Politics of Bhansali's Padmaavat:
Negotiations of Patriarchy with the Hindu Queen
Gunindu Abeysekera - May 21, 2018
Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest Bollywood film, Padmaavat, has sparked protests in India, evoking discourse on the politicization of women and relating them to notions of honor and nationhood. Though the film reaches the high cinematic quality of Bhansali’s epic films, the attention focuses on the content and implications of the narrative. Padmaavat, initially titled Padmavati, is an adaptation of the 16th century poem written by Sufi poet, Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The story follows the fictional 13th century Sri Lankan princess who became a Rajput queen, Rani Padmavati. King Ratan Singh of the Indian Hindu Rajput kingdom visits Sri Lanka to acquire pearls for his current wife but becomes enamored by Padmavati’s beauty and knowledge. Soon after, the two fall in love and Padmavati returns to Rajputana with him as his second wife and Queen. Meanwhile, further north, Sultan Alauddin Khilji of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate is committed to becoming Emperor of all of India. During this exposition, Ratan Singh banishes a Hindu priest away from his land for eyeing Padmavati; to get revenge, he travels to Sultan Khilji and informs him that he can only succeed in his endeavour if he has Padmavati by his side. This catalyzes the film’s plot and Ratan Singh’s kingdom soon falls under siege by Sultan Khilji and his forces. Before Ratan Singh goes off to face Sultan Khilji, Padmavati promises her husband that if he perishes in battle, she and the other women of the palace will commit Jauhar, or mass suicide by self-immolation, to protect their Rajputi honor. Ultimately, Ratan Singh is killed in battle, so the women proceed with the Jauhar ceremony while Khilji storms the fort in search of Padmavati - only, he reaches their gates when the women have already crossed into the fire.
The sides of the Padmavat debate fall into a spectrum. The first instance of backlash for the film started in December 2016 when representatives of the Hindu fundamentalist caste organization, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, urged Bhansali not to create a film based off “their” queen. They argued that the director “has not studied the history, and could damage the image of Rani Padmavati.” Bhansali and the crew continued production because they believed it was their right to creative freedom, since their film already adapts another piece of fiction in the first place. The next month; however, Bhansali was assaulted on set by members of the same extremist group because rumors had spread suggesting his film included a sex scene between Rani Padmavati and Sultan Khilji. Karni Sena State President, Mahipal Makrana, used the rumor to justify the violence, saying, “This is an outrageous distortion of Rajasthan's history as Rani-ji immolated herself along with the other women of the fort when they heard that Khilji was marching ahead…” This statement reveals that these Hindu fundamentalist members were so personally offended by the idea of a Muslim ruler having sex with their queen from over 700 years-ago, who may not have even actually existed, because they associate her submission to patriarchal values with Hindu Rajput pride. The aggressions continued in March 2017 when arsonists from the same Karni Sena group set fire to the film’s set. This ironic incident caused Bhansali to formally clarify that the rumored sex scene does not even actually exist, leading many folx in the film industry to show solidarity with the Padmaavat team by advocating for freedom of expression. As the filmmakers proceeded to release the official poster, trailer, and teaser of the film’s song “Ghoomar” in the Fall of 2017, more violence erupted as a regional Indian politician of the ruling fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party put out a bounty of $1.5 million for beheading the main actress, Deepika Padukone, and Director Bhansali. As a result, the Indian Supreme Court prohibited the film from premiering on its initial intended release of December 1st until it underwent another review by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification. They proposed to Bhansali’s team that they make five changes, including adding CGI fabric to cover Padukone’s waist during the “Ghoomar” dance sequence and changing the film’s title to Padmaavat.
