Watching a mainstream blockbuster movie isn’t an act one normally associates with reaffirming free speech and democracy, but it became exactly that all throughout India two weekends ago. As the country prepared to celebrate its Republic Day and the formation of its constitution on Friday, January 26, protests by cultural conservatives raged across several states. (One went as far as a school bus full of children being pelted with stones.)
The subject of this ire: Padmaavat, the latest historical epic from director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose first screenings in India’s major cinemas were met with increased police security. The film was originally slated for a December 1 release before threats of violence and bounties against the director and the lead actress, Deepika Padukone (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), pushed back the date of the rollout. This unrest did not come out of nowhere: In January of last year, the film’s Jaipur set was vandalized, and Bhansali was physically assaulted; in March, the production’s equipment tent in Kholapur was set ablaze with petrol bombs. And all this chaos began with just a rumor.
The Shri Rajput Karni Sena, the conservative organization responsible for much of the backlash, was formed in the mid-2000s to safeguard the interests of the Rajput caste (made up historically of several Hindu warrior clans), operating primarily out of the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The Chittor Fort there, and its historical siege by Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji in 1301, formed the backdrop for Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic Padmavat two centuries later, which contains the first known mention of Rani Padmini (aka Queen Padmavati), who is largely agreed by historians to be fictional.
In the poem, Padmavati’s story begins in the Singhal kingdom (now Sri Lanka), where rumors of her great beauty inspire the Rajput ruler, Ratan Sen (based on the real-life Ratan Singh), to embark on a quest to marry her. Shortly after the couple arrives in Chittor, tales of her beauty reach Alauddin Khalji, the sultan of Delhi, leading him to undertake his own siege in the name of lust. It all amounts to something like India’s very own version of Helen of Troy.
Padmavati’s canonization is tied to her having led a mass suicide of the widows of Chittor via self-immolation to avoid being captured and enslaved. That custom, known as jauhar, has resonated as a point of honor for many modern Rajputs, for whom the line between this legend and actual history is blurry at best. This pseudohistorical pretext became the basis for outrage when rumors of the film’s contents began circulating in early 2017, focusing on a romantic scene between Padmavati (Padukone) and Khilji (played by Ranveer Singh, Padukone’s real-life partner and three-time Bhansali co-star).
For conservatives like the Karni Sena, the anxieties were plenty: the potential sexualization of a revered female figure; an “ahistorical” approach to a romantic scene (despite Padmavati herself being a product of fiction); and the depiction of love between a Muslim conqueror and a Hindu queen. According to the director, however, no such scene was ever planned, let alone filmed, and neither the poem nor the film feature the characters meeting face-to-face.
Padmaavat, originally titled Padmavati until the filmmakers were pressured into aligning the name with that of the source material rather than the lead character, isn’t the first time the Karni Sena has objected to the contents of narrative fiction. They previously targeted the 2008 film Jodhaa Akbar and its 2013 TV adaptation, both ahistorical works featuring a Muslim ruler/Rajput Hindu princess romantic dynamic.
Nor is this the first time Bhansali has come under fire from conservative groups. Ramleela (2013) —his first Singh–Padukone vehicle, in which they played characters named Ram and Leela — was ordered by the Delhi High Court just days before its release to change its title to Ram-Leela and then, eventually, to Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (A Play of Bullets: Ram-Leela). Even though the film is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the court was worried about potential similarities to Ramlila, the folk re-enactment of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Bhansali’s 2015 period romance, Bajirao Mastani, was criticized for its distortions of history for the sake of creative license, even being compared, quite presciently, to the historical “hit-job” Jayasi performed with Padmavat.
For Bajirao Mastani, as with Bhansali’s Padmaavat and Ron Howard’s controversial The Da Vinci Code long before, the filmmakers had to add lengthy disclaimers before each film’s Indian release, stating categorically that these were works of fiction and not intended to offend religious sentiments. While quelling the anger of religious opposition was certainly on the filmmakers’ and distributors’ minds in each case, it’s worth noting that this volatile state of Indian artistic discourse is also supported by the law itself. Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code explicitly prohibits deliberate insults to “religion or religious beliefs,” the punishment being imprisonment, a fine, or both. Given the combination of conservative groups who regularly object to art, a filmmaker known to rub them the wrong way, and the historical canonization of legend and a system that often takes the side of censorship, Padmaavat became the perfect storm.
What of the film itself, though? That it was released at all is a victory, thanks to the efforts of India’s artistic and journalistic communities and its Supreme Court, which refused to uphold the ban placed on the film in four states. That Padmaavat contains little “objectionable” content to the Rajput community (and as few as five “modifications” from the Indian censors) is hardly a surprise, given that so many of the complaints lodged against it were made by folks who hadn’t seen the film. The finished work itself is actually a stellar achievement, its raucous meta-narrative more than worthy of a spot in Bhansali’s visually splendid canon. The movie may textually valorize the very communities who spent the last year objecting to its existence, but it’s also a subtle-enough send-up of blind adherence to tradition that those looking only to be offended or validated are bound to overlook its more finely tuned shadings.
