Period dramas have a special place in the world of cinema. The gargantuan scale on which these movies are mounted definitely leaves a lasting impact on the audience. Not only that, exorbitant amounts are spent on creating lavish sets and opulent royal quarters. With so much at stake, these period dramas - often incorrectly called "historical" films - are considered one of the most sought-after genres of popular Hindi cinema. Be it Salim and Anarkali from K Asif's Mughal-E-Azam or Jodha and Akbar from Ashutosh Gowariker's magnum opus Jodhaa Akbar, the Indian audience has always appreciated the portrayal of historical figures on the celluloid.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's ambitious project Padmaavat is a much-awaited period drama, set to release in December. The filmmaker did not have to strategise much in terms of publicity as enough was gained from the furore during its shooting in Rajasthan. The Karni Sena made sure that the film made headlines, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Nothing could probably come in the way of a determined Bhansali who was eager to make a film on the legendary Rani Padmini of Chittor, her spouse and the then king of Chittor, Maharawal Ratan Singh, and the zealous Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji.
The social media has been abuzz right from the day the movie was announced, and over the past month-and-a-half, people have been glued to the Twitter handles of the leading cast of the movie for latest updates, particularly of Deepika Padukone, who has been very successful in enthralling her followers on Twitter with "first look" poster shots - and finally the official trailer.
The trailer looks promising in the beginning, with the gorgeous Deepika Padukone making an entry in all her glory as a queen, followed by her brave Rajput king, perfectly characterised by Shahid Kapur. The background score seems to be good, the cinematography seems to be excellent, but wait, all this magnificence and beauty goes down the drain the moment Alauddin Khilji appears on the scene.
While many have drawn parallels with of Khilji's on-screen depiction with that of Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones but the point is not whether the "look" is a rip-off or not, the point is that it is an incorrect depiction of the character. A closer look at history might have clinched the matter but Bhansali didn't probably have the time to focus on details, and that is what determines the fine line between good/average and brilliant cinema.
A study of medieval Indian history reveals that the Sultans of Delhi were highly "persianised" as far as the court culture was concerned. An example is that of Sultan Balban, who - for the first time - introduced the "Theory of Kingship" based on the Persian theory which believed that the "King is the Shadow of God on Earth".
In fact, Balban was the first to use the title of Zille Ilahi (God's shadow on Earth). He is also supposed to have introduced the sijda (prostration) and paibos (kissing the feet of the ruler) as ceremonial rituals in his court.
These Sultans of Delhi were definitely men of violent demeanour who followed an aggressive expansionist policy and were also zealots when it came to raising the banner of Islam; however, since they were deeply influenced by Persian culture, it becomes highly improbable to believe that they were barbaric. The depiction of Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat is grossly incorrect and reflects poor research on the part of the filmmaker.
The biggest give-away is the scene showing Khilji gobbling up meat like a Neanderthal. An objective analysis of historical details points to the fact that the Sultans of Delhi displayed civilised mannerisms, and were not given into barbaric practices as shown in the teaser.
Alauddin Khilji might have been a villain, he probably was because he conquered so many territories, and ruthlessly killed so many people, but he surely wasn't barbaric. Bhansali could have found better ways to make a villain look more menacing.
Yes, there is a definite problem as far as the reference point is concerned as there are no pictorial representations found in Persian sources, and there are no paintings of the Sultanate period as well but some common sense judgements would have made the character of Alauddin Khilji look more believable. For one, Bhansali could have done away with the long locks as it is not permissible in Islam for men to sport long hair, and Alauddin Khilji being a devout Muslim would not have dared to anger the ulema of his court. Second, the residence of Khilji is shown to be a dark dungeon, however, on the contrary the palace quarters of Sultans used to be aesthetically decorated sometimes even with precious and semi-precious stones.
Alauddin Khilji gone wrong.
It was Alauddin Khilji who got the third city of Delhi, Siri, built during his lifetime, and if he were such a barbarian, would he have had the sense of having an entire city constructed? Third, the woolen cape/overcoat or whatever it may look like might not have been the preferred way of beating the cold in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
The Sultans who had a higher taste in terms of clothes preferred silk and velvet robes over the Atilla the Hun kind of dress sense, since the former had all the wherewithal to purchase expensive cloth material from Indian and foreign markets, unlike the latter who was a barbaric conqueror with a limited worldview.
Period dramas in the past have been criticised for being ahistorical and factually incorrect, and some have also been shunned totally by the audiences on account of being ridiculously slow and boring, but Khilji's on-screen depiction in Padmaavat is going to take the cake as far as faulty cinematic representation is concerned.
The film will release as per schedule, it might also become a blockbuster, but what will not go down well with historians is the projection of Alauddin Khilji as a barbarian. Yes, he was a merciless conqueror, a hard-hearted and cold-blooded expansionist - even a fanatic to some extent because of the puritanical measures introduced by him - but not a barbarian. Bhansali, kindly put better researchers on the job next time!