Though the film premiered more than a month past its intended date of exhibition, its ultimate release was celebrated as a triumph of freedom of expression. However, once audiences actually watched the film, another problem arose: is Bhansali glorifying Jauhar? Actress Swara Bhasker, who has acted in one of Bhansali’s earlier films and was supportive of Padmavati during the initial protests, came out with a long open letter, asking him to answer for the impacts he’s made on Indian women with his implied romanization of Jauhar. She states, “Women have the right to live, despite being raped sir... despite the death of their husbands, male ‘protectors’, ‘owners’, or ‘controllers of their sexuality’...” She adds, “Practices like Sati, Jauhar, female genital mutilation, honour killings should not be glorified because they don’t merely deny women equality, they deny women personhood. They deny women the right to life...” Here, she explicitly notes and exposes the reason for Jauhar as not just the fear of the court women being raped, but the fear that a raped woman will bring dishonor to her people. Ayushman Jamwal, a cisgender man, criticizes Bhasker and her letter by stating, “One thing that angers me more than banal feminism is uninformed feminism, and actor Swara Bhasker has championed both of them with flying colours. Her open letter claiming to be ‘reduced to a vagina’ after watching Padmaavat is laughable considering the Rani Padmavati I saw...was a strong, clever and determined woman who embodied the fabled Rajput code of ‘Death before Dishonour’.” Jamwal’s “mansplanation,” suggests Bhasker presumes women of today live in the same world as Padmavati. He adds, “In Rani Padmavati's day, women were claimed as sex slaves by marauders and conquering armies, and the Rajput queen courageously fought back. Just like soldiers and revolutionaries sacrifice their lives in the name of an ideal, Rani Padmavati made the choice to die to uphold the Rajput way...protecting her virtues.” However, in her letter, Bhasker argues otherwise, stating that there is no difference between these time periods, as Rajasthan in the 13th century is only the film’s historical setting. Bringing up the notorious 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, Bhasker states, “The context of [Bhansali’s] film is India in the 21st century…[Pandey] didn’t commit suicide because her honour had been desecrated, Sir. She fought her six rapists [until they killed her].” Moreover, Bhasker suggests that, counterproductively, acts like Jauhar and rape are two sides of the same mindset. She adds “A rapist attempts to violate and attack a woman in her genital area...in an effort to control the woman, dominate her or annihilate her. A Sati-Jauhar apologist or supporter attempts to annihilate the woman altogether...if her genitals are no longer in the control of a ‘rightful’ male owner. In both cases the attempt and idea is to reduce women to a sum total of their genitals.” This perspective of Jauhar is even symbolically explicit in the film’s climactic scene before the women prepare for self-immolation. Rani Padmavati stands at the Hindu temple where she worships the phallic Shiva Lingam, literally requesting blessings from the object of cis-male genitalia before she submits her body to her misogynistic death.
Sohini Chakravorty also contextualizes more recent acts of Sati/Jauhar by bringing up 18-year-old Roop Kanwar, who committed Sati in front of her Rajput village in 1987. Chakravorty discusses how this event, where villagers and their representatives argued that Kanwar’s “choice” of Sati was some divine decision by god, complicated the levels of accountability involved in self-immolation ceremonies. She contests these levels of agency involved and argues that regardless, this situation led to the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act in 1987, emphasizing that the Indian government acknowledges how any glorification of Sati/Jauhar should be prevented and/or punished. The point of this argument is that the Jauhar scene is not particularly the problem, but rather, the statements made in defense of it are. Padmavati’s actress, Deepika Padukone, has even stated, “We are not endorsing Jauhar. You must see the scene/practice in context to the period in which it was shown. And when you do that, you will realize, it’s so powerful. You do not feel like she is doing anything wrong. You want her to embrace the flames because she is going to be united with the man she loves.” Chakravorty reveals that these statements exacerbate Sati-Jauhar preventions and regress further initiatives that strive to disassociate the policing of women with national pride.
In regards to the international nature of this story, with Padmavati from Sri Lanka, Sultan Khilji from Afghanistan, the Mongols from their empire, and the Rajputs from India, because of the obvious bias towards the latter, the film neglects intersectionality and therefore, its feminism can be contested. The rhetoric of this argument can be found in the juxtaposing treatment of women in Sultan Khilji’s empire and that of Ratan Singh’s kingdom. In the beginning of the film, during Sultan Khilji’s wedding ceremony to the former Sultan’s daughter, his cousin, Mehrunisa, he has sex with another woman. The scene immediately cuts to the already married Ratan Singh and his first encounter with Padmavati. Rana Ayyub explains in her article, “Bigotry and Islamophobia in Bhansali's Padmaavat,” that regardless of the sexual interests of both patriarchs being revealed, “Ratan Singh, being a Rajput, is allowed to enter your consciousness as the righteous, and Alauddin Khilji as the morally damned.” Throughout the film, as contrasts can be drawn between Ratan Singh and Sultan Khilji, so can that of Rani Padmavati and Mehrunisa, who is portrayed as the docile, complicit, and submissive Muslim wife. Though she is the one who eventually helps Padmavati in the middle of the film, her small act of agency becomes futile as Sultan Khilji punishes her for it. On the other hand, Rani Padmavati is praised by the Rajput generals when she orders them to listen to her demands and even reaches Goddess status after her suicide among her people, both in the film and in the current Rajput community.
Bollywood films have frequent themes that ascribe nationalism and patriotism onto the religiously righteous heroine. By attributing this “sanctity of femininity” through marriage to tradition, Padmaavat problematically suggests that Indian nationalism begins with and revolves around the policing of the female body, regardless of religion. The film’s sexualization of femininity and the “mother”land imposes a male gaze on them, corroborating the problematic notion that women only exist for their role in sexual reproduction and to serve the sexual “appetite” of heterosexual men. Swara Bhasker, an Indian woman herself, identifies with this as she states that “if God forbid anything untoward happened to me” she would feel ashamed seeking actual resources and justice. She adds, “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. This, Sir, is the power of cinema.” Lastly, the hypermasculine climax where Singh and Khilji sword fight, with phallic weapons, reinforces the notion that such toxic masculinity is actually necessary to decide the fate of women. This dangerous narrative not only asserts the violent potentials of adhering to gender roles but also quite literally romanticizes violence. As Purnima Mankekar writes in her essay, Brides Who Travel, “such apparently benign constructs as Indian culture, Indian Womanhood, and the Indian Family can sometimes become sites for violence against women in the diaspora. (10)” Though her essay regards another Bollywood film from the 90s, Padmaavat’s applicability to her statement is emblematic of Bhasker’s argument. It underscores how the poeticized violence within the narrative not only perpetuates it towards ancient Indian women, but also postcolonial South Asian women more broadly, both within the region and in their international diasporas today.
