On January 21, 2018, Bollywood was graced by what many considered an instant classic, Padmaavat. Based off of a 16th century poem by sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The poem is loosely based off the epic life of Rani Padmaavati and her battle with Sultan e Jahan, Alauddin Khilji, and her brave and honorable husband Raja Ratan Singh of Chittor.
The movie itself was marred by controversy, with Rani (Rani means “queen” in Hindi) Padmaavati revered in many villages bordering Rajasthan, India, as a goddess. Some instances where Rani Padmaavati’s actress was portrayed slightly sexualized were even removed from the movie. However, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has never shied from controversy, rather, he often, even unintentionally, can use it for his own gain . For example, 2013 release, Goliyon Ki Ras Leela, Ram-Leela, public outcry caused the name to change from just, “Ram-Leela” to the new, elongated and poetic title. Naming the movie Ram-Leela was considered an act of undermining the Hindu religion. The movie, which had extreme box office success, prevailed with unprecedented media and news coverage, similar to Padmaavat. The more controversy, the more outcry, the more exposure his movies received.
Rani Padmaavati was queen of the kingdom of Mewar during the 13th and 14th century. She was revered far and wide for her warrior spirit and beauty. Originally from Singhal (modern day Sri Lanka), the Princess was married to Raja Ratan Singh of Mewar, W. Following her marriage, she was welcomed in Chittor with open arms.
Word quickly spread of the queen’s beauty, attracting the attention of Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi at the time. Eventually, as rumors grew and Khilji assumed the power of the Sultanate, he garnered his forces to organize an attack on Chittor, his goal to finally conquer the object of his obsession, Rani Padmaavati. To force Chittor to open to him, he waged an exhaustive war, however, Chittorgarh was expertly designed and even when all their resources were cut off, the Kingdom of Mewar prevailed. Khilji raised his white flag, and simply requested an audience with the king and a glimpse of the queen. As Mewar had strict Rajput ideologies, which included secluding women from outsiders, Khilji was not permitted to see the Queen, rather she stood on the opposite side of the veranda and briefly allowed Khilji to see her reflection in the waters below. Legend has it, this brief view of one of the most powerful and beautiful women of the time maddened Khilji. The poem Padmaavat describes Khilji’s motivations as obsessive, that he wanted to own every beautiful thing on the planet, as he believes that is his divine right.
His obsessive nature drove him to kidnapping Raja Ratan Singh, grasping at possibilities of capturing Rani Padmaavati. Upon hearing of his kidnapping, Rani Padmaavati commanded that he be returned, and in his correspondences with her, it is shown that she had a few conditions. Of these, she requested a fleet of dasiyan (maidens) to accompany her to the palace. When she finally met with her husband, she commanded the women to reveal themselves as soldiers in disguise and they waged a battle with Khilji’s tribe to cause a diversion. Once again, Khilji couldn’t see the queen.
Reaching the end of his patience, Khilji commanded his forces to attack Chittor in one last battle. At this point, Chittor had no aid from other kingdoms and their forces were weakened. Still, following a strict Rajput code, they pledged to fight with honor till the very end.
As this siege continued, Rani Padmaavati commanded women of the fort, she asked them to make the greatest sacrifice in the name of honor and bravery, Jauhar. Jauhar is the sacrificial mass self-immolation of women when their men go to war and they are in danger of being taken over. Rani Padmaavati burns her body in the fire before Khilji has a chance to infiltrate the fort, showing him that although he won the battle, he most certainly lost the war.
There is very little recorded evidence that Rani Padmaavati (also called Padmini) actually ever existed, but her continuing impact on Indian history is undeniable. Her valor and intelligence are revered and she is deified in many villages across the country.
This movie, as many of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s works of art, is very accurate to the original story. Of course, creative liberty will always take place, such as in ignoring some aspects of Padmini’s meeting with Ratan Singh in Singhal, and Khilji’s relationship with his wife is much more explored in the movie than in any of the editions of the original story.
However, the movie does irrevocably well in showing how to appreciate the culture of the story. The conception of Deepika Padukone’s characterization of the queen doesn’t shy away from her unibrow and long hair, or her traditional Rajasthani clothing. Bollywood is a hallmark of Indian Culture, therefore it consistently portrays characters so that they do not disrespect the history.
In fact, Hollywood can stand to learn from Bollywood. Bollywood exists in a microcosm of all aspects of Indian Culture, mainly in a Hindu context. In movies, every aspect of the culture is taken into account and portrayed to honor the history. In the event a movie is a social commentary, the facts are executed in a way that is still respectful and historically accurate.
The dialogues of the movie are expertly written to match the statures of the characters. Every line is intentional.
One of my favorite dialogues from the movie was spoken by Rani Padmini when faced by the kidnapping of Rawal Ratan Singh; “Rajputi kangan mean untie hi dhaar hai jitney talwar mein”
“The bangles of Rajputi women are just as powerful as the swords…”
This demonstrates the power dynamics that come into play throughout the movie. Padmaavati, until her death, was a powerful character. She proved her acuity as a hunter and proficiency in the arts of war. She showed that her training was still just as impactful as it would be for a man.
On the Concept of Jauhar
Many have revered Padmaavat for its portrayal of women power through her self immolation.
Rani Padmaavati’s character is intelligent and objective, however, she isn’t revered for her intelligence or her bravery as a warrior, rather for her self sacrifice to protect her chastity. Fundamentally, the concept of Jauhar is flawed, it echoes the sentiments behind the practices of Sati, or self immolation after the death of a woman’s husband.
Padmini’s sacrifice is used as a justification for how a woman should be treated. In many of these villages, the “chastity” of the queen is used as a victim blaming or subordination agent. Remember, the writer of the original epic was a man.
Of course we must remember why Padmaavati and the women of Chittor had to self immolate. It was because the Mughals were especially known for their brutality. These women were at risk of being raped and murdered. Using this as a justification to tell your daughters what to wear and how to act is essentially holding rape over their heads and saying all the men surrounding them are as brutal as the Mughals of the Khilji clan.
Theatrically, the epic utilizes Jauhar to emphasize the fleeting nature of Alauddin’s obsession. It was materialistic, one line from the movie in fact articulates this point; “Allah Ki Banayi Hui Har Nayab Cheez Pe Sirf Allauddin Khilji Ka Haq Hai..”
“Only Allauddin Khilji has the right to all the precious treasures made by god…”
Padmaavati’s beauty, unlike her intellect and prowess, is material. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A finite body could never be truly attainable to Allauddin, so how would he conquer the vast infinity that was the world? Khilji tried to conquer the world and history, but he couldn’t conquer what he wanted most. He broke down the walls of Chittor and killed it’s king, but when he opened the ironed doors the only prize he had to show for his victory was the pire burning the ashes of the women who refused to be taken. He lost to Ratan Singh, who, as Deepika stated in an interview with Timesnow news, could reunite with Padmaavati in death, leaving Khilji in an obsolete and lonely existence, living knowing he had lost. In a literary aspect, jauhar represents the paradox of Khilji’s rule, he had everything but nothing, he won the battle but he lost the war.