The ‘i’ of the storm
By Laxmi Murthy
14 May 2018
The Bollywood hit ‘Padmaavat’, India’s anti-sati laws and the failure to confront misogyny.
A naked midriff was demurely covered, an ‘i’ was dropped from ‘Padmavati’, all allusions to history were jettisoned and a fatuous disclaimer about not glorifying sati inserted. The honour of a 14th-century fictional queen was restored and the real business of the INR 200-crore (USD 29.7 million) film was back on track. Once Padmaavat – about the siege of Chittorgarh by Allauddin Khilji, the Turkic ruler of the Delhi sultanate – was finally released on 25 January 2018, it quickly became the first blockbuster of the year. This, despite it not being released in five states in India, a government ban in Haryana, and the Multiplex Association of India deciding not to screen the film in order to protect its assets in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa from the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, whose threats had only intensified after the film’s clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) following revisions.
The Karni Sena, an organisation of unemployed Rajput youth launched in 2006 under the leadership of one Lokendra Singh Kalvi, had, as its main aim, caste-based reservation for Rajputs in education and government jobs. In its spare time – which apparently was a lot – it agitated against what it perceived to be the “sidelining” of Rajput figures in history textbooks. Twelve years down the line, there are three factions of the group, with an ongoing legal battle over who owns the name, but all with the mandate of garnering more privileges for an already privileged upper-caste community. In 2008, they got busy agitating against the Hrithik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai starrer Jodhaa Akbar, claiming it had distorted history by showing Jodhaa as Akbar’s wife and not his daughter-in-law; the latter, they claimed, was fact. At the heart of the protest, however, seemed to be an outrage over the depiction of a marriage between a Muslim emperor and a Hindu princess. At the time, director Ashutosh Gowarikar refused to apologise despite protests, road blocks and slogan shouting. Some burning of posters later, it was business as usual. The next opportunity for protest presented itself in 2010, with the Salman Khan film Veer (meaning brave), which they alleged depicted Rajputs in poor light, thus hurting their sentiments. Vehicles were damaged and movie theatres vandalised. That this substandard film didn’t do well at the box office had more to do with its stale storyline and ham-fisted acting than the Rajput outcry.
Rajput valour was once again stirred in 2017-18, this time to protect the honour of the mythical queen Padmaavati. First, Rajput queens apparently didn’t dance in public or in front of men. But the ghoomar dance – superbly performed by Deepika Padukone as Rani Padmaavati and released as a music video months before the film was cleared – takes place in a sheltered zenana, with only Padmaavati’s husband Maharawal Ratan Singh (played by Shahid Kapoor) as a surreptitious onlooker. The CBFC ordered the offending midriff to be covered. This was easily accomplished through digital alteration, drawing the blouse a little lower. Their second objection, to ‘their’ queen being in a dream sequence with the Turkish invader Allauddin Khilji, was based solely on rumour. The Karni Sena leaders admitted that none of them had seen the film, but refused to preview it on director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s invitation: why allow fact to interfere with righteous indignation?
These perceived insults to the Rajput community led testosterone-pumped youth of the Karni Sena to attack the sets of Padmaavati and threaten the actors, despite Bhansali’s repeated clarification that there was no such dream sequence, and in fact, Khilji and their Rani did not share a single scene. But everyone had an opinion, even the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who demanded action against Bhansali. The valiant defenders of Rajput honour threatened to cut off Deepika Padukone’s nose “like Surpanakha” (the demon In the epic Ramayana whose nose Laxman chopped off after she dared to make sexual advances towards his brother Ram). Padukone’s family in Bangalore was intimidated and needed police protection; effigies of the star and the director were hung from a tree.
