succeed this time too. Though the film is a screen adaptation of MMJ’s Padmaavat, the, moment of reckoning and reflection by Alauddin Khilji in final scenes is completely left out. Instead, Alauddin is shown in pure animalistic desire still pursuing his prey.
Perhaps, SLB missed the metaphorical meanings of each character representing a human trait (as elaborated by MMJ himself) wherein Padmavati represented beauty and wisdom, Alauddin as desire and lust, Ratan Singh as honour and duty. Alauddin failing to get Padmavati in the end represented transient nature of desire and world ( the words of Alauddin Khilji realization are telling and available on net).Instead, the film’s selective picking and choosing has created a cauldron that burnt many lives, literally, literarily, historically and presently.
So, the liberal lifting of literary fictional characters and placing them as historical ones ended up boomerangingbadly for Bhansali. For example, Padmaavati and first wife committing Jauhar due to Allaudin Khilji is a concoction of this cinema, whereas in MMJ’s poem Jauhar is committed on demise of Ratan Singh (not Ratansen) in fight with another Rajput royalty (Devapala of Kumbhalner).
In contrast, historical fiction films like Anarkali, Pukar, Mughal-e-Azam were lapped up and continue to be celebrated even now. Why? simply because, they mixed fiction and historical fact/s with a somewhat balanced sense of proportion to create some measure of believability.
Maybe, for the first time, SLB erred in not concentrating on beautiful people and gave too much screen space to a beastly character besotted to burn everything down, both figuratively and literally- much in the famous Indian idiom contained in a folktale of Bandar and Bayaa. His earlier films hardly have villainous characters.
MMJ took poetic licence and SLB in turn added picture/pictorial licence to it. But, he carried it a wee bit further than necessary. And that too at a wrong time, where past and present history is posed antagonistically. When you combine a Machiavellian Prince ‘s cold heart with passion of mad Majnu and then give them historicity, one would surely have both fiction and fact, combined with myth, repeating themselves as farce as has happened to Padmaavat.
He selective picking from history has Mali Kafur, a famed general, reduced as a personal body guard and an orderly,thereby reducing him as mere caricature, not a person in history. The historical hearsay of his sharing a physical relationship with Sultan is also alluded to though its historicity is universally rejected.
Alauddin Khilji’s contribution in saving India from Mongols invasion and in introduction of administrative and economic reforms is universally recognized. It’s just that, that was era of empire building and he symbolized Machiavellian Prince’s pursuit of winning power and retaining at all costs with court craft, court intrigues and killings thrown in in liberal measure. SLB’s error has been picking real names and characters from history and mixing them up with fictional ones. And it is SLB’s bad luck that he ran out of luck in carrying his creative attempt.
Just see the tragedy of SLB’s Padmaavat -negative portrayal of Alauddin is so pronounced that it has led to contentious comprehension amongst contesting cultural camps of current times, contributing to create a cauldron from which most will come out scalded and scarred.
In some way, one can’t find fault with SLB in making Padmaavat as mere depiction of historical facts would be as boring as the bare subject taught in schools and colleges. It is mixing of history with folklore, myths, legends etc. that create interest and appeal amongst common masses. Just take the example of films like Alexander (starring Brad Pitt) and Gladiator where history is fictionalized with myths, legends, ballads etc. Though Gladiator had even great Marcus Aurelius as a character yet, remember there was no Spain during the period portrayed by the Gladiator and Russel Crowe is called as a Spaniard.
Some Indians are over reacting for sure, specially when it is clarified that film basically is screen adaptation of MMJ’s epic poem Padmaavat (even name was changed with ‘I’ removed). Perhaps, SLB finds himself in wrong place and wrong times – characterized by Bob Dylan’s song The Times They are changing). Remember, two Indian films on Padmaavati (one in Hindi and other in Tamil) have been made in post independent India and no murmurs were raised.
