Women have often embodied land and country both in terms of representation in Bollywood cinema and in the popular imagination in the Subcontinent. Indian cinema has long been the visual register for a post-colonial nation trying to brand itself after 1947.
In the early days it was the figure of the suffering or heroic mother (eg Mehboob Khan’s Mother India) that formed a reference point. Much later, a spate of films in the 2000s focussing on Muslim-Hindu romance began to project the woman as land or property that must be owned and subordinated. In one of the biggest hits of that era, Gaddar (2001), a Muslim woman marries a Sikh man who then fights against half the Pakistani military to being her back into the Indian fold. The ‘Dharti Ma’ ideal was cast aside, and the visual representation of land became the young and fertile beloved. In this narrative, capturing a woman’s affection marked her as the property of the dominant nation. This trend coincided with the unbridled rise of Hindutva and fanatical organisations like the Shiv Sena finding a voice in the politics of modern India. Increasingly, women in political films became an insignia of the nation itself. As Nira Yuval-Davis points out, men are supposed to act out the nation, women are supposed to be it.
This may all sound remote but in reality some things haven’t changed. In the context of historical cinema this same trope is being played out in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Rajput story Padmavati, where Rani Padmini (Deepika Padukone) is reportedly an obscure object of desire for Muslim invader Allaudin Khilji (played complicatedly by Padukone’s real life boyfriend Ranveer Singh). Anthropologist Mary Douglas contends that the images of the physical body may symbolically represent certain anxieties and vulnerabilities of the macrocosm of the social body; hence the conscientious objection by Rajput activists to glimpses of Rani Padmani’s torso in the first video song released in the film, reveals anxieties about the sexualisation of Rani Padmini, who is a highly revered figure in Rajput culture even though it is possible she never existed and may well be a fictional Rajput queen from the epic poem Padmavat by16th-century poet Malik Muhammed Jayasi.
In this narrative Padmini commits Jauhar Sati, the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre to ‘protect her honour’ from the invading Muslim emperor Khilji who has killed her husband in battle. Some nationalist Indian historians have spoken of “foreign” (read as ‘Muslim’) efforts to erase Padmini from Indian history. But as Andreas Huyssen asserts, the temporal status of any act of memory is always the present and not the past itself. Real or not, Rani Padmini exists because some people, including those protesting against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, and Bhansali himself want her to exist.
That the queen is possibly a fictional character doesn’t negate her impact on the Rajput community: People in Rajasthan make an annual pilgrimage to the Jauhar Kund to commemorate her self-immolation. The Padmini Mahal, where she supposedly lived, is regarded as sacrosanct, and temples built in her memory in Rajasthan. That there was a need to collectively ‘remember’ the figure of a Hindu queen who dies resisting a Muslim invader’s advances is revealing. It is one way to claim victory in defeat; even if Khilji was able to win the battle, he lost the war. He didn’t succeed in destroying the honour of the Rajputs, because invariably honour is vested in women. The notion that the director is reputedly messing with this linear interpretation of Padmini (he has repeatedly denied that the film depicts any romance between the Muslim king and the Hindu queen) will invariably anger those who are comforted by the real or imagined existence of a Rajput woman who stood up against Muslim domination.
Ironically, Bhansali has made a career out of outputting a steady stream of films bathed in a visual paraphernalia and grandiose Hindu lore that caters quite easily to the cultural needs of Hindu nationalism. That his transformation of historical figures into film icons is bound to tamper or take liberties with a more sacrosanct preservation of history is inevitable. It is not just Padmini who potentially suffers this fate: The BBC reports that some liberals have complained the trailer shows the Muslim emperor of the Delhi Sultanate in “a distorted fashion as a meat-eating, deranged marauder.” Are there issues with how Bhansali reads history? Of course there are.
Recently, Gurinder Chadha made a film which touted a rather controversial view of Partition, claiming that Pakistan was the result of a pact between Winston Churchill and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Does that mean her life or that of any other director including Bhansali should be threatened? Or that the female lead of the film be vilified and told her nose will be cut off? Absolutely not! Filmmakers should be critiqued for their work or their integrity in dealing with historical facts. But they cannot and should not have their creativity contained by physical violence or the burning of effigies.
Part of the problem is that be it Karan Johar or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, directors have resorted to or been cornered into apologising for their stories. This may be seen as the only recourse by directors at the time but it sets a nasty tradition with no way out; you cannot make a film that will not hurt anyone’s sentiments. Films need to be challenging and they need to be challenged. The way people can protest a film is not to go see it. But to ban it or take away the right of others to see it is not the way to function in a supposedly civilised society, and certainly the UK will not tolerate threats from the Rajput Karni Sena saying they will burn cinemas that show Padmavati.
That a regional leader of the Bharatiya Janata ruling party can publicly offer a reward of INR10 crore for beheading Deepika Padukone or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and get away with it is outrageous. The man should be in jail for inciting violence with a reward. But this is Narendra Modi’s India. Cow vigilantes will be protected, history books may be rewritten with false Hindu victories against Muslims and the Taj Mahal may be disavowed. For me, the real issue with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film is not with the exposed midriff of an imagined queen but that it potentially valourises the suicidal act of Jauhar Sati. That issue has been almost altogether lost in the hoopla. Author Devdutt Pattanaik tweeted: “SLB made a film that glamorises & valorises the idea of a woman voluntarily burning herself to protect ‘honour’ of her macho clan...”
That this is not what people are protesting is bizarre.
The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: fifiharoon