NEW DELHI:The controversy over India’s top film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest offering — Padmavati — refuses to simmer even after its release has been deferred.
The film, a period drama, revolves around the circumstances of legendary Rajput Queen Padmini, who many historians claim never existed. Yet, the portrayal of this ideal Rajput woman — prancing around singing and dancing — as Bollywood heroines are wont to, has hurt the Rajput sentiment.
The Rajputs are a demographic minority largely living in the western Indian state of Rajasthan with declining social and political clout. In post-independent India, the state, which is a haven for international tourists, has elected only one Rajput as its chief minister.
The Rajputs, however, have excelled in preserving their fairy tale image of being valiant warriors who gave up their lives to keep the Mughals out. And their wives chose sati, a now banned tradition of choosing to being burnt alive at the husband’s pyre, than losing their honour to the new conqueror.
Most Rajput women still don their head in public and men wear moustaches, a show of their chivalry. Erstwhile royal families have converted their palaces and forts into heritage hotels, often renting them out for lavish Bollywood film sets, opening doors on the glorious India of yore for tourists. Many historians see the community as a democratic dynasty.
Bhansali’s Padmavati, based on a poem composed by medieval Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540, has made the community uncomfortable as it clashes with what many say is the uneasy gap between Rajput history and Rajput memory.
The sets of the film were first vandalised in January by the Shri Rajput Karni Sena alleging that the film has invented a romantic angle between the legendary 13th-century Queen and Alauddin Khilji, the Delhi Sultan who obsessed with her. It stepped up its protests after the teaser of the film was released asking for “heads” and threatening to torch theatres screening the film.
It also threatened to cut the film’s leading lady Deepika Padukone’s nose — as was the fate of Ravan’s sister in the epic Ramayana. Padukone, who is India’s top actress, spoke out against the attacks calling India “regressive”.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has offered no protection to the lead actors or the film-maker, a move that has been criticised.
Veteran Indian film director Shyam Benegal told The Indian Express, “Will people ask for heads publicly and offer money for the lives of those who disagree with them, and the state will do nothing to prevent it? The home department and the police should move in immediately and offer protection. That would be the thing to do. When chief ministers and members of government adopt such an approach, what else will the administration do?”
Top actor and activist Shabana Azmi stood up for the film, calling the protests “cultural annihilation”. She criticised the governments of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and the ruling BJP of Gujarat over their requests to delay the release of Padmavati.
Both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress are going quiet over the controversy.
Author Aseem Chabra, who is also a film festival organiser, is upset with the delay in the release of Padmavati. “It’s a shame that 70 years after independence India has regressed so much that the rule of law cannot prevail, that hoodlums can appear on TV and threaten to behead an artist. And politicians of all parties suck up to these hoodlums because they are an important voter bank. We should all be ashamed of what has become of our India.”
This isn’t the first time that the Rajput community has been showcased in a film. A decade ago there was hysteria over Jodha Akbar — a 16th century love story about a political marriage of convenience between Mughal Emperor Akbar and a Rajput princess, Jodhaa. Raja Bihari Mal had submitted to the Mughals in 1562 and given his daughter in marriage to Akbar.
While the film-maker was accused of twisting history, the film was saved as a member of the Jaipur Royal family went on record to say that she had gone through the script.
Rajput men (and women) have often projected themselves as the last resistance against Muslim rule, both Turks and Mughals and this image — active carriers of the bravery gene — has been bolstered in popular films and writings.
However, as several historians have pointed out this is far from true. The Rajputs endorsed marital alliances as was the practice then with Muslims. The Rajputs did not oppose the British rule either, hence there was never an Anglo-Rajput war.
The Rajputs like to live in denial — not just the erstwhile royals but also the commoners — as caste identity is important in India. It is difficult for them to see their fabled queen trashing patriarchal notions of honour.
But all is not lost. Bhansali may mint a fortune at the box-office, as and when the film hits the theatres. That’s how Bollywood controversies translate at the box office.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2017