I don’t usually write about Bollywood. Simply because I feel that there is often an excess of opinions. Because of the appeal and reach of our neighbouring film industry, everyone has something to say. And usually they’ve said it before I even press the snooze button on my alarm. But, Padmaavat. What the Padmaavat?
Mr. Bhansali’s epic was always going to be a monumental magnum opus. But, the events surrounding the film have also been the stuff of convoluted legends.
Hence, I couldn’t just sit by and let this online war wage on. As with most internet aficionados, my two cents have to be tossed into this well. And so, let’s discuss all of it. Every single debate. The history (ahem) the portrayal of Alauddin Khilji (ahem, ahem) and that scene; let’s dive into this thing.
Warning, spoilers ahead.
For the people in the back, let me just reiterate; there is no historically backed account of the existence of the titular queen. Or rather, the once titular queen, but you know who I’m talking about. The story line of the film, and the legend that inspired it are both a combination of fact and fiction.
The facts are that there was indeed a battle between Nawab Alauddin Khilji and King Rattan Sen in Chittor. The fiction is that the central reason behind this battle was a beautiful queen. Now, for a quick recap of historical facts, watch this video.
So, the film is based on an epic by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. But also, not. Some of the events have been altered for the film. Significantly, there was another ruler named Devpal who was pursuing Queen Padmaavati in the epic. And it is he who duels with Rattan Sen and kills him (and dies himself, but we don’t care about that).
But also the premise of the saga has been altered. As elaborated by Professor Ram Puniyani in the video, the crux of the epic was to do with the futility of power. See, it presented this poetic dilemma of a powerful ruler who was ultimately powerless.
The film has a different villain
The film presents a completely different message. That of a barbaric king who wants to posses a noble queen. And he kills her husband, and a lot of other people, to do so. There is also the bit about the religions of the parties concerned. And the film uses it in a way that has historians shaking their heads.
The question that this whole situation raises is about the extent to which historical facts can be muddled about with. Of course the film begins with a neat little disclaimer. But is that enough? And sure, creative talents take liberties all the time. No war epic recounts history so much as the director’s version of history. But the politics of this particular situation (oh we will get to that) make said liberties hard to swallow.
Historically, there was no queen to lust after. The battle was hence fought for political reasons. Does that justify the killing of countless people, which surely took place? Of course not. But it does mean that there wasn’t a Muslim king who waged a war because he was lusting after a Hindu queen.
But also, even if we accept the film as the visualization of a literary classic, we still have a problem. The literary classic in question may have had the same base story, but Alauddin Khilji wasn’t its antagonist. There were other characters that caused events to take a tragic turn. What’s more in the original, Khilji is even shown to be remorseful when he finds out about the death of Ratan Sen and his wife.
Long story short, there were layers. And none of them made it into the final cut.
Demonizing The ‘Other’
Okay, now let’s get into the religious debates. We have all heard about the milieu of Rajput sentiments that were hurt before the film was even released. Apparently they were concerned about the representation of their legendary queen.
Although, some have argued that the only historical figure that has indeed been cast in a negative light is Alauddin Khilji. And to these people I say, “negative light? He’s been cast into the abyss!”
In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, Alauddin is evil incarnate. He lusts after women (yes, plural) kills people willy-nilly and has well established delusions of grandeur. The character is stuff of villainous gold. He belongs to the ‘bad guy that loves being bad’ ilk. And in him, actor Ranveer Singh has found someone he can loose himself into. He exudes bravado, cunning and a wanton disregard for all that is pure in the world. The role displays his magnetism perfectly, and dare I say no one else could have played him as well.
But here’s the thing; Alauddin Khilji isn’t just a fictional character. Unlike the once titular queen, he was an actual person. And he wasn’t the unkempt, fur clad figure masquerading in cinema halls presently.
Most historians believe that as the nawab of the Delhi Sultanate, Khilji was a much more sophisticated man. His court was inspired by Persian traditions. And when his military achievements are mentioned, they are linked to warding of Mongol attacks.
So, am I saying that he was a nice guy? Uh…No.
He was a military genius, a conqueror and wanted to expand his rule. But he was also cultured, and refined in his tastes and mannerisms. Basically, he was a ruler in the 1300s. He was a complex figure, political even. The poem Padmaavat acknowledged this. And perhaps more interestingly, this has also been acknowledged by earlier productions.
As the story is a classic in Indian literary circles, there do exist other adaptations. Significantly, Shyam Benegal adapted it for an episode of his series Bharat Ek Khoj. The role of Alauddin Khilji was played by the late Om Puri, and well, make up your mind for yourself.
Compare this to the Ranveer version, and we have a bit of a problem.
To quote Bobby Naqvi writing for the Gulf News, “…the director broke a basic rule by turning a fictional character into a flesh-and-bone symbol of beauty and valor and projected a real king as a barbarian with a ravenous libido…”
The larger politics make this even worse. See, Indian Muslims are going through some issues right now. These have been added to by the ruling party. And that’s all I’m going to say. Because suddenly I’m very aware of the fact that I’m a Pakistani writing about India. But in light of this political climate, this rendition of an Indian Muslim ruler is a bit tone-deaf to say the least.
How the Film Treats its Queen (and All the Other Women)
Speaking of tone-deaf.
Now, if you have read anything about the film then you know that there is an extended Jauhar scene towards the end. Jauhar is a custom of mass, self-immolation. The way that the Padmaavat story is remembered by some is that of a queen who chose death over dishonour.
Understandably not everyone watching the film was keen to watch women walking into a burning pyre. And some have argued that the ever-dramatic Mr. Bhansali glamourizes the act to the extent of glorifying it. Notably, actor Swara Bhaskar wrote a rather crackling open letter, which has added to the never-ending saga.
I can of course see where the filmmaker was going, but that doesn’t make the sequence any less disturbing. In this video, Sucharita Tyagi explains the problems quite aptly.
I will add just two things. Firstly, I know that people will wave the ‘historical accuracy’ flag. But we’ve already established that this film doesn’t care about facts. So if you’re going to change the story, maybe omit the pride that accompanied mass immolation?
Also, while the story maybe set in the 13th century, the film’s audience isn’t. So, no it’s not fair to expect present day women to suspend their beliefs. As Bhaskar wrote in the aforementioned letter,
“Rajasthan in the 13th century with its cruel practices is merely the historical setting of the ballad you have adapted into the film Padmaavat. The context of your film is India in the 21st century…”
Padmaavat, Filmmaker Intent and Political Coercion
Of course ultimately, the film will be remembered not for what box office records it broke, but for the broken windows that preceded it. The kind of controversial promises being lapped at it from every direction were genuinely terrifying. To the point where you have to wonder what all got altered to appease the powerful.
In her review of the film Anupama Chopra discussed its obvious pandering to one group at the expense of the other. To quote her, “I have no idea how much the ugly politics surrounding Padmaavat have distorted the director’s original vision. But what we get is an unapologetic valourization of Rajputs. And an unqualified demonizing of Khilji and his entire clan…”
And this apart from a summation of the film is also the ironic final chapter of this saga. When news about the film broke a year ago, there was a political outcry. Right wing fringe groups threatened the cast on television. Security concerns were raised. People were assaulted. And the cause for all of this was that the film would allegedly hurt national sentiments. But what it does is arguably the opposite of that.
In November last year, a spokesperson for the Karni Sena, the group doing much of the threatening spoke to Aljazeera. His exact words were, “Alauddin Khilji was a looter, a tyrant, a terrorist. Our queen, Rani Padmini (Padmaavati), embraced jauhar to restore dignity and pride of the community…” This is basically the premise of the finished film.
Is there a strange kind of irony in that? Yes, yes there is.