There have been few women in Indian history and mythology whose stories are so ripe for the picking in these hyper politicised times. Rani Padmini, or Padmavati, to give her the name from Malik Muhammad Jayasi's poem of 1540 which forms the basis of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's forthcoming magnum opus, is one such.
Here is a famed beauty, married to a minor but rich Rajput king, who unwittingly becomes the object of lust for a supposedly brutal Muslim king who thinks nothing of having his own father-in-law beheaded while he is on his way to meet him. This is love jihad of epic proportions, never mind the historical evidence. Good Hindu queen, married to brave Hindu king, lusted after by Khal Drogo kind of brutal Islamic invader.
Or maybe not. Anticipating the enormous interest in the legend of Padmavati, two publishers have brought out books that celebrate Padmini's story, Juggernaut's Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen by Anuja Chandramouli and Mridula Behari's Padmini: The Spirited Queen of Chittor (translated from Hindi by Mitranand Kukreti). Both are richly imagined, enormously detailed, and end up portraying Alauddin Khalji as a clever ruler and ruthless aggressor. But neither shows him as a slave to his faith or to his passions, which in popular culture have been shown to be so ungovernable that he is ready to attack a kingdom for Padmini.
What both books show instead is Padmini as a feminist icon, a woman who knows her own mind, and is in fact as scathing of her husband's capitulation to Khilji's demand that he sees her through a mirror, as she is of the "devil Alauddin himself".
In Behari's Padmini, the rani says to herself when she is told she has to sacrifice her honour for the greater good of Chittor: "Is a woman next to nothing? Doesn't he realise that a woman carries with her an entire culture? She is the very source of ethos and progeny. She is the preserver of long-cherished morals, customs and values. The evildoers perish, but culture flows eternally."
And more - "Don't tell me about his enormous power and resources. My spirit sinks to hear that the kings and rulers of Aryavart, the land of the great Aryans, have surrendered to the authority of the sultan." Padmini is almost contemptuous of her husband's weak, ineffectual behaviour, choosing to drown his sorrows in drink rather than devising strategems to keep his kingdom and his queen safe.
And how true was that. Rajput kings, with some exceptions, chose to make peace with those who attacked them, cementing alliances by giving their women as wives. Padmini rebels against this, as do the brave soldiers Gora and Badal. As she thinks to herself: "How can subjecting a women to indignity be an act of dharma? Righteousness is the spirit of dharma, which inspires one to act nobly and set ideals worth emulating. It opens up doors to a new liberation."
Eventually, of course, her husband shows some courage, the fire in his belly stoked by Khilji's treatment of him as a prisoner, and the pride of Mewar, though doomed, is somewhat restored. But not before he diagnoses the problem with India: We are a deeply divided nation. In the face of this serious crisis, all the states of Aryavart, big or small, should have joined hands and put up a formidable front. But they haven't. Why don't they realise, or rather why are they not made to realise, that united they will be able to stand up to the invaders and divided they will fall? Nobody will survive. Our great culture, our glorious tradition, our Vedas, our scriptures, all will disappear from the face of the earth."
Rajputs are often angered by movies such as Jodha Akbar and Padmavati.
"The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, for we are underlings," as Julius Caesar said according to Shakespeare. So when Bhansali says he will be careful of Rajput maan aur maryada (honour), he means that which has been re-imagined and handed down as history.
Chandramouli's Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen is more intimate a portrait of a loving union between Padmini and Ratan Singh, and is quite detailed on life in Chittor. But again Khilji is shown as a man less demon and more determined. Here he is thinking aloud about the stories he is told of Padmini's beauty: ''It was bad enough these people worshipped so many gods and goddesses wasting their time by fighting over which religious sect was the greatest and spilling blood needlessly. Now they had started revering unworthy mortals as well.'' There is much heroic talk from the Rajputs about ejecting the "barbaric Mohammadens once and for all from Aryavart" and countering "jihad with a mahayuddha" but eventually Chittor falls to Khilji but not before its brave queen immolates herself. And who betrays Ratan Singh? Why two of his own closest people.
Which brings us back to the issue of why certain sections of Rajputs are so angered by movies such as Jodha Akbar and Padmavati. They remind them of their history, where death was not always chosen over dishonour. Where kings were not above using their women as currency in exchange for peace and prosperity. Where kings are less of soldiers but more of lovers, and the real love story is not between Khilji and Padmini, even in a dream sequence, but between Ratan Singh and Padmini, and where Khilji, an ultimately honourable king, can only berate his prisoner, a decade and many principalities later: "I supposed you must be thinking of that lovely wife of yours, who killed herself on my account. It is too bad I never got a chance to see her and assure her that my intentions were never anything less than honourable..."