Whether Rani Padmaavati, or Padmini as she is also known, even existed is a matter of debate. According to many historians, such as S Irfan Habib, there are no historical records to prove her existence, and she is a figment of a poet’s imagination. Sufi poet Malik Muhammed Jayasi’s epic poem Padmaavat (minus the ‘i’), written in Awadhi around 1540, more than two centuries after the capture of Chittor in 1303, narrates how Allauddin Khilji (1266-1316), captivated by Padmaavati’s beauty upon seeing a picture of her, heads to Chittorgarh to win her over. Giving in to his desperation to behold her beauty in person, and in the hope that he would leave her alone thereafter, Padmaavati reveals herself through her reflection using strategically placed mirrors in the palace. According to Jayasi, the fleeting glimpse of her reflection, however, serves only to further bewitch Khilji, who becomes determined to possess her. Persuasion, charm, intrigue and open war do not succeed, and though he wins the battle, Khilji cannot have Padmaavati. In the end, the queen, along with hundreds of women in her court, commits jauhar, or self-immolation, in order to escape falling into the hands of the invader and the inevitable ‘dishnour’. Some historians, such as Krishna Gopal Sharma, say that there is evidence that Padmini was the 15th-century wife of Rawal Ratan Singh of Chittor, but her beauty being the trigger for Khilji’s invasion of Chittor was a myth, as was the much-embellished story of Padmini revealing only her reflection to an obsessed Khilji.
Making of the ‘sati’
The easy slide into community myth-making around widow immolation in Rajasthan is not new. About three decades before the brouhaha over Padmaavat, on 4 September 1987, 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband Maal Singh in full view of Deorala village in Sikar district of Rajasthan. Senior politicians lauded the fact that such an incident could take place in modern India, and large amounts of money were made by the woman’s family and other glorifiers. Despite a court order preventing any worship and directing the police to prevent crowds from gathering at the place, 13 days after Kanwar’s death, there was a chunari ceremony glorifying the immolation. No action was taken by the Rajasthan government, which seemingly colluded with those glorifying sati.
Kanwar’s was not the first incident of sati after Independence. It was the fortieth. However, it was the unprecedented mobilisation of women’s groups in Rajasthan and Delhi in particular which ensured that Kanwar’s murder would not fade into obscurity. Two joint forums emerged in the wake of anti-sati agitations: The Joint Action Committee against Sati (JACAS) and the Sati Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (SVSM).
Women’s groups lobbied with the state government to bring in the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance, 1987, and later with the central government to bring in the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987. The law thus made punishable any activity that could be termed as glorification in the name of sati.
The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, which was passed in a hurry in 1988 without much debate, had two major problems. Alhough the Act was comprehensive, as it prevented not only the commission of sati but also its glorification and stipulated a range of punishments for the violation of its provisions, it still fell short of calling sati a murder, because of the supposed religious sanction behind it. The Act stated, “sati or burning or burying alive of widows is revolting to the feelings of human nature and is nowhere enjoined by any of the religions of India as an imperative duty [emphasis author’s].” The hesitation of the State to unequivocally condemn the act of sati showed how religious norms and practices circumscribe social reform. Another problematic provision was that along with others, it also held the woman who attempts to commit sati liable for one to five years of imprisonment and a fine of INR 5000 (USD 300) to INR 20,000 (USD 1160).
In spite of the law against glorification being in place in Rajasthan, in the districts and cities of Jaipur, Alwar and Sikar, there was open violation of the law: a large number of rallies with protestors wielding naked swords and chanting slogans in praise of sati and Roop Kanwar were seen. Twenty two cases were filed by the Rajasthan police in these districts under the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance. By November, the police had filed the chargesheets in these matters. The accused successfully challenged these chargesheets in the Rajasthan High Court, but after an appeal in 1991, the Supreme Court reversed the judgement, and in January 2003, sent them back for trial to Jaipur. However, on 31 January 2004, the Special Court on Sati Prevention cum Sessions Court in Jaipur acquitted all the 11 accused in four of the 22 cases on glorification of sati that were filed 16 years before. Prohibition of the glorification of sati and the impact it has on social discourse was thus never established as a legal precedent.
