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Padmaavat not remotely offending to Rajputs, yet what’s fuelling the unrest?

Padmaavat shows that there was no substance to any of the grievances they have aired over the better part of half a year.

Published: 26th January 2018 09:13 PM  |   Last Updated: 26th January 2018 09:13 PM   |  A+A-

Karni Sena members protest against the release of film 'Padmaavat'. | PTI

Now that Padmaavat has been released, what’s it that is still fuelling protests by Rajput social groups across several states in north India? The film shows that there was no substance to any of the grievances they have aired over the better part of half a year.

It’s now clear that there was nothing to the imagined insinuation that their queen was a bit sweet on Alauddin Khilji. There’s not even a whiff in the film of any romance between Rani Padmini (played by Deepika Padukone) and Khilji (Ranveer Singh). At any rate, during the pre-production stage itself, Sanjay Leela Bhansali steered clear of any thought of it after the real-life romance of Deepika and Ranveer Singh was mistaken for one between the characters they play in the film.

Yet the Karni Sena, a Rajput outfit, has ramped up its protests since the release of the film. Talk that Rajput honour has been shown in poor light persists although countless reviewers have pointed out Padmaavat is in fact a paean to Rajput bravura. Who would even suspect that mainstream Bollywood would do anything but extol the valour of dominant social groups?

In many ways, the ongoing protests over the depiction of Rani Padmini are unique. Nothing said or done by the film’s makers has succeeded in assuaging the protesters.

For one thing, despite the long-running controversy, it is still not well-known that the fictional princess was not even Rajput to begin with, as per the literary source of the film. In his 16th century work, Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi gives Padmavati Sinhala origins and brings her to Chittor after she is coveted by Rajput ruler Raja Ratan Sen. Jayasi’s tale passed into folklore in and around Awadh and became lodged in the mind of people as a true account of the battle between Khilji and the Rajputs. To decouple his film from its association with the Padmavati legend, Bhansali changed its title to Padmaavat – after the title of Jayasi’s work -- in a rather feeble effort to emphasise that it is fiction.

That did nothing to still the protestors, whose ire shifted to Bhansali’s portrayal of Padmavati as a Bollywood dancing queen – bare midriff and all. One Rajput royal claimed proudly that their queens don’t dance, let alone expose their waist. And so the producers did a retake of the song ‘Ghoomar’ with visual effects camouflaging Deepika Padukone’s famed midriff. Yet, no deal.

The persisting protests over Padmaavat indicate that it’s something about the times we live in. Why outrage only now? The character Padmavati has been portrayed several times on the silver and small screens: by Vyjayanthimala in the 1963 Tamil film Chittoor Rani Padmini; by Anita Guha a year later in the Hindi film Maharani Padmini; Seema Kelkar in the 1988 Doordarshan TV series Bharat Ek Khoj; and Tejaswini Lonari in the Hindi TV serial titled Chittod ki Rani Padmini ka Johur as recently as in 2009 on Sony. None of them elicited even a murmur of protest.

Episode 26 of Bharat Ek Khoj, titled ‘the Delhi Sultanate and Padmavat’ – which credits Sanjay Leela Bhansali for assistance in editing – shows Alauddin Khilji’s (Om Puri) jaw dropping when he sees a reflection of Padmavati (Seema Kelkar), her midriff showing through her diaphanous dupatta. Thirty years ago, that portrayal didn’t get the blood of Rajput men boiling to the degree that their women threatened to commit jauhar. Shyam Benegal, the director of Bharat Ek Khoj, uses the Padmavati episode to illustrate Jawaharlal Nehru’s argument that invasions of India have historically been motivated by the need to conquer and plunder, not to spread faith. And as in all wars, women were pawns in the affairs of men: used as assets traded to forge alliances or abducted as the spoils of war.

The depiction of women – particularly their body and clothing – as cultural property has been a recurring motif. It occurs in Jayasi’s Padmavat as much as in the Padmaavat protests of today. The 16th century work launches into the legend of Padmavati with a traitorous courtier describing to the sultan of Delhi the bodily attributes of the princess in explicit detail like one pitching a sale. The characterisation of various parts of her body goes on for pages and pages in the 1944 English translation of Padmavat by AG Shirreff and published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. One of the less racy lines, among several describing her breasts, says, “They are like ketaki flowers which have impaled humble-bee (bumble bee) on their thorns.” The substance of Jayasi’s depiction of the legend itself can be summarised as the thrust and parry among three princes to covet and possess one woman.

Given the historic template of women as cultural property, it is perhaps no surprise that the current anger against the portrayal of Padmavati has been directed at the woman playing her. The outcry over Deepika Padukone’s midriff, the threats to her nose and ears and the bounty of Rs 1 crore for chopping them off supply us the same metaphor we see in Jayasi’s poem: the notion of women as cultural property and the transactions of men to possess it. 

In Bhansali’s time as in Jayasi’s, women continue to be treated as things to be salivated and fought over, to be covered up, to be controlled, or to be used as currency. One scene in the Bharat Ek Khoj episode encapsulates this entire metaphor: Alauddin Khilji and Raja Ratan Sen play chess as Rani Padmavati watches from the balcony. This is women as cultural property in one frame: It’s her that the men play for and therefore with.



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