To put things in perspective, take example of Shakespeare’s several plays that have direct and indirect allusions to many historical characters like Henry, Edward, Richard etc. And numerous plays and pictures have been staged and made but such fiery passions have never been aroused. There have been few timeswhen some noises were made, was when Jesus Christ Superstar was staged/and filmed four decades ago, or when some misgivings were made about too much torture depicted of Jesus in Mel Gibson directed Gospel- the Passion of the Christ. No hell or fury is raised when white man is portrayed as pure evil in 12 Years of Slave or Django Unchained. Some controversy was raised when The Last Temptation of the Christ was released but not to the extent one witnesses during release of Padmaavat in India.
FILM-O-CRAFT: Though SLB is famed for focusing on smallest details, one still feels that, in his obsessive streak to make everything look attractive and alluring (comparable to magic realism much celebrated in modern literature), approximate depiction of reality to create a realistic feel is made subservient and simply sacrificed. For example, one can easily see that Ranveer, Deepika and Shahid are draped in expensive zardozi hautecouture – this style came into regular use only five centuries later even though ancient India used gold and silver threads in textiles. One feels as if one is watching these three millennials walking the ramp in Sabyasachi Mukherji’s expensive zardozi work.
The profusion of geometric and floral designs depicted in Chittor palace is a definite by-product of IndoIslamic architectural fusion that also came much later. But the most glaring error is display of ‘pietra dura’ (inlay work with precious stones) on the walls. The profusion of jaalis and decorative arches are typical creation of later times. Butthen, his film is fictional and like story created with liberal poetic license by MMJ, perhaps SLB can take liberal architectural license, bothfiguratively and metaphorically. But masters like Satyajit Ray would never make any error even in the minutiae; remember that Satranj Ke Khiladi narrated a fictional tale of a historical period of 1857; you see the film and try finding any small object of anything out of place! or out of time! You would fail.
Deepika, Aditi Rao Hydari are always adorned with exquisite jewellery, draped in well-crafted costumes andare so well groomed that their languorous gait gives an impression of walking the ramp as show stoppers for Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s ensemble of traditional textiles. Attired in such haute-couture,the main characters could face no competition in covering the covers of the Vogue magazine. SLB has also become famous for adorning his beautiful heroines in suchunmatched costly costumes that their images go viral on social media.
SLB’s love for the beautiful actors, wardrobe and sets is reflected in resorting to cinematically capturing their images profusely in pan and tracking shots. Already languid and lazy movement of actors are further pronounced through several slow motion shots that can make one tremendously weary visually, unless one is infatuatingly besotted with the visages of actors or images of such art andobjects. Such cinematic and cinematographic creativity is like shooting photo stills that are beingshown in succession on screen(film craft is that anyway).It is like the director wanted to imprint these images for eternity on spectator’s mind and in this SLB succeeds most times if not always.
One can’t fault for finding a saree, chunri, or a costume wrongly draped as all folds are rightly folded invariably over body curves and contours. Though Sooraj Barjatya is associated with making films as family marriage videos that capture elaborate rituals of big fat Indian weddings of India’srich and famous. SLB also faces similar association as his films also contain similar motifs. His films find immediate appeal with the rich who finally see a film capturing their life, living, lifestyle, costumes, cultureetc. Sooraj and SLB’s films don’t depict, even distantly, the dark secrets that Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding brought out of the Indian closet.
SLB’s films also find equal acceptance with growing aspirational middle class who can’t indulge insuch conspicuous consumption themselves but find vicarious pleasures in at leastviewing such visual treat of colours and costumes. After all they can’t afford a piece of haute couture creation of Rohit Bal or Raghvendra Rathore and also can’t gate crash to Lakme Fashion Week in super deluxe hotels. One is sure that many of the dresses of Deepika, Hydari, Ranveer, Shahid would find viral circulation in social media for reference and imitation and would be an item of discussion in most Indian weddings and functions for some time. One finds such example ina Khan Market shop, publicizing its supply of jewellery that adorned Deepika in Baji Rao Mastani.
