For both Karni Sena and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, it seems the woman is either to be protected or possessed
I have just watched Padmaavat and cannot stop myself from penning some thoughts on the film. Let me begin with a strong rider that I am deeply disgusted and appalled by the vandalism and opposition of the Karni Sena to the film, and the complicity of BJP-ruled state governments. This is, indeed, a new low in the attack on the freedom of expression. But I want to steer the discussion to another aspect of the film, which has received relatively less attention. The film profoundly troubled me in terms of the gender, caste and religious identities that it upholds and celebrates.
By the end of it, I was squirming in my seat, and was also angry. I felt that there appears to be a deep affinity between the perspectives of the Karni Sena and Sanjay Leela Bhansali in terms of their representations of Rajput honour and women’s chastity. So the opposition to the film has nothing to do with hurt sentiments or “objectionable” portrayal of Padmavati, as per dominant Rajput understandings, and everything to do with political alignments. But let me come to a discussion of the film itself, which I think needs to be critiqued for completely different reasons, without imposing any censorship on it.
The film is, first and foremost, a valorisation of jauhar, a deeply retrogressive and barbaric custom, which needs to be trenchantly critiqued. It depicts a grotesque act through markers of beauty and aesthetics, eulogising jauhar as a site of Rajput glorification. The burning alive of hundreds of women, including pregnant women, all dressed in red, and thus frontally declaring their married status — the climax of the film on which Bhansali spends more than 15 minutes — far from representing a tragedy, a barbaric act and deep violence carried over women’s bodies, acquires an exalted stature, a celebration of Rajput rulers’ tradition and heritage. Before jauhar, Padmavati/Deepika Padukone is seen as taking permission from her husband Ratan Sen/Shahid Kapoor to commit it, stating that she cannot take her life without her husband’s endorsement, who in turn willingly agrees to it. Though the film carries a rider in the beginning that it does not support sati, there is a clear validation of jauhar, a deification of women, and a privileging of Brahmanical scriptures. Jauhar here is not only allowable, but positively laudable.
Second, the film upholds the “pativrata dharma” as the ultimate expression of a “true” Rajput woman, personified in the figure of Padmavati. She is the perfect model of Hindu upper-caste Kshatriya womanhood. A Rajput coded Mewar admires Padmavati for her fidelity and femininity, which is represented as emblematic of their tradition. Padmavati is also repeatedly shown as hiding herself from “outside” men through purdah, as lajja is the biggest adornment of the Rajput woman.
Third, Padmavati’s moral disciplining is critically justified in the film through a language of protection. Rajput muscular pride rests on a gendered binary where Padmavati is metamorphosed into a symbol of sacredness. In a scene in the film, Alauddin Khilji/Ranveer Singh expresses a desire in front of Rana Ratan Sen (and other Rajput men) to meet other members of his family, including Padmavati. All Rajput swords are immediately out. Padmavati thus symbolises the exclusive preserve of Ratan Sen, and safeguarding her virtue is the sole prerogative of Rajput men. She is to be protected or possessed. She is inherently constructed as a marker of Rajput cultural identity and honour. She is the harbinger and spiritual essence of Mewar, cherished as most private and “purest”. In the name of “protecting” her, power is mapped over her body by denying her movement. There actually functions a grim coercive and disciplinary power behind avowals of love and protection.
Fourth, Padmavati is staged as a symbol of honour and prestige of all Rajput men of Mewar. Misplaced invocations of Rajput masculinity and pride underline a conservative mindset that privileges hegemonic Rajput patriarchies. This can aid the reassertion of a previously dominant Rajput elite whose political and social authority has been steadily undermined by the new political groupings and structures of power in independent India. The repeated calls for a masculinised Rajput male prowess in the film, and the luminous honour of the Rajputs, is predicated on the organisation of the darker social forces of Alauddin Khilji.
This brings me to my final point. The film strengthens the stereotypical constructions of the evil, licentious and sexually ferocious Muslim male, epitomised in Alauddin Khilji, lusting after the “pure” body of an upper-caste Hindu woman. There are no nuances or shades here. It is a stark black and white portrayal of the evil Muslim male and the ideal Hindu woman, underwriting an exclusivist grammar of difference. As a dangerously masculine and bestial barbarian, with long hair, kohl-marked eyes and deep cuts on his face, Alauddin Khilji/Ranveer Singh symbolises a spectacle of high sexual appetite and lecherous behaviour. The Hindutva politics of food is also implicitly played out in a scene in which Alauddin is depicted as devouring a huge meal filled with non-vegetarian food and hordes of red meat. The lust of Alauddin for Padmavati’s body symbolically intersects here with “grotesque” food, which contributes in the making of this “predatory” and “libidinous beast”, who is filled with dark thoughts, violence and hyper-sexuality.
It may be argued that the film is a representation of Jayasi’s Padmaavat, and remains true to it. But Bhansali takes many creative liberties in the film. Many other period, mythical and historical films — from Mughal-e-Azam to Jodhaa Akbar — have given space to multiple voices and perspectives. There can be many lives of the queen and diverse narratives. However, Bhansali has chosen to adopt a singular, unilinear narrative, with no complexities or nuances.
To conclude, the film upholds an upper caste, exclusivist and hegemonic Rajput perspective and nurtures a Hindu nationalist historiography that can provide fodder to the politicised Hindu nationalism of present-day India. It defines its cultural ethos largely in terms of patriarchal norms and Rajput identities, which is an impediment to values of autonomy and freedom, and the quest for gender justice.