The trailer of “Padmavati” released on September 9 on YouTube and within minutes, social media was flooded with messages of congratulations by an awestruck audience which included celebrities. The movie is being touted as the biggest blockbuster of the year, one that may perhaps cross even the box office collections of “Bahubali”.
While “Padmavati” seeks to compete with Bahubali in the magnificence of the sets, the terrible war scenes, the opulence of the havelis (palaces), the chiselled abs of the herp, the gruesome expressions, and the liberal use of flowing white cloth (as a friend points out), in one manner, it could be claimed to be fundamentally different.
The difference is that while “Bahubali” was head to toe a work of fiction, “Padmavati” is based on the allegedly real story of the legendary maharani Padmini of Chittor, who had committed jauhar (self-immolation) to save herself from her impending fate at the hands of the invader, Alauddin Khilji.
As a child, I had read “Shreeman Yogi“, the famous biographical work on Shivaji Maharaj. In one of the chapters, it was narrated how Shivaji hears the story of Padmini in a ballad. He’s greatly disturbed by it and vows that such a fate should never befall women during his reign. I remember being touched by the tale. Fiction or not, the idea of dying to avoid the humiliation of captivity had distressed and fascinated me at the same time.
As an adult, I decided to look for more details.
Like many others, after watching the trailer, I turned to Google to search for the real story of Padmavati. Padmavati or Padmini’s story was featured in many articles. One of them mentioned Khilji’s obsession with her beauty after a glimpse at her reflection in the mirror. Interestingly, however, I could not find the same or any other story related to Padmavati when I started reading about Khilji.
Also, from what I gathered about Khilji, it somehow made it difficult for me to understand how a sufficiently successful ruler like him would set an entire army in the pursuit of a single woman whom he was enamoured by.
Geographical expansions, conquests over trade routes, display of political dominance over kingdoms were the more possible and common reasons for an invasion like this.
These rulers were typically power-hungry and often made many blunders at the cost of human lives (Rajputs are not exceptions in this). Of course, that Padmini had refused, rebuked and humiliated Khilji, leading him to try and win her by force is also not entirely unbelievable. But if this story is true, let us understand that the act to control and subjugate by violence stemmed from his wounded ego. Let us not only reduce it to a crime of passion, because that would once again place the responsibility of preventing the violence on women. Because men cannot control their emotions and sexual drives, women have to step back and cover their faces in the purdah.
Let us also not reduce it to a singular tale of a sadist ruler (who happens to be Muslim) lusting after a very beautiful woman. Rape and sexual assault on women are the horrors of every war that spills over to civilians even today.
We should understand and discuss the underlying structures of patriarchy and power in these stories of invasion and conquests, so that history is not repeated and we do not glorify the helplessness of women trying to save themselves from violence and indignity.
Another thing that struck me in the story is that fact that so many women committed jauhar at the same time. How could a single woman not have attempted to escape or resist? We have the survivors of some of the worst violence in history, (the partition for example) because the indomitable human spirit can never be suppressed completely. Maybe the stories beyond Muhammad Jayasi’s fantastical version failed to reach to us.
I am not saying that it is possible for every woman, every person, to be Jhansi ki rani (queen of Jhansi) and physically fight back. But yet, the cold-blooded act of self-immolation of women in masses, without any kind of resistance, gives me goosebumps.
Each and every one believed in the inevitability of their fate, and that it was impossible to live after their ‘honour’ is lost. It is scary to believe in the idea that some things are inevitable and insurmountable.
The film would perhaps cast this very impression on its viewers, especially women. Moreover, the way jauhar is likely to be portrayed may create a sense of ‘pride’ instead of shame in the viewers who have already been sold on the idea of a woman’s izzat (honour) and a man’s sammaan (respect) being more important than death by several movies before.
The dialogue, “Rajputi kangan mein utni hi takat hoti hai jitni Rajputi talwar mein (There is as much strength in Rajput bangles as in a Rajput sword),” is an example of praising both violence in the name of valour and sacrifice in the name of honour.
A friend of mine who believes that Padmini’s story is a fabricated one, says that stories that glorify ‘sacrifices’ like sati and jauhar are made for certain communities to establish their dominance. I asked him if the film was re-selling the idea. “Two dangerous ideas,” he said. “The other being the stereotype of Muslims as savages and womanisers, especially in the context of the widening divide between the communities.”