Watching SLB’s films are like also seeing old series like The Bold and the Beautiful .Dynasty and Dallas wherein all characters were at once beautiful, with beautifully sculpted bodies bearing beautiful clothes, leaving one wondering whether they had anything else to do in their lives except preening and dressing themselves up forever ;Oh yes, in case you missed,the left over time was used for handling complications of love, betrayal, making up and living it up when their world was going down.In fact, a full generation actually lived and found relief in their artificial world a means of escape from their real world.
And if one were to make a film about lives and loves of royalty, say of Rani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, one would immediately choose SLB for depicting art, architecture, royalty, regalia, haute couture, court scenes as well as depicting a human drama of love and living, lived and staged by beautiful people like her.
SLB is a definitely a master of art décor and decorative set designs as nearly all his films show mastery of this aspect. To this talent, has been added the creative potential of CGI and you have an imaginative master creating an illusion that appears as reality. As it is, even before CGI he was a master creator of an illusive reality. This talent was abundantly utilized in battle and architectural scenes staged in his last film Bajirao Mastani. Maybe, that success may have motivated him to go a notch bigger in Padmaavat but the landscapic shots of battle scenes, Chittor fort, its ramparts, cavalry march, palanquins’ march all look artificial, at least to an adult
The film creates a realistic feel through an intermix of shots of a real fort and ramparts and a huge set possibly of two or three interconnected structures as palace interiors of Chittor fort. The set of Chittor fort is quite elaborate but the two courtyards, water compound, Gujaratstep well style corner, where Jauhar is performed, doesn’t quite create a feeling of grandeur and vastness of scale- as done in Mughal-e- Azam. The ramparts are exceedingly exaggerated by the CGI specially when shown in a panoramic shot. The fort interiors are shot liberally by extreme wide angle lens to give a false feeling of vastness of space. Some minordetails like narrowness of walls and parapets give away the artificiality of aset, as real Rajasthan fort and its ramparts have wall thicknessmeasured in feet and not inches. The film only shows Chittor fort, completely overlooking the township inhabited by townsfolk and shots within fort hardly show space for soldiers, leave general public.
West has also made historical movies or with historical characters and some of them aroused all round criticisms about historicity. These films include Birth of a Nation (glorification of Ku Klux Klan), Last Temptation of Jesus Christ, The Passion of Christ, De Vinci Code etc. But, nowhere their premiers were prohibited or hall owners prevented from showing these films. Imagine if Red Indians and Blacks came to streets for depicting them poorly in films like Revenant or Whites protested for their portrayal in films like 12 Years as a Slave or Latin Americans protested about Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. One should thank Sri Lanka for showing maturity in not protesting against Hanuman doing Lanka Dahan each October during annual Ram-Leelas. (even MMJ’s Padmaavati is alluded to come from Sri Lanka). And just think what happens if Aryans themselves are portrayed in similar light while conquering Indian sub-continent (Nirad C. Chaudhary has stated except for natives of the South, virtually everyone is a descendent of people who migrated into India from outside).
His love for aerial shots specially shooting of circular spinning of ghagras and chunnis (both individual and group) is again evident in Ghoomar dance sequences. His languid camera shots mounted on trolleys and cranes is also typical and Guru Dutt like specially the shaft of light rays falling in dark interiors. SLB’s love for earthen lamps lit for effect, earlier seen in Devdas, is a recurrent motif in his movie making and repeated in this film too.
The film also shows lighting the wooden logs for preparation of funeral pyres and while the fire is starting, lo and behold the ladies brings buckets of burnt coals and begin throwing on advancing Allauddin.
Perhaps, too many hassles in making this movie took its toll on his music compositions. Virtually all his films have wonderful songs that last beyond box office showing. Only hummable tune is of ghoomar song but that in tune and choreography is takeaway from popular celebratory song in Rajasthan.
Unfortunately, film has resorted to raising sound decibels to deafening levels, much like a substandard commercial film doing soto make up for shortcomings in story, screenplay, dialogues and other aspects. One also sees simple act of taking steps turning into stomping with sound effects to boot (boot sounds really); and opening of closing of doors is accompanied by boosted bass sounds of bang -forget sound mixing of sounds in combat of swords and spears, falling of horses/bodies, shutting/ opening of doors, burning bombs bursting thick walls into smithereens. One saw few members of audience cupping their ears to ease bombardment of not only eardrums but bombardment of senses to obtain submissive acceptance of fare beingdished out.It seems like the sound effect of ‘dishoom dishoom’ in movies of yesteryears is being reborn into new avataar, blessed doubly with Dolby surround sound effect. One would like to see an assessment of an ENT specialist to select acceptable decibel levels in films, depicting characters from Marvel comics and StarWars.
One is not able to distinguish whether one is watching snippets of choreographed fight and action sequences in this film or in other films like Troy(sword and hand combat sequences), Lord of the Rings (forests), Alexander(battle scenes), Gladiator (including captivity in chains of Chittor king), Mummy (sand storms sequences) etc.
Ranveer and Shahid carry looks of millennials in their roles. Fullyloaded with those brocades and jewellery,Deepika is just meant to look pretty. Acting wise, both Deepika and Shahid Kapoor display hardly any range. Though Ranveer has tried to look lustful and menacing but overall his acting is unidimensional. Ranveer’s portrayal with insatiable fetish for flesh comes across as incongruous when one sees him obsessed with beauty and that too even without even getting a glimpse of Padmaavati. Seems like Alauddin didn’t have anything better to do except pursuing Epicurean delights if this film is to believed.
Ranveer is shown as dancing to Turko- Arab music as well as high intensity dance workout –latter bearing unmistakable mark of Shiamak school of dance. He gets pierced with arrows during murderous onslaught too despite the claustrophobic space where the song is picturized.
Unless deliberate Freudian allegorical interpretation is alluded, the twisting/turning/heating of sword in raging fire with chiseled body and those melt you or melt me stare,is rather out of place and context- unless aim was to only show beautiful people with sculpted bodies to boot look when hot- both inside and out.
In order to be on the right side, the film shows Rajput king done in by diabolic treachery and falls facing foe and showing‘mard ka seena’, though while being shot by love arrows in the beginning, he falls forward in the loving arms of Padmaavati. So much for showing the right images!
In final analysis, creative freedom to concoct fictional history is conceded. But in contentious social context, where passions are peaking due to circumstances unrelated to cinema,the intermixing of fact, fiction, myth, legend, folklore, hearsay needs to be done with a sense of proportion and responsibility- which is easier to state but difficult to achieve when emotion and not reason is the touchstone.
It is also true that films tend to show extremes and divisions of good and evil for dramatic effect. One school of film making contends that all creative acts must not create further divisions and schisms in society. Another school states that films reflect reality and necessarily must show that for arousing social consciousness and foster social change. Like all ideas, the truth lies somewhere in between.
As far as this film is concerned, the film went a bit too far in selective picking and mixing from history and literature and as a natural corollary created avoidable confusion. Indian audience still haven’t reached a stage where they can accept unpleasant things beyond a point. But look at positive side, SLB has gone laughing all the way to the bank. But for this controversy, the film wouldn’t have busted the box office.
I must also concede that mixing myths and history is quite commonplace in India. In 1998, while visiting Chittor fort, I too saw the reprising of Padmavati legend through reflection of a mirror placed under authorization by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Coming to think of it, in the week the Padma awards are announced by the President, only Padmaavat made news, not the awardees. And this month another similar phonetic sounding movie PAD MAN will make a splash. We see that SLB is progressively travelling on trajectory of one formula film to another whereas Akshay Kumar is travelling reverse trajectory from pure commercial cinema to meaningful cinema (remember his Toilet- Ek Prem Katha).
Summing up, Padmaavat taught us all something, one way or the other. For stimulating thought, the film needs to be given credit.
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