Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali would have hardly imagined that his film ‘Padmavati’ will generate controversy of such a magnitude that state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat would be inclined to ban the film even before knowing the content. In all likelihood, he would have expected a limited resistance from caste outfits like Karni Sena. But it turned out to be a nationwide campaign by the right wing. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh even saw in it an opportunity to lure Rajputs, a dominant community in his state, and announced that the story of Padmavati would be taught in schools. The state is going to polls next year.
Padmavati controversy is a typical case of political opportunism. It can be seen in the fact that states which are not even remotely connected with the story have jumped into it. On the other side, it has also exposed our vulnerability to such ideas which are in conflict with the idea of India.
The film is based on an epic poem of Avadhi (a dialect of Hindi spoken in Avadh area of Uttar Pradesh) by famous Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Jayasi wrote the Padmavat in conformity with the best tradition of Sufi poetry which requires a central character of exotic nature. Jayasi chose a folklore associated with a queen of Chittor. He used the metaphor to depict the eternal love with the almighty. Jayasi, one of the best poets of Bhakti era, did it with all proficiency.
According to historian Harbans Mukhia, the poem has only two historical facts in it — that the Delhi ruler had made an expedition to Chittor in 1303 and Mewar king Rana Ratan Singh was defeated at his hands. Famous poet Amir Khusro, who accompanied Allauddin, documented the battle in detail. However, Khusro does not mention any Padmini, nor does he mention any Jauhar (self-immolation). Khusro had accompanied the Sultan in an earlier campaign against another Rajput principality of Ranthambhore and documented a Jauharthere. Moreover, Jayasi wrote his poem in 1540, more than two centuries after the conquest.
Historians do not deny the possibility of a Jauhar at the time, because its practice by queens of defeated kings was not so infrequent in Rajputana. Ramya Sreenivasan, in her book The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Lives in India, c. 1500-1900, has traced the travel of the Padmini story across north India including Bengal from 1540 onward. The story of pride of the Rajput woman took many forms including that of becoming a defender of women pride under colonial subjugation.
The turning of this story into a story of a Hindu woman defending her honour from a Muslim tyrant is somewhat recent and supposed to have emerged from colonial historiography which has been painstakingly attempting at creating a Hindu versus Muslim scenario out of all the episodes of medieval India. James Todd, who wrote Annals of Rajasthan, was the first historian to elevate Padmini to a historical figure from a heroine of an Avadhi classic. He describes the story of her Jauhar as an attempt to save her honour from a Muslim invader.
The recent controversy has elevated Padmini further. The Rajputs are demanding her temple at Chittor fort. The saffron brigade is all busy with the idea of making her a woman icon of Hindutva because her story has all the elements of patriarchy. It also fits into the narrative of a Hindu woman confronting a Muslim tyrant. Eminent historian Romila Thapar has rightly pointed out that the right in India has always been endorsing communalization of history done by colonial historians.
Though initial protests were led by Karni Sena of Rajasthan, the protests are now being led by BJP leaders across the country. While the Sena had issued threats of “cutting the nose of Deepika Padukone”, chief media coordinator of Haryana BJP Surajpal Amu went to the extent of announcing a Rs 10 crore award for beheading Deepika and Bhansali.
It is not difficult to understand how the controversy took a nasty turn. Political observers feel that the BJP expects communal polarization in Gujarat polls from it. But they hope the controversy will die down after elections. But it would be naive to think that the story is being used for immediate gains only. The narrative which has now been built around Padmavati goes beyond that. It serves the purpose of a larger Hindutva narrative which depict Muslims as invaders. The narrative also strengthens the accusation that Muslims are violators of Hindu honour. It is clear that this flawed narrative will damage the actual historiography. Some historians including Harbans Mukhia have cautioned against it, saying that evaluation of Alauddin Khilji on the basis of a mythical story would distort our perception of medieval history as a whole. Alauddin was one of the ablest generals of medieval period. It goes to his credit that he was the first Sultan who invaded south India and expanded the rule of his sultanate over large part of India. His most important achievement is that he prevented Mongols from entering India. His failure in it would have changed the course of Indian history, historians argue. He also made considerable reforms in administration.
The narrative of Padmavati also goes against modernity in more than one ways. It is really disappointing to see Rajputana women declaring her as their ideal. Women intellectuals across the country are disturbed over the development as they see it as an endorsement of subjugation of women. What will happen to the women of the region who are already suffering worst kind of discrimination? Some districts of Rajputana have very poor gender ratio – 850 women per 1000 men.
Other happenings around the controversy are not less worrying. Open threats were issued and no government action was seen. Even death threats did not attract any police action. The fringe elements were encouraged to the extent that they demanded a preview of the film by them before it is screened in cinema halls. This clearly indicates an institutional collapse. Film certification is solely done by Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), popularly known as the Censor Board. This is a statutory body for the purpose. How can a fringe mob take over the job?
The Censor Board headed by Prasun Joshi also failed to act independently and discovered faults with the filmmaker. It rejected the application on the technical ground that the filmmaker has not clarified whether the film is based on historical fact or fiction. The filmmaker had to postpone the release of the film.
The initial objection to a dream sequence purportedly involving Alauddin Khilji and Padmavati has now turned into an objection to overall portrayal of Padmavati in the film. The larger question involved here is the creative right of a filmmaker. Is it democratic to restrict the filmmaker from portraying a character in his own way? What will happen to the artistic creativity if people get offended on such issues? How can freedom of expression be ensured in the event of threats and intimidation? It is really difficult to imagine that a mythical character becomes a deity overnight and no one can question the authenticity of such an act. Myth is blurring the reality.