With its lavish sets; catchy, narratively-driven songs; and powerhouse performances, Padmaavat is even greater than the sum of its already-commendable parts. It opens with Singh’s ruthless, operatic Alauddin Khilji making a grand entrance in his uncle’s Afghan court, speaking in the third person and leading an ostrich on a leash. In a winking stylistic contextualization, this Khilji loves to get lost in song and dance as he conspires, first to overthrow his uncle’s rule and later to overtake Chittor (stomping militaristically to “Khalibali,” a dark mirror to Padmavati’s more graceful “Ghoomar”). This is the energetic Singh of Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani turned up to eleven on the fun scale — particularly when he sways his bloodied hands to the music of his own engagement party after having just committed his first political assassination. There’s even a scene where he unites bickering soldiers by tipping over their flag and making them join hands to catch it, before winking at another character just behind camera. Singh’s ridiculous Khilji may as well be nationalism incarnate: He gets whatever he wants through the manipulation of sentiment, and he cares for no one but himself.
Meanwhile, in the forests of Singhal — an ethereal realm thousands of miles from the site of Khilji’s violent ascent — Padmavati hunts deer with a bow and arrow, leaping from branch to ground and branch again, as capable as any prince or action hero. She, too, strikes and bloodies a human, albeit by accident — Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), who is immediately smitten and claims the arrow sticking out of his heart actually hit its intended target. Padmavati nurses him back to health, and eventually returns with him to Chittor as his wife. Two royal ascents, worlds apart; one through murder and selfish ambition, another through healing and compassion. Before the two tales ever cross paths, they’re diametrically opposed.
As Padmavati performs ceremonial song-and-dance (“Ghoomar”) in an effort to connect with her new tribe, Khilji beheads Mongolian invaders. As Padmavati proves her intelligence to a Rajput high priest, Khilji orders his newly gifted slave general, Malik Kafur (played by Jim Sarbh and based on Khilji’s eunuch slave general, whom historians believe was the sultan’s lover), to assassinate those who stand between him and the throne. As Padmavati and Ratan Singh fall deeper in love, Khilji intimidates his wife, Mehrunisa (Aditi Rao Hydari), with his newfound power. While this dynamic initially posits the Rajputs as a harmonious group and the Muslim Khiljis as something more primitive — Kapoor’s Singh is the cartoonish Khilji’s stoic, resolute foil, delivering booming speeches without so much as a change in expression — the tribal dichotomy eventually gives way to an incisive, investigative cultural dynamic that emerges when the Rajput men find their kingdom on the verge of invasion. Where the film’s setup involves aligning factions against each other on the side of “good” and “evil,” its second-half payoff is something more complex than a tale of binary cultural morality: It’s a retrospective on historical (and, by proxy, contemporary) tradition, told through a gendered lens.
In Padmaavat, straight, male adherence to violent tradition leads only to death, whereas the female and queer alternatives — even though predictably ignored at almost every turn — offer potential paths to diplomacy and even liberation. “Binte Dil” is the first mainstream Bollywood musical number about queer love; Kafur sings a tale of Egyptian women for his master while pining for him with every longing glance. Khilji seems mildly reciprocal of these advances, losing himself in the music while bathing (in an especially charged scene), but eventually turns down the love offered to him, choosing instead the conquest of both land and women. In ignoring the only person who seems to revere and accept the monster he’s become (a character who even cackles villainously alongside him!), Khilji chooses warring ambition and reverence for only himself. (He burns historical documents that don’t bear his name.)
While the text is presented largely intact from its original 16th-century form — a tale of valiant Rajput men fighting ruthless invaders who would claim their women — its framing centers the effects these male conquests have on the women of both sides. Padmaavat is a war film, but its story rests, uniquely, on the constant precipice of war, with Khilji’s troops camped outside the Chittor Fort for months on end, the men on both sides strategizing their next move. Khilji wants a glimpse at Padmavati; Singh will prevent him from doing so. However, owing to a cultural rule of wartime tradition, Singh refuses on principle to kill or capture Khilji when the invader dines with him as his guest, despite Khilji’s motivation for showing up being little more than stealing a glance at his bride. He even accepts Khilji’s invitation to show up unarmed to the enemy camp for a show of hospitality in return. When this leads to Singh’s kidnapping and imprisonment in Delhi, Padmavati — claiming “There’s as much bravery in Rajput bangles as there is in Rajput swords” — knows that making the trip to Khilji’s capital under the guise of showing her face is the only way to resolve the situation without bloodshed. Upon arrival, she’s even helped by the women on Khilji’s side (Mehrunisa, as well as a hijra, or transgender/intersex guard), who would rather see her escape without violent confrontation. But upon his rescue, instead of escaping in secret, Singh must satisfy his sense of Rajput pride and confront Khilji, leading to bloodshed.
