All that brouhaha and petty religiosity surrounding the release of the Bollywood film Padmaavat built up a huge anticipation among moviegoers around the world. So much so that when on a family medical trip to Singapore recently I could not resist the temptation to go watch the movie on the third day of its worldwide release on January 25. I had to shop around a few cinema halls online before I could get some decent seats—all shows were almost fully sold out! That is not unexpected for a movie that had more than a million viewers in India alone on the opening night.
After almost half an hour worth of trailers and advertisements when the movie started, I was outside fetching popcorn for my starving companions. Once back inside I was regaled with a picturesque hunting scene reminiscent of The Revenant but not as dramatic perhaps.
The movie has been in the media limelight for all the wrong reasons; nonetheless it is principally about a medieval Indian princess well versed in the arts and crafts of good living and political gamesmanship. Pulling in a narcissistic and psychopathic marauder from history in the character of Sultan Alauddin Khilji as a purely fictional antagonist was a stroke of masterly storytelling that kept the audience on the edges of their seats throughout.
While Deepika Padukone is sublime in her exquisite performance in the role of Princess of Singhal and later as Queen of Chittor, Ranveer Singh's portrayal of the villainous conqueror smacked of over-active trivialisations that probably do not do justice to the historical setting of the storyline. In the shadow of the protagonist of the plot, Shahid Kapoor as the royal consort, ahem, King Ratan Singh of Chittor, is as subdued as a virtual footnote to the story.
The movie is a signature achievement for director Sanjay Leela Bhansali—he has excelled in cinematography, set selections, balance between CGI animation and acting, and an overall tasteful depiction of an Indian classic of the order of Helen of Troy.
It is quite sad that Padmavat, one of the most well-known Indian classics of the medieval age by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, has only now captivated our imagination when it should have been part of our common literary reading as Padmavat was adapted into a Bengali epic by one of the earliest Bengalee literati Syed Alaol.
Padmavat's depiction of life's good and evil gave melancholy a grand expression through the heightened stature of the highest political establishment in medieval India until the advent of the Mughals—the Khilji Sultanate of Delhi. Amidst all the pomp and grandeur of the courts of the Khiljis and the Singhs, one might easily lose the plot but the epic is truly outstanding for the deification of the larger-than-life central female character in the personality of Queen Padmavati of Chittor. The exaltation of Padmavati to a god-queen came with its own edicts which are even more extraordinary given that they celebrate women's leadership and wisdom in a medieval India while we struggle to give women equal treatment in today's world whether in Asia or America.
Bhansali's Padmaavat highlights several socio-political lessons that petty fight-mongers all over should take heart to note.
The topmost message coming through this epic is that women can be intelligent, upright, forceful, visionary and brave. There is never any doubt that the protagonist of this story is the female lead portrayed impeccably by Deepika Padukone—the so-called fictional Queen Padmavati of Chittor in a 14th-century historical setting in Rajput India. The fictional context is especially poignant as historically the Khiljis ruled in the 12th century and as such the story has no bearing on history except for giving meat to the narration. Though pure fiction, it's a powerful depiction of equality of merit of men and women. In fact in Padmavati we find a woman who excels her consort and antagonists in statecraft and humanity.
The second lesson is that priests can be just as deceitful, depraved and criminally inclined by carnal desires as any other human being. In fact the world is full of such social pests from all religious varieties—be it Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews or Muslims. Just the other day the prime minister of Australia apologised for all the pedophiles lurking under the garb of Catholic Jesuits. We cannot afford to drop our guards when dealing with so-called religious gurus because we must remember that they are just as flesh and blood as everyone else and can succumb to temptations of the senses like everyone else.
The final lesson is that Indic kingdoms lacked technology and warfare strategies and that's why Indian rulers with mammoth infantries still lost battles with relatively much smaller armies from beyond the Hindu Kush mountains because these nomadic armies of Mongoloid hordes had superior military technologies and battle plans. The Mughals, once the richest monarchy in the world, and their surrogates fell cheaply to British mercenaries in the 18th century for the same reasons. Everyone loves peace and tranquility but we must not relegate the security of our lives to the goodness of others but must be ready with superior technologies and security strategies to defend ourselves from foreign adversaries no matter where they come from.
The movie Padmaavat has its proponents and detractors—one thing nobody can take away from it is its rich palette of historical fiction to drive home the universal messages of equality among men and women, debauchery among people of all strata of life and supremacy of self-preservation.
Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd.