The first time I heard of Rani Padmavati was in the back of a minivan, travelling at breakneck speed through the congested lanes of Udaipur, the city of palaces.

Our guide Vikram, with magnificent eyebrows and glittery ear studs, told the car-load of enraptured Pakistani tourists about the courageous Rajput Rani who chose “jauhar” over being captured by Alauddin Khilji, who had laid siege to the fort of Chittor which was ruled by King Ratan Singh. Khilji defeated the Maharaja, but he could not win over his wife Padmavati.

“She was too beautiful,” claimed Vikram.

Those asking for a ban on the movie may not know that it is based on mythology

“But what’s jauhar?” I asked munching on onion puris.

Vikram flashed a smile. “That’s group sati.”

“You mean jumping in the fire when your husband dies?”

“Jauhar is when all the women of that area throw themselves into the fire.”

While we were digesting this story, Vikram turned to another one extolling the valour of the Rajput princesses. There was a princess whose husband found it difficult to concentrate on important battles. The princess tried her best to send him to war but the lovelorn king refused. At her wit’s end, the Rani said she would give him a present. Going inside her room, she cleaved her head off with his sword and instructed the servant to present it to her husband. When the servant took her head on a tray to him, the grief-stricken Maharaja wore her head around his neck. It is said, whispered Vikram, that henceforth he won every battle.

“EEEwww!” screamed the women.

“I presume she gave the instructions to the servant before she chopped her head off? Unless it was a talking head?” I asked.

“Oh stop it!” My sister glared at me. “That’s so gross, Vikram. Why are you telling us this?”

“Because it’s true, madam. Our Rajput princess, so brave.”

A girl at the back piped up. “Well, that’s really dumb. Why kill yourself if your husband is a coward?”

Vikram’s eyebrows went up so I said. “Ok Vikram, I’ve lost my appetite for the puris. All I can think of are Rajput princesses launching themselves into fires or cutting off their heads. Let’s explore the city.”

A couple of years later, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who brings art to eye-popping life, announced that he was making a film on Rani Padmavati. His last film Bajirao Mastani was a big hit in Pakistan. Two ladies sitting next to me at the cinema for a show of Bajirao Mastani could not contain their excitement.

“Wasn’t the acting and cinematography fabulous?”

“Acting? Oh we are here just for Deepika’s clothes. Did you see her stunning jewellery? Haii, this is the second time we are watching it!” they clutched their pearl necklaces.

But such fans of Bhansali’s magnum opus have to wait since Padmavati has been set adrift in the murky waters of bigotry. Some hard-line groups claiming to represent Rajputs are up in arms over a romantic link between the queen and Alauddin Khilji.            

But such fans of Bhansali’s magnum opus have to wait since Padmavati has been set adrift in the murky waters of bigotry. Some hard-line groups claiming to represent Rajputs are up in arms over a romantic link between the queen and Alauddin Khilji. While Bhansali and Deepika Padukone, who plays the title role, have been crying themselves hoarse that there is not a single such objectionable scene, there are frenzied calls to earn millions by burning Deepika or beheading her.

What Vikram omitted to tell us is that Rani Padmavati may not have existed at all. The only mention of her existence comes two centuries after the siege of Chittor. The 16th century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi extols her virtues in his epic poem Padmavati and it is this poem that Bhansali’s film is based on. But since then, mythology has interfered with history and the queen has become an important mythological figure for Rajputs hankering for their past glory. Not content with the raging beast that passes for Alauddin Khilji in Padmavati, they are demanding that the film should not be screened.                  

Perhaps the most interesting snippet of this brouhaha is that no one has seen the film yet. So how can you know there is a romance between the beauteous Padmavati and poor Khilji? But since there is a direct correlation between the size of your neurons and how self-righteous and insecure you are, the film’s detractors insist there is definitely distortion of history.

The increasing tendency in India to view history through the prism of the Hindu-Muslim divide does not portend well for the future of artistic expression. And the icing on the cake is that Padmavati’s release is now clashing with the Gujarat polls.

What is more important: artistic expression or conservative vote banks?

The columnist is a freelance writer.
She tweets @MaheenUsmani
Email: maheenusmani25@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 17th, 2017