Why I feel being Padmavati brings no glory in any century

Let us not forget the grim violence that went into the movie's making.

 |  6-minute read |   09-10-2017
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With the film Padmavati slated to release in December, I wonder if Sanjay Leela Bhansali is cursing the day he chose to bring the legend of Rajput queen Padmini to life. In the hoopla surrounding the actors' looks - being revealed each day - let us not forget the the movie was attacked when it was being made. It began in Jaipur, Rajasthan and was followed up to Kolhapur, Maharashtra. The sets of the period drama were vandalised. The crew was manhandled - not to mention the extensive financial and creative damage incurred by the film fraternity as a whole.

The irony was all the more pronounced because a casteist outfit was vying to protect the projection of a woman who, in her life, didn't need any protection whatsoever. A queen, whose strength and bravery, it is said, was as enamouring as her timeless beauty.

The story of how Allaudin Khilji was immensely attracted to the lovely wife of Rana Ratan Singh has been told multiple times. From folklore, the tale has travelled well to become a legend. That the story inspires such passion among Indians in general, and Rajputs in particular, is understandable.

What is incomprehensible, however, is the approach to the issue. Rajput Karni Sena was so uncomfortable with Bhansali's narrative, the filmmaker was made to toe the line and succumb to the group's aggression.

pd_100917045120.jpgDeepika Padukone as Rani Padmini.

As if the censor board, which seemed to have become a second-rate filmmaker's personal fiefdom) was not enough, Bhansali was bullied into adding another layer of scrutiny. The attackers asserted their right to go through the script, witness the shooting and thus determine whether the film was "appropriate", "historically correct" and "non-provocative".

For the lack of punitive action against the miscreants, this compromise (later dubbed as consensus) was deemed apt.

Only that by now, this episode had injected innumerable toxins into the very fabric of India. Toxins, which have gradually begun to manifest in the form of group hatred, deliberate discrimination, and sponsored acrimony. At this juncture, it becomes critical to analyse this incident threadbare and bring out the undercurrents which have steadily pushed our society towards the edge.

To begin with, while the legend of Queen Padmini (referred to as Padmavati in various texts) is well established, its factual accuracy is not. The first time her tale unfolds, is in Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic Padmavat, written in 1540 AD.

She is portrayed as a Sinhala princess (think Jacqueline Fernandez) who was married to the King of Chittorgarh. By Jayasi's own admission, his poem was "a work of fiction".

Even if this is overlooked, we come across numerous other sources, preceding Padmavat, which detail Allaudin Khilji's Chittor triumph without as much as mentioning the famous queen in passing.

It is true that history does not glorify the vanquished, but neither does it obliterate them altogether. If she really did exist, why would historians be silent about it? If she did not, why should we be so fanatical about it?

It isn't too difficult to see that a specific pattern of caste assertion is at play here. Rajputs occupy the second place in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Largely known for their fighting abilities, the clan has origins in the warrior tribes of yore. That they were fond of extravagance and luxury is clearly visible in the monuments, artefacts, sculptures and palaces they have left behind.

Unfortunately, either owing to internal dissensions or due to self-belief bordering on arrogance, Rajputs were defeated quite often. Be it Prithviraj Chauhan's loss to Mohammad Ghori or Rana Sanga's downfall at the hands of Babur, history has not been very kind to them. From their battles with the Turks and the Mughals to those with the Marathas and the British, Rajput history is riddled with lost causes. They've won battles, but performed miserably in wars. This, I feel, has led to the birth of legends, in whose extraordinary courage and gallantry, lies the salvation of a wounded pride.

Anyone who lays a finger on the singular narrative they propound would most certainly be assaulted. In a world where surnames hold more value than actions, such instances would continue to surface.

An extension of the same argument has also started to spread its tentacles across the country. What is considered to be a caste lens on a micro level can as easily become a nationalistic prism on a macro level.

The right wing, after a long sojourn in ideological dark woods, suddenly finds itself in command. It realises that the only way to harmonise its flawed philosophy with modern developmental goals, is by placing itself firmly on one end of the political spectrum. What better way to do this than by exploiting religion?

Demonise the minority, create a wedge between Hindus and Muslims based on history, brew a potion of divisiveness and, in the process, legitimise the need for using violence as a weapon for extracting immediate vengeance.

These ideations - when coupled with an atmosphere where dissent is shouted down, liberty is frowned upon and mockery is made a tool to further derision - end up empowering the so called "fringe" groups, granting them the licence to run amok and silence people with their newly acquired hostility.

Lastly, the notions thus propagated, also gel wonderfully well with the broad structure of patriarchy. Padmini was valiant not because Jayasi calls her a master of all arts, including sword craft. Padmini was valiant because she decided to kill herself instead of being "defiled".

Clearly, a woman's honour resides in her genitalia. The only thing she can be famous for is her beauty. For everything else, there has always been a coterie of men, vowing their lives to "guard" her. It's strange how most of our stories revolve around themes where dignity is linked to how our women behave. Paternalism, anyone?

Bhansali might still have ended up creating a beautiful piece of art. The Padmini he depicts may be a demure maiden. His portrayal of Khilji may not even dare to dream about his object of fantasy. The poised queen may gracefully embrace Jauhar. Yet, what his work would represent is not a story of the times gone by. What it would really show is a modern-day tale of suppression, repression and oppression. After all, everything is fair for war and honour.

Oh, the travails of being Padmini!

Also read: Assault on Sanjay Leela Bhansali shows India is more scared of its fictions than history

Writer

Akil Bakhshi Akil Bakhshi @akil_bakhshi

An idea, wavering on the precipice of imagined obscurity and obvious glory.

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