History, propaganda or just a movie?
For some time now, I have been resisting the urge to add my voice to the Padmaavat controversy. The hesitation stems from the fact that I tend to avoid topics that create divisiveness or hurt the sentiments of any group or sect. But after having watched the movie recently, I have concluded that it would be unfair to my readers if I remain silent. A reaction is warranted since Padmaavat has used a powerful art form to distort an entire segment of India's history and violate the modern woman's sensitivities.
The film is based on the16th-century fictional poem "Padmavat", written by Sufi Malik Muhammad Jayasi, 200 years after Sultan Alauddin Khilji's death. But director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's depiction of events and characters in the movie is clearly that of a historical nature. The scriptwriter weaves the fiction to create a myth that Khilji's conquest of Chittor in 1303 was solely driven by his lustful desire for its Rani, Padmini. As a matter of fact, in the entire movie Sultan Khilji has been demonised and his rule depicted as malevolent.
I am not a historian, but my Internet research on Alauddin Khilji reveals facts that are quite different from the movie. Padmaavat totally ignores Khilji's many noteworthy contributions, for example, his agrarian reforms that reduced the burden of landlords on the weak cultivator. He was also known to be a strategic military general and successfully thwarted the attack of the Mongols, thus protecting the Delhi Sultanate from foreign invasion. A patron of architecture and arts, Khilji constructed a fairly large number of schools, inns, and mosques. It's worth mentioning that Amir Khasru, the famous poet, was one of the many literary figures who enjoyed his patronage.
Paintings of his time show Khilji to be a finely attired person. According to historian Rana Safvi, the Sultan followed the "exact code of conduct and etiquette as in Persia. It would have been very formal—the eating, dining and sartorial choices." In contrast, Padmaavat portrays him wearing rugged furs, gnawing raw meat off bones, laughing like a hyena and dancing with his slaves in ridiculous gymnastic postures defying gravity. Besides, the film is interspersed with suggestive sensual scenes, hinting at Khilji's bisexuality—the distasteful undertones obviously designed to smear his character, not just to highlight his sexual orientation.
Despite Bhansali and his team's attempts to paint Alauddin Khilji as a foreign barbarian, the truth is, he was an Indian monarch. Whether he was a Muslim or Hindu is immaterial, especially in the context that he was firmly rooted in India. He lived and died in the Indian sub-continent and had no other home. By dehumanising Khilji, Bhansali has in a way, denigrated the Delhi Sultanate, the country's nexus of power in the 13th century. As I sat through the movie, I wondered: What precise message is the film trying to convey to the new generation of Indians and the world? That India was ruled by a degenerate, half-mad savage for 20 years? By vilifying Khilji and deprecating his contributions to India, has the film not denigrated a segment of the nation's rich past?
The other issue I have with Padmaavat runs even deeper. The movie militates against my sensitivity as a South Asian woman. It glorifies Jauhar or the act of collective self-immolation by women who preferred death to capture or rape—a practice Rajput women followed in the ancient and medieval times after their men were killed or defeated in war. Although Jauhar is now legally forbidden, it represents the most gruesome form of female sacrifice in a patriarchal society. The film chooses to romanticise this act of regression and misogyny. Padmini and an entourage of women are shown dressed as brides walking with great pride on their last journey—to leap into a raging fire. Even if we accept this as sentimental fiction, one wonders why Bhansali would highlight an oppressive social custom that has been banned after years of consolidated effort by both men and women!
Today, numerous women are coming out with their personal stories of sexual abuse through the #MeToo movement in an effort to rightly transfer their shame and guilt to their predators. It is quite appalling that Bhansali's film reaffirms the medieval belief that an honourable woman should self-destruct rather than suffer the shame of rape or sexual assault! What lesson is the Indian youth expected to learn from Padmaavat? That a woman has no existence or identity independent of a man and that raped women have no place in society!
You may shrug off my concerns, saying: "It's just a movie. Let it go." But the truth is that Bollywood films are watched by millions of impressionable people both in India and abroad. Their popularity, and in this case the hype, creates a moral obligation on filmmakers to act responsibly. Why embark on a project that might ignite latent feelings of hate, divisiveness and "otherness"? Today, when our world is threatened by extremism and misogyny, cinema can be an effective instrument for promoting social cohesion and sexual equality. It is indeed unfortunate that Padmaavat has used this powerful platform to amplify communal discord and gender disparity!
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.