This fire still burns

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The film Padmaavat faced controversies galore before it was released, with many cuts and changes, including in its title. Should the events showcased in the film be seen through the prism of the era it is set in, or do we critique the movie according to our current sensibilities, ponders Nikhil Katara.

To say that the movie Padmaavat faced controversy, is an understatement. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even meant to be called Padmaavat, for its title was supposed to be Padmavati. It went through a typhoon of certification board objections and threats of mob attacks, and still managed to get released, albeit a few hundred cuts and changes later. The film stars the names that have become synonymous with modern Bollywood. Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and the shape shifter – Ranveer Singh – grace the screens. So much has been said about the film that one wonders – is there need for another review of the film?

Perhaps a review of the content of the film doesn’t matter as much as a review of the India today, and its thoughts. For, what is a movie by itself? Can a film ever be anything alone? Unless it meets an intelligent mind, it is nothing. Which brings us to the topic of this article, which is not to judge the film’s aesthetics, but to read the complex thoughts of India today. For those who still are to watch the film, please read ahead only if you don’t want to encounter any spoilers.

The story
Jalaluddin Khilji is the emperor of Hindustan. His army is slowly taking over all that surrounds them, and the one who is instrumental in all this success is Alauddin Khilji, the Mad Max warrior and nephew to the emperor. Alauddin, along with his faithful servant Malik Kafur, successfully assassinates the emperor and takes over the rule of the land. In the parallel world of Chittorgarh, King Ratan Singh weds and brings home one of the most beautiful woman in the world – Padmavati of Sinhala. Every person in Chittorgarh is in awe of Padmavati’s beauty. This also includes the high priest Raghav Chetan, who gets caught watching Ratan Singh and Padmavati in a moment of intimacy, and gets banished. Chetan journeys to meet Alauddin Khilji and tells him about Padmavati’s beauty. Khilji, who wishes to achieve every beautiful and rare ‘object’ in the world, invites the Rajput king and his wife to Delhi, but his invitation is rejected, following which he lays siege on Chittorgarh, but cannot break through its walls. He spends months outside its gates, until he decides to send his army back to Delhi and offer peace. Allauddin gets invited into the kingdom and is graced by the Rajput hospitality.

He eventually requests Ratan Singh that he be allowed to see Padmavati, but every Rajput takes objection to that. Eventually, Allauddin witnesses only Padmavati’s reflection and leaves, but before leaving he requests Ratan Singh to come to his tents for a meal. Ratan Singh accepts and is trapped and taken away to Delhi. Allauddin sends a message to Chittorgarh that he will release Ratan Singh only when Padmavati comes to Delhi herself. Padmavati accepts but on certain conditions, one being that Allauddin decapitate Raghav Chetan and send his head across to Chittor. Allauddin happily agrees. Padmavati travels with a retinue of ghoonghat clad Rajput men, who lay siege on Delhi and rescue Ratan Singh. Allauddin’s own wife helps Padmavati, to the ire of the emperor.

Allauddin returns to Chittorgarh with weapons that break through the powerful walls of Chittorgarh. Ratan Singh is forced to take the field and gets executed, again by Alauddin’s treacherous ways. Following the mass execution of all the Rajput men on the field, every woman in Chittorgarh decides to commit Jauhar (self-immolation). Leaving the emperor Alauddin with a victory that means nothing, as he fails to achieve what he set out for, leaving only an image in his mind, and an ego that is destroyed.

The controversy
The Rajput Karni Sena attacked the sets of Padmaavat claiming that the film had factual inaccuracies and hurt Rajput sentiments. There were death threats issued to the film’s cast that included the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the lead actress Deepika Padukone. Many of these threats were issued on live television, and none of the members of the Sena had any qualms in stating them unapologetically. On the other hand, film actress Swara Bhaskar wrote an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali stating she felt she was just a ‘vagina’ after watching the film, and questioned it for showcasing jauhar.

From the far right to the far left, from the Sena’s lack of judgement to Bhaskar’s ideological feminism, the film has stirred many questions. There is a saying that any good film lasts much beyond its run time. If one were to analyse the ideas that Padmaavat deals with, it seems like a movie of an empowered woman who ‘chose’ to die after her husband was murdered. This is the sole premise of the movie, but what caused the controversy was for example, the supposed dream sequence between Khilji and Padmavati, where they were apparently intimate. The Karni Sena took it upon themselves to save the Rajput honour, and the mobs were out on the street destroying property while protecting their queen’s image.

But not once did we as a society, critique the decision of ‘Rani Padmavati’ to kill herself. The woman who was fully capable, battle trained, and a much more powerful ruler than her husband, denied herself the right to exist once her husband died. The same husband who made many errors in war, and whom she had to save from Delhi almost single handedly, had to burn herself to ash once he had been killed, was never critiqued save in an open letter by Bhaskar. The quality of critique was intriguing. Bhaskar used the pen in the open space and Sena used their violence in public space. The Sena used their mobs so that no one could be identified, Bhaskar used her name, loud and bold, so that no one could miss her. Now when we as a society watch Padmaavat, the primary question is which way do we go? And how do we read our history?

Ironically, in the film, there is a scene where Khilji destroys history as he becomes the emperor, and as he does so he wishes to create new history, so that people will read him in the way he wants them to. The Karni Sena, and many others intend to write and read history in the same dogmatic fashion of Khilji, making the people see history only from a certain lens. But is history an isolated event? Isn’t the act of jauhar that ‘Rani Padmavati’, committed still an act of our present? Its violence is still running in the glorious manner in which Padukone graces the fire along with all the women in Chittorgarh, including a pregnant woman and a child. Can’t our intelligent minds read the event through our own lens? So that these regressive acts can be seen for what they are, not symbols of glory, but of destruction.

The way society thinks is evident after the entire controversy. We shiver at the sight of faceless mobs, find justifications for the showcasing of an already regressive thought, we change the titles of movies and ask film makers to make cuts in a film that already has glorious regressive acts in them to further and perfect our version of history. But when an empowered person showcases their point openly in a public space, the way any critique should, the way in which a society learns, the way in which a society sees itself in a mirror, then we criticise, not their thoughts or their ideas, but their right to have an opinion. The ancient fire still burns, Khilji still wins.


Nikhil Katara

Nikhil Katara initiated his journey as a writer with his own production titled The Unveiling, a science fiction drama in the year 2011. To strengthen critical learning he initiated an MA programme in ‘Philosophy’ at the Mumbai university with optionals in Kant, Greek Hellinistic Philosophy, Feminism, Logic and Existentialism. His play Yatagarasu opened at Prithvi Theatre in 2016. He is a consultant facilitator at J’s paradigm (a novel performance arts institute) and writes book reviews for the Free Press Journal. 

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