Padmaavat and the whataboutery of Game of Thrones

When actress Swara Bhaskar wrote in an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali that she felt like a ‘vagina’ after watching the glorification of jauhar in Padmaavat, she triggered a troll fest.

Published: 05th February 2018 09:34 PM  |   Last Updated: 06th February 2018 01:40 PM   |  A+A-

Deepika Padukone in 'Padmaavat' | Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in 'GoT'

Express News Service

CHENNAI: When actress Swara Bhasker wrote in an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali that she felt like a ‘vagina’ after watching the glorification of jauhar in Padmaavat, she triggered a troll fest. Most of the trolls resorted to whataboutery: Didn’t you feel like a vagina when Game of Thrones (GoT) glorified marital rape and incest?

In one comment on a Facebook post that shared Swara Bhaskar’s letter, one user argued, “Two of the leading characters (in Game of Thrones) practice incest. The protagonist Daenyrs (sic, Targaryen) went through marital rape that culminated in romance. She even named her main dragon (the progeny of the marriage) after him. It’s part of a movie. Nobody accepts this in reality in 2018.”

But really, is marital rape and incest glorified in GoT? We’ll come to that later but first, there is another question to be answered: Does Padmaavat glorify jauhar in the first place? Consider the following three scenes.

Scene 1: A battle between Rajput king Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khilji is imminent. Rani Padmini asks her husband, “Do I have your permission to commit jauhar if you die on the battlefield?” Ratan Singh looks at her endearingly and remains silent. Which allows a teary-eyed Padmini to deliver a telling tribute to patriarchy couched in the pativrata spiel: “Aapke ijazat ke bina to hum mar bhi nahin sakte.”

Scene 2: Rani Padmavati, dressed like a new bride in a red saree and adorned with an assortment of jewellery, leads hundreds of similarly-dressed women (plus a pregnant woman and her child) into the flames of jauhar. As the background score rises to a crescendo, the queen jumps into the flames with a smile on her lips. 

Scene 3: As the movie concludes and the screen goes dark, a woman’s voice-over says, “Rani Padmavati ka jauhar Allaudin ki sabse bari haar thi aur Chittor ki sabse bari jeet. Aaj itni sadiyo baad bhi, Rani Padmvati ki jauhar ki goonj Bharat ke har kone mein sunai deti hai aur Rani Padmavati ko aaj bhi log us devi ki tarah pujte hai jo burai ka sarhar karti hai.” 

Everything in the atmospherics of these scenes leaves us in no doubt as to the film-maker’s attitude to jauhar. The smile on a doomed character’s face is a classic film-maker’s device to impart dignity, and thereby heroism, to his or her death. The voiceover -- “aj itni sadiyo baad bhi, Rani Padmavati ki jauhar ki goonj Bharat ke har kone mein sunai deti hai” – nails Bhansali’s prefatory claim that this story is a myth not history, and makes the director appear disingenuous.

This in sum was Swara Bhaskar’s submission: The portrayal of jauhar in Padmaavat provides non-verbal cues to the audience to think of self-extinguishment as the natural choice of women beyond the protection of their men and denies her any agency beyond the circle drawn by patriarchy.

Bhaskar in her open letter to Bhansali makes the fallout of the glorification clear. She wrote, “I felt very uncomfortable watching your climax, watching that pregnant woman and little girl walk into the fire. I felt my existence was illegitimate because (if) God forbid anything untoward happened to me, I would do everything in my power to sneak out of that fiery pit – even if that meant being enslaved to a monster like Khilji forever. I felt in that moment that it was wrong of me to choose life over death. It was wrong to have the desire to live.”       

So in that light, what about Game of Thrones? 

For those not aware, Game of Thrones (2011) is HBO’s fantasy drama adapted from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It is set in an imaginary world where seven families vie for supremacy. The series has a raft of explicit sex scenes, incest, marital rape and much-stylized violence. But does GoT really glorify them? 

Marital rape: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is traded off to warlord Khal Drogo in return for the latter’s military support. On their first night together, Drogo rapes Daenerys. Having no way to flee, Daenerys stays to win Drogo’s affections. After Drogo dies, she takes charge of his tribe and achieves a series of military conquests. Nothing in the depiction of the wedding night rape suggests anything but utter brutality. In subsequent episodes, Daenerys’s acceptance of her fate is not shown to us as a resignation but as survival.

Incest: Cersei and Jaime Lannister, sister and brother, love each other and beget three progeny under the guise of her marriage to the king. Not only is the union treated as a moral failing but also as a patently political one. Their relationship is set in a world that does not treat incest as normative. Cersei is paraded naked on the streets of the city as punishment after her truth is discovered. 

The other case of incest in the series, for example, the inbreeding among the Targaryens, is one born out of the belief that marrying inside the bloodline clean. But the Targaryen offspring have a backstory of mental illness due to inbreeding; so much so, there is a saying that goes “Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin to decide whether they’re insane or not.”

Critics of Swara Bhaskar say Padmaavat should be treated as a work of fiction. True, Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat may have been a 16th-century work based on the life that seemingly was lived in the early 14th century. But then, there continue to be many today who consider the legend as an integral part of Hindu history and continue to show the work as proof that morals of those times are valid today. 

Further, Bhansali’s pretext that he stayed true to the text is specious. If his depiction of Padmavati stuck to Jayasi’s script, how come he departed from it when it came to the portrayal of Allaudin Khilji as a raving, psychopathic barbarian with a ravenous appetite for meat of all kinds?


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