By Ila Ananya
What do we know about the story of Padmavati and her talking parrot Hiraman?
Nobody can seem to tell if it’s a real story, but everyone agrees that it involves the most beautiful Padmavati or Rani Padmini, wife of Ratan Sen, the king of Chittor (who had learnt of her beauty from her talking parrot). The story also involves Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, who wanted to capture Chittor so that he could have the beautiful Padmavati to himself. When Khilji began his invasion and Padmavati was certain they would lose the battle (her husband had been killed in another battle with another king who also wanted Padmavati for himself), she committed jauhar (mass self-immolation) with the other women in her kingdom before he could reach them. In the end, Khilji won nothing but an empty fortress.
This is the story about Padmavati that Malik Muhammed Jayasi wrote in 1540. Ever since director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was attacked by the Karni Sena on the sets of his upcoming film Padmavati in Jaipur on 27 January, we have heard story after story about Padmavati, with different bits of detail. There have been numerous arguments — mostly about whether she’s real or fictional and about artistic freedom — while men like BJP leader Akhilesh Khandelwal have announced that there will be a reward of Rs 10,000 per hit for anyone who assaults Bhansali with a shoe.
The Karni Sena got riled up about an alleged romantic sequence between Padmavati and Khilji in Bhansali’s movie — an allegation that Bhansali has refuted since he was attacked. As of 30 January, he assured protestors that the film wouldn’t have any romance between Padmavati and Khilji, to which protestors retorted that they wanted to change the film’s title, and review it before its release.
So where is all the anger coming from? Protests against Bhansali began only because it was believed that he wasn’t “honouring” Padmavati’s dignity — and everyone now rushed to save her honour. After all, as BJP Union Minister Giriraj Singh said rather grandly, “Padmavati destroyed herself but did not surrender.” Did not surrender to a Muslim ruler, he means. In fact, if you go looking for references to jauhar it’s hard to find any grand trumpeting about Rajput women committing jauhar to escape conquests by fellow Rajputs.
“They [filmmakers] are trying to distort our history to show us in poor light in public. We can no longer remain silent. We consider it our responsibility to reign in such forces,” Khandelwal had said on Facebook. Who was this “our” and “we” that Khandelwal was referring to? Echoing him, Singh, in all his wisdom, also argued that “historical facts” about Padmavati were being twisted simply because she was Hindu — while no filmmaker would dare to make a movie on Prophet Mohammed. “The film is being made by those for whom Aurangzeb and such personalities are icons,” Singh went on to say, adding that Bhansali’s movie was a misrepresentation of the country’s culture.
Back when Bajirao Mastani released in 2015, Bhansali had faced similar protests about Mastani and his representation of history — and Mastani’s relationship with Bajirao. A question that needs to be asked is how much of these protests are really about history? For that matter, what do we know about Jodha — that symbol of syncretic Mughal culture, not to mention syncretic pop culture? Historians contemporary to Akbar such as Abul Fazal never mention her. There is a Mariam Zamani, mother of Salim, but no Jodhabai. The first time she makes an appearance is in a 19th century British collection of Rajashtani folklore. Back then the Karni Sena had their own feelings about this and complained at length when Ashutosh Gowarikar made Jodhaa Akbar saying that Jodhaa was Akbar’s daughter-in-law, Salim’s wife. Yes, plot mein Karni twist.
The film was not allowed to be released in Rajasthan. Members of the Jaipur royal family back then said no no, Akbar married Jodha but like everyone else they’re also really relying on feelings. You might as well read Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence which features Jodhabai as a major character, a lonely Akbar’s imaginary wife/friend. Rushdie writes, “She was an impossibility, a fantasy of perfection. They feared her, knowing that, being impossible, she was irresistible, and that was why the King loved her best.”
The courage that Padmavati has been associated with reminded me of a tweet I had seen when India had retaliated against the Uri attack with surgical strikes. “How do you think Sati became a norm in India? Invaders would rape our women. They’d rather burn themselves,” a man had confidently tweeted. This man’s belief, along with the anger that Padmavati could possibly have chosen, if she so wanted, to romance Khilji irrespective of where he came from and what religion he belonged to, is proof that protestors don’t care about ‘historical fact’. And that they raise voices only to constantly police women’s bodies and claim to defend their honour.
In some parts of India, a woman’s ‘honour’ remains tied to her body and her relationships with men; more importantly the caste and religion of men. Of course, it can’t be a relationship with more than one man (even though Padmavati’s husband had another wife too). And since women can’t seem to make decisions for themselves and always need saving, the Karni Sena were just doing their duty.
We only know of Padmavati from Jayasi’s writing. There are also reports about Jayasi saying that his story was allegorical, but perhaps Padmavati, like fictional characters sometimes do, has taken on a role that’s larger than the story she was first included in. The strangeness around this whole issue only gets multiplied when we wonder what it means that men have decided to come to the rescue of the honour of a possibly fictional woman. If it is, as they claim, insulting to Hindus and Rajputs, why have they tied their own respect to a woman’s ‘honour’ in a way that takes away all her agency? It’s time the Karni Sena realise their arguments seem to be less about historical fact than it is about controlling Padmavati’s story — which in this case also means controlling women’s bodies.
Like Jodhaa, as long as Padmavati remained a fantasy — untouched, dead and resisting rape/romance by gair mard — macho men will rise every now and then to admire and defend her. God forbid, you catch the Karni Sena defending a rape survivor (who is not conveniently dead) or a woman who chooses her own lover.
Co-published with Firstpost.