Padmavati: Fight Over Fiction

Posted by Sidharth Shankar in Politics, Society
February 8, 2017

It’s been several days since the movie director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was assaulted by a communal group of Rajputs on the sets of “Padmavati”, a film under production. The reason the attackers gave was that they were trying to stop the defamation of a Rajput queen Rani Padmini. I do not want to go into the debate of freedom of expression or intolerance or terrorise people with different opinions here as a lot has already been said about that. Saying the same things again would be like shouting when there already is a lot of noise.

Since all the brouhaha about the issue has subsided and there are already reports of brokerage of peace between the makers of the film and the communal group, I think it’s time that we discuss the issue of distortion of history, particularly in this case. And to do that, we first need to check whether it’s indeed a part of history or not.

According to the historian S Irfan Habib, the first written account which mentions Rani Padmini is the epic poem Padmavat, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, in the year 1540. More than two centuries after the events mentioned allegedly took place. It’s the tale of Padmavati, an exceptionally beautiful queen of Chittor who commits Jauhar (self-immolation) to protect herself from becoming the sex slave of the then Sultan of Delhi and the invader of Chittor, Alauddin Khilji. This is a fantastical piece of literature which includes conversation with a parrot and sorcery. So, it is clearly a work of fiction and definitely cannot be treated as a historical account.

However, this work of Jayasi is based on folktales that existed way before the Padmavat was written. Now, it is really hard to establish how real the folk tales are. The belief of people in them is the only thing that is keeping them from being declared as fictional stories.

If we concede to the popular belief and agree that it was indeed a historical event, we still cannot possibly claim that it happened with the glory that we are told about. On the contrary, it would be inhumane and misogynistic to call the Jauhar of Rani Padmini glorious. This brings me to my next point, which is about the way we are made to look at this story right from our childhood. It was told to us as if it was a tale of bravery and righteousness. But was it? It’s about a woman, rather a huge number of women, who had to burn themselves to death to protect themselves from being sexually violated. That was horrific and offered a glimpse into the misogynistic social structure of those times.

We were never told this story from such a perspective. For most of the people, it’s the story of the courage of women of Chittor, even though they were oppressed. We must also keep in mind the fact that this folktale has served as a justification of Sati in India for many centuries. It’s a blot which will never go away. Yet, we are kept away from seeing it in that light. So, before you dare to raise questions on the distortion of history, you need to examine whether the history that you know is already distorted or not.

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Image source: Wikipedia

This was first published on the author’s blog

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