Rough Cut

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat is actually about 'good Hindus' and 'bad Muslims'

It's a narrative the Sangh Parivar and any of its adherents, including Karni Sena, would be proud of.

 |  Rough Cut  |  5-minute read |   23-01-2018
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If the right wing had crafted the story of Padmaavat, they could not have done a better job than Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Alauddin Khilji is an unrelieved monster, frequently referred to as Yamraj and Ravana. The Rajputs are not shown as collaborators of the conquerors, which they were, probably with the exception of Maharana Pratap, but as brave men always defeated not by finer military prowess but by deception and default. And Rani Padmavati is not shown as a weak-willed woman who committed jauhar because she had no choice, but as a hunter initially and later as a warrior queen who plans military strategies and stages attacks.

She is no less than Shiva, who willingly drank poison for his people, when she decides to show her face as a reflection to Khilji; as fine as Savitri who battled with Yamraj for her husband Satyavan's soul, and as powerful as Kali who defeated the asuras.

You get the picture. It's a narrative the Sangh Parivar and any of its adherents (formal and informal) would be proud of. The "bad Muslim" (who is a foreigner to boot from the ravaged land of Afghanistan though Khiljis were of Turkish descent) and the "good Hindu".

In case this may have escaped our attention, Bhansali who doesn't believe in any subtlety, dresses Khilji and his armies in all black, and Ratan Singh and his men in all white. Khilji, who was well known for several administrative reforms, is depicted as a blackguard who has no redeeming features.

Clearly inspired by Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, he eats like a pig, makes love like an animal, and fights like a man without honour. His love for Padmavati should be inspiring? No not even that. He desires her not for her beauty alone, but because the evil rajpurohit from Chittor who has crossed over to the dark side, has promised him that she is the key to his further conquests (woh kunji hain aapke bhagya ki).

With not even the love of a good woman to make him human in our eyes, he remains nothing more than a barbarian, left often to enjoy the company his slave general Malik Kafur, here portrayed a mincing, fawning, lisping home-erotic creature forever pining for his emperor. 

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Fine work so far, you would imagine?

But as far as the reimagining of popular history and folklore is concerned, it gets even better. There is only a fleeting mention of the reality that Rajput kings refused to unite against Khilji's threat. So Ratan Singh is left to fight alone, with rani Padmavati as his counsel, in the "drahamyudh" between "satya" and "asatya".

Even in the final one-on-one combat, it is not pure martial skill that counts. Yet, Chittor's defeat is seen as Khilji's biggest defeat as well, because Padmavati ka shareer raakh ho jayega (Padmavati's body will be nothing more than ashes), but will not be sullied by the touch of Khilji. But that is only after Ratan Singh repeatedly offers Khilji the opportunity to fight with valour - Rajput ghayal aur laachar par vaar nahin karte (Rajputs don't attack the weak and injured).

It is no surprise that Chittor loses to Khilji though. While Khilji prepares for battle, raising the morale of his soldiers with inspiring speeches, Ratan Singh is busy keeping up the enthusiasm of his fort by celebrating every Hindu festival possible. Even as Khilji waits in the desert like a ghost for six months, Chittor celebrates Holi and Diwali like all good Hindus should while waiting to be attacked by the Sultan of Delhi.

It doesn't help that Ratan Singh's wimpish goodness is portrayed by a spectacularly wooden Shahid Kapoor and Khilji's beastliness is enacted by a high-energy, high-octane Ranveer Singh, who seems the epitome of villainy.

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Unfortunately for the right wing, Khilji, even when butchering his uncle, strangling his nephew and displaying assorted severed heads on spears, seems the only one who seems to be taking his work seriously.

Deepika Padukone looks ethereal in what is eventually a feminist epic (including a recreation of the Mirch Masala throwing of red chillies with burning embers), but has practically no chemistry with Shahid Kapoor, supposedly the great love of her life. 

The film works only at one level - a reimagining of an old folk tale for the #MeToo era.

If there is one message of Padmaavat, it is this. Hindu sisters rock. There is Badal's mother who has no tears for her son who fought valiantly because that's what Rajput mothers give birth to strong sons for.

There is Mehrunissa, Khilji's wife, who helps Padmavati escape only to be banished for her pains.

There is Nagmati who is understandably anguished at being brushed aside for a younger, prettier version, but thinks nothing of walking side by side to "jauhar". And there is Padmavati herself, wearing her courage like a badge of honour, and uttering many fiery dialogues - Rajputi kangan main utni hi shakti hain jitni Rajputi talwar main (the Rajput woman's bangle has as much power as the Rajput man's sword) and talwar shatrani ka sabse bada gehna hota hain (a sword is a queen's greatest jewel). 

At one point in the film, Khilji is shown feeding several parchments to the flames. When asked he says he is burning the history that doesn't bear his name. Yes, history is written by victors, but its inheritors cannot change it merely because it doesn't suit their world view.

India was invaded, colonised, and unfortunately subjugated, but painting every emperor as an ogre will not change it. And preventing any movie which decides to dabble in history or a fictionalised version of it will not heal the mythical Hindu wound. 

Also read: Padmaavat release: Former CBFC member talks about SC staying ban on screening

Writer

Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Consulting editor, India Today Group

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