As the war rages on above them, Padmavati and Mehrunisa exchange knowing looks of gratitude and understanding in the secret caverns below. As the Rajput men above sacrifice their lives after insisting on accompanying Padmavati (despite her notable insistence otherwise), the women do their best to keep their husbands from harm by employing tactics that are both nonviolent and mutually beneficial.
Given both its source material and historical setting, there is only one way the story can end for these women: jauhar. The ceremonial suicide rite is often held up as a point of pride within Rajput legend, though its historical connection to sati — a widow’s dutiful self-immolation on the funeral pyre of her husband — complicates its depiction within a modern context.
Padmaavat, however, draws a straight line between jauhar and the consequences placed upon women by male ambition, ultimately reducing the war at hand to a schoolyard squabble between Singh and Khilji. They speak of glory, but there’s none to be found in the visual language of what amounts to a limp confrontation. In the poem, the siege of Chittor ends not only with Padmavati throwing herself on Ratan Sen’s funeral pyre, but with Khilji capturing an empty fort and subsequently reflecting on the pointlessness of violence he’d have rather avoided. (How noble!)
The film does not give Khilji this moral escape route; rather, it reduces his entire conquest to a petty, desperate attempt to merely lay eyes on a beautiful woman, a leering desire he’s denied by the inevitable jauhar. However, rather than tying this mass self-immolation to the husbands of any individual woman, Padmavati and the women of Chittor firmly vocalize their decision primarily as a means to deny him the victory he so desires. Khilji’s conquest is born out of the need for sexual and egotistical satisfaction, and the women are sure to make a final stand against him in one of the film’s most cheer-out-loud scenes, before meeting their inevitable fate. Their funeral pyre is theirs, and theirs alone.
While the leading male performances exist at extreme ends of a spectrum (one emotionally volatile, the other clinical and closed-off), Padukone’s Padmavati exists in a modulated center, telling her own story through glances. Early in the film, while being tested by a Rajput priest, Padmavati tells him, respectfully but with a knowing conviction, that there are those who see idols of Lord Shiva in rocks, and there are those who see rocks in idols of Lord Shiva. “From a certain point of view” was how Star Wars termed this acknowledgement of clashing belief systems, and it’s an attitude that this movie shares toward the chronology and mythology of its own source material. By recontextualizing the jauhar, the film both reclaims autonomy for the women characters and underscores the value of old stories being recast through heretofore overlooked perspectives.
It’s only in their final moments, and after the death of their men, that these women have the option of fully engineering their own actions. And lest the film feel like it’s erring on the side of ceremonial mass suicide itself, Padmavati and the other women’s final stand as they head toward the flames is accompanied by a brief shot of a pregnant woman and her confused daughter charging toward their deaths, a particularly inglorious highlight amidst what many still consider a glorious act. It’s an active choice by these women, no doubt, at least those in charge of the collective, but it’s one arguably forced upon them by the two-and-a-half-or-so hours preceding this climax in which men consistently uphold the traditions of war, combat, and control over the fates of women. Each male decision leads to death and destruction, while women like Padmavati and Mehrunisa push to find ways to avoid conflict, even if it means going against the wishes of the cultures for which they’ve worked to be accepted.
That the men of the Karni Sena have led the charge against the film under the guise of protecting Padmavati’s image and women’s honor is especially noteworthy. Padmaavat may be a grandiose historical epic about romance, ambition, and unrequited love, but it’s also a film about men preserving cultural honor at the cost of the women they claim to protect. It’s these very men, like Karni Sena national secretary Surajpal Amu and Chittorgarh chief Govind Singh Khangarot who berate women journalists, put out hit contracts on Padukone, and threaten the orchestration of a modern jauhar of nearly 2,000 women if the film is released. (Khangarot and Amu were arrested for incitement of violence on January 24, the day of the film’s release in India, and January 26, India’s Republic Day, respectively.)
Saturday, January 27, marked a full year since Bhansali and his set were attacked and this lengthy saga began. It has resulted in necessary conversations about art and freedom of expression, with a focus on being able to discuss cinema with civility. That the film has seen the light of day is a victory for any self-described democracy, but it may have come at great cost. The hysteria of the backlash has resulted in more legitimate criticisms of the movie — whether about the portrayals of Muslim characters as stereotypically violent, or even complex conversations about cinema’s role in portraying history — getting lost in the noise and milieu. More broadly, this much hullabaloo over what ought to have simply been a movie (albeit an extravagantly expensive one), while rightly shining a spotlight on a myriad of cultural issues, also resulted in issues equally if not more pressing — continued farmer suicides, violence against “lower caste” communities — losing attention from the Indian media.
The resolution of the Padmaavat problem is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but perhaps now art can become a topic of civil conversation once more rather than a reason for riots, and news media debates can return to being about less glamorous socio-economic issues. That said, a win for democracy is a win for democracy, and, in this case, we got a great film out of it.
Padmaavat is in theaters.