One of the other most important ways in which Bhansali’s Padmaavat otherizes the Muslims is by presenting Sultan Alauddin Khilji as bisexual. Historical accounts do identify Sultan Khilji as being queer with, as some historians suggest, “having a harem of thousands of beardless boys.” In Padmaavat, the inclusion of his relationship with his slave, and eventually most trusted general, Malik Kafur, adds to the problematic notion of him just being a hypersexual Muslim man rather than acknowledging the nuances of identity and embracing sexual fluidity. Malik Kafur, played by Jim Sarbh, falls in love with the Sultan when they first meet and helps him ascend the Delhi Sultanate with his skills in sword fighting. The film is not subtle with these elements of phallic interaction between the two characters. Whether it’s Kafur polishing his sword with a cloth by his crotch or when the two are sitting in a bathtub together and, as Ankur Pathak describes it in his article, “Ranveer Singh's Queer Act Shatters The Glass Ceiling In Indian Film Writing,” an “unambiguous gesticulation, including a scene with suggested oral sex between the two men that is shown, according to my reading, only through a cathartic orgasm.” The film offers Kafur to expand on this sexual tension in his song “Binte Dil,” or “the girl of heart,” where he both expresses his desire for Sultan Khilji and his jealousy of Rani Padmavati. Though this presents a narrative of non-heterosexual desire, it does so in a way that makes Malik Kafur the butt of a joke. However, Pathak argues that it does otherwise as it provides the imago of cis-male queerness as multifaceted. He states that Sultan Khilji “disguises this lustful quest for the gorgeous queen by characterizing it with a shade of romantic love but this is yet another form of self-deception, just like his contradicting acts of suppressing and endorsing his bisexuality.” In comparing the Sultan and Kafur, Pathak adds, “Khilji's destructive masculinity is offset by the practiced gentleness of Kafur, who shifts emotions with chameleonic splendor. His expressions change, from tender to terrifying, the minute Khilji expresses his desires for Padmavati and it appears that he could be instrumental in sabotaging their ill-fated encounter.” He notes that Sultan Khilji does not have to necessarily question his bisexual desires or “come into terms with it” as other films regarding queerness involve, rather, the Sultan openly embraces these desires as part of his second nature. Pathak’s main argument, which is stated as “To give Hindi cinema one of its few queer villains, one who's aggressively masculine and in pursuit of a reigning beauty, is some sort of a major breakthrough, one that we should wildly applaud.” can be problematized. Whether he intended to do so or not, Pathak suggests that the hypermasculinization of queerness is essential in normalizing it. However, this is antithetical and counterproductive as it is not radical in its approach in deconstructing regressive binaries. The same argument can be made for those that suggest Rani Padmavati did the right thing by committing Jauhar. The members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rajput Karni Sena groups that protested the film so much argued that Bhansali would tarnish the “honourable Jauhar.” To appease liberals, the protesters argue that Jauhar is a feminist act. Ironically, if they had watched the film before protesting, they would have actually praised it as, even in the end of the film’s trailer, Padukone states through her character that “Rajput women are just as much warriors as Rajput men.” Again, “feminizing” the misogynist, hypermasculine apparatuses of violence.
In Vandana Menon’s article, “A Feminist Guide to Protesting a Film Like Padmaavat” she explores the various ways in which “millenial liberals” can protest the film, if it’s even possible. The four methods she comes up with include: not watching the film; streaming it online for free; buying a ticket and not watching the film to stand in solidarity with the assaulted cast; paying for the ticket and watching until before the Jauhar scene; watching the whole movie. She presents what worked and didn’t work in each of the methods and stated how “The culture of protest in our country is such that violence and bullying find higher success rates. But that should not deter the liberal youth from expanding the conversation beyond Padmaavat.” Menon identifies the nuanced stakeholders of the Padmaavat debate and comes to conclusion that there is not one particular way to protest. She finishes off by questioning herself asking, “Did I end up watching Padmaavat Wednesday night because I’m a creature of hype and suffer from an intense FOMO (fear of missing out)?”
Regardless of these particular stances, what the Padmaavat panic is really about is the association of the policing of women with pride and honor of a masculinized state. Rani Padmavati’s action of Jauhar is either a feminist rebellion to invasion or a result of internalized misogyny. The inclusion of international subjects in the film, both Muslim and Hindu, and queerness, complicates the impact of the film, as it contributes to the modern contextualization of intersectional feminism. Moreover, understanding this reason for the debate helps address the root of the issue and stimulates critical conversation over the way sexual assault and policing is perceived in South Asian and around the world.
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