The practice of sati is not exclusive to Rajasthan. In many instances, it has been linked to denial of land rights, and is a convenient way to get elderly women out of the line of succession. In the Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, a septuagenarian widow was immolated in 2005, making it the seventh recorded case in the district since Independence and the first in the 21st century. Hundreds of people thronged to the cremation site, and a desperate widow was transformed into the ‘Sati Devi’. Prayers were offered at the site where a makeshift chabootra (canopy) had come up. Among the ‘devotees’ was UP minister Jagdish Chand Bose, a close associate of then Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. Bose reportedly circled the pyre, and even scooped some of the ash lying there and rubbed it on his forehead as a mark of respect. Others came with incense sticks and diyas to perform puja. This outright violation of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, which forbids any glorification of sati, never received the social and legal pushback it should have, further reinforcing the legitimacy of widow immolation. It is this legitimacy that allows a film like Padmaavat to pass scrutiny of the CBFC with a mere disclaimer.
Flying embers and missed opportunities
Feminists across India would have been up in arms against the glorification of mass sati or jauhar, had they not been preoccupied in guarding the flame of creative expression from being unceremoniously doused by the marauding Karni Sena. All debates focused on the right of the filmmaker to interpret history creatively, to be given free reign to depict a mythical princess. There was a general sense of being appalled at the goonish Karni Sena and its strong-arm tactics, and disgust at its aggressive masculinity and intimidation. What didn’t become an immediate and obvious campaign was to call out the blatant glorification of widow immolation: jauhar and sati.
On the first day of its release, after all the hurdles had been overcome, feeling virtuous about supporting creative freedom, I slid into my seat. What followed was two and a half hours of an unrelenting assault on sense and sensibility. The hallmark Bhansali extravaganza, with opulent sets, lavish costumes and over-the-top jewellery; the stylised frames and imposing visual effects tell a grand story of misogyny, homophobia and Islamophobia. At the thundering climax, ducking the flying embers in all their 3D glory, I beheld in utter dismay the audience – largely young people – get to its feet and slowclap Rani Padmaavati, kohl-lined eyes brimming with unshed tears, ethereal face framed by shiny tresses swaying with every step as she leads children, young women, elderly women, pregnant women, tall women, short women, single women and married women to certain death. Even as the hall emptied to sounds of appreciation over this spectacle of misogyny clothed in splendid lehengas, what was striking was how many wonderful opportunities Bhansali missed.
He missed allowing the young princess from Sinhala Dweepa – as legend has it – to come into her own as a queen consort, military strategist and administrator. Not satisfied with transplanting the dynamic, Amazon-like huntress leaping onto vines in a lush forest in a pretty palace to become a vapid clothes horse for designer lehengas and jewellery, Bhansali strips this magnificent young woman of any say in her own future and that of her kingdom. Instead he leaves it to the dithering, cardboard-cutout Rawal Ratan Singh to blunder his way to inevitable defeat, with naïve notions of honour and Rajput valour, unprepared for a ruthless opponent riding roughshod over gentlemanly virtue. Despite Bhansali’s best efforts, we get a glimpse of the astute young woman, thinking three moves ahead, reading the enemy’s mind and making fine getaway plans, only to be thwarted by her husband who seems to value honour more than life.
Bhansali also missed an opportunity to delve into a taboo subject – Allauddin Khilji’s sexuality. With Ranveer Singh’s Khilji not sharing a single frame with Deepika Padukone’s Padmaavati, and Shahid Kapoor’s wooden personality as Rawal Ratan Singh not striking any resonance with his gorgeous bejewelled queen, the only sensual element is provided by Khilji’s interaction with his slave-general, the eunuch Taj al-Din Izz al-Dawla, better known as Malik Kafoor. Played brilliantly by Jim Sarbh, the homoerotic relationship between the sultan and his slave is replete with sizzling chemistry and raw sensuality, especially the Binte Dil song sequence with Khilji indulging in a leisurely bath and Kafoor providing, in more ways than one, the burning torch. Unrequited love – for it is unabashedly love from Kafoor’s side – provides a more interesting tension in this complex relationship than Khilji’s one-dimensional obsession with Padmaavati. There is some historical evidence that Khilji was bisexual and was intimate with Kafoor, whom he trusted above all his other associates. Jettisoning any attempt at a mature exploration of Khilji’s bisexuality, however, Padmaavat follows the time-tested and lazy route of mocking any deviation from heterosexuality, making Malik Kafoor a laughing stock rather than an able general and confidante, whose strategically sound advice, according to historical evidence, Alauddin Khilji is supposed to have relied on.
In the end, Bhansali also missed an opportunity for a more nuanced exploration of the persona of Allauddin Khilji, He chose instead to reinforce the growing global Islamophobia to paint a barbaric picture of Khilji as a vicious, rugged marauder with flowing locks. The crudity is enhanced by cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s decision to film Khilji’s scenes in darkness and brooding shadows. When the ruthless Khilji is not plotting the downfall of sundry rulers in the northern plains, he is gnawing legs of lamb with gusto, eyes glazed in the very picture of raw hedonism. In contrast, Rawal Ratan Singh, strolling through his gardens or nibbling at an elaborate spread in polished thalis, fawned over by his retinue, is filmed in hues of amber, red and yellow, light and colour imbuing every frame with romance. The viewer is urged to compare this ‘civilised’ and gentle ruler with the savage alien pacing restlessly in the encampment below.
The brutish persona created by Bhansali would bear little resemblance to the sultan who patronised one of the Subcontinent’s best loved Sufi mystics and scholars, Ab’ul Hasan Yamin-ud-Din Khusrau better known as Amir Khusro (1253-1325) who went on to become a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. This court poet and chronicler witnessed the transition from the Mamluk dynasty to the Khilji dynasty, with the Turkish takeover of the Delhi sultanate by Jalaluddin Khilji, in whose court his poetry and music flourished. Considered the ‘father of the Qawwali’ and credited with developing the ghazal style of music, Khusro was bestowed the title of ‘Amir’. The Delhi sultanate under Allauddin Khilji, Jalauddin’s nephew and son-in-law, continued the patronage of Khusro, who produced some of his finest work the Khamsa-e-Khusro, the Khusro-Shirin and Laila-Majnu, Ain-e-Sikandari and many others during this period. In Bhansali’s rendering, Khusro has a miss-if-you-blink role, since an appreciation of poetry does not fit the demonic Khilji.
Allauddin Khilji’s military prowess resulted not only in conquering several Hindu kingdoms in the Deccan, but was also successful in staving off the Mongol invasion of the Subcontinent. Besides instituting agrarian reforms, price control, and revenue and administrative reforms, detailed in standard history textbooks, Allauddin was one of the first sultans to separate religion from state. This picture of a more dignified, statesman-like Allauddin was ably portrayed by Om Puri in Shyam Benegal’s 53-episode The Discovery of India, produced for state-broadcaster Doordarshan in 1988. Without whitewashing the ruthless intrigue and brutality of empire building, Benegal’s sultan was nevertheless more thoughtful and layered.
In the current polarised atmosphere, where labels and boxes are the currency of public discourse, there is no space for complexity. For all the opulent colour lavished on every frame, Sanjay Leela Bhansali unfortunately chooses to paint his characters in black and white alone. Not for nothing did the film rake in INR 525 crore (USD77.7 million) worldwide and INR 300 crore (USD 44.5 million) in India, the first ever Indian film with a female lead to break into the ‘200 crore (USD 30 million) club’ – all within a matter of weeks. The comfort of having good and evil neatly categorised with an identifiable object of hate – the Muslim male – and a pious subject of reverence – the virtuous Hindu woman – is ideologically and financially an immensely profitable prospect.
~Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, and is a Contributing Editor with Himal Southasian. She is currently coordinating a Zubaan-Panos initiative on sexual violence and impunity in Southasia through theatre and other performing arts.