At the onset, let it be asserted that freedom of expression is sacrosanct in a democracy and no artist deserves to be bullied and harassed by fanatical fringe outfits with their fundamentalist fundas the way Sanjay Leela Bhansali has. That said the man has somehow managed to alienate the right wingers and left wingers both. The former have excoriated him for his largely imagined trespass of dishonouring the legendary Rani Padmavati and insulting the Rajputs when it reality his film is an endless paean to the prowess of a privileged caste and their pristine code of honour which when viewed through the prism of history is far less flattering in light of how the various warrior clans in India failed abysmally against foreign invaders. The latter on the other hand have come out with guns blazing to excoriate his spectacular, slow – motion, colour – coordinated, glorification of Jauhar and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by India’s notorious patriarchy.
Of course, one does not wish to discuss the bullying organizations, backed by a government that seems to thrive on fermenting religious unrest and media who has given heft to their threats by allowing them to hog the limelight endlessly, any more than they already have been. Accusations about Jauhar are more valid even if opinions on this sensitive subject remain divisive. Of course, a filmmaker is well within his rights to tell his story any old way he sees fit and is not under any obligation to take into account, new age feminist beliefs especially if he wishes to stay true to the period in which his saga is set. And yet, therein lies the problem – Bhansali’s messy mishmash of a film does not do justice to either Jayasi’s epic poem, Padmaavat nor the admittedly scanty historical records of the fall of Chittor.
For instance, a modicum of research would have revealed the status quo at the time. The various warring factions of the Rajput clans were unable to bury the ill feelings between them on account of infighting and lacked a strong leader like Prithviraj Chauhan to unite them against an invader of the calibre of Alauddin Khalji. Consequently, none of them dared risk an open battle with the Khalji forces which were superior in terms of numbers, strength, weaponry and discipline. That left the Rajputs with no choice but to hole themselves up in their fortresses like Chittorgarh and hope their allies would come through or pray for divine intervention, neither of which was forthcoming.
In the meantime, Khalji’s generals besieged them and cut off all supplies to the fort. Alauddin was not above bribing willing traitors to betray their people and reveal hidden passages inside, starving out the beleaguered populace or poisoning the water sources. Those trapped within had a rough time out of it with every mouthful being rationed, water becoming scarce, hygiene and waste disposal becoming increasingly problematic leading to outbreaks of disease and finally, a mounting death toll. In desperate straits and when all hope seemed lost, the men rather than give in to the expectedly humiliating terms of surrender prepared themselves for one last charge and the women readied themselves for Jauhar to avoid the sacking, slaughter and rape that was the most likely scenario.
Of course, Bhansali with his almost masturbatory attention to aesthetic detailing can hardly be expected to portray the sordid reality of a siege or capture the foolhardiness of a warrior clan so steeped in pride that they treated war like a game that ought to be played to the bitter end and gave their misguided notions of honour precedence over the lives of those who depended on them. Instead, with his ugly obsession for all things bright and beautiful, he mounts grandiose scenes stacked one on top of the other, where the denizens of Chittorgarh are shown celebrating Holi and Diwali with ritualistic rigor, with marble fountains tinkling away merrily in the background while the invaders cooled their feet and chomped on chicken at their gates. And let us not forget the royal ladies, who are always dressed to the nines, adorned with clunky, uncomfortable looking nose – rings through the good times and bad, leaving them teary – eyed and unable to blow their noses for the life of them. The entire thing is ludicrous to say the least!
Back then, Jauhar was a choice made by women to avoid dishonour. We have no right to judge them for that but it would also behove us to take into account the irrefutable fact, that Jauhar as well as Sati was often performed with political expediency in mind. Many women were driven to the flames under duress, and often dosed with opiate mixtures to render them docile and encourage them embrace their doom with decorum. One wonders, if Bhansali would have lingered lovingly on the horrid visual of a pregnant woman and her daughter, traipsing prettily towards their deaths or portrayed the Rani Padmavati requesting her husband’s permission to kill herself, thereby surrendering her agency, had he known the awful truth behind romanticized legends.
Equally problematic is the lack of a balanced perspective in Bhansali’s narrative and his pandering to populist agendas, especially in a time when there is so much hatred and intolerance with regard to faith, caste and class. His portrayal of the Muslim invaders as barbaric and dishonourable while massaging the egos of the Hindus is deplorable to say the least. Alauddin Khalji by all accounts was ruthless, ambitious and known to display a savage streak but the same can be said about every great ruler this land has seen, irrespective of their faith. Khalji was also considered an able administrator, brave warrior and generous benefactor who patronized the arts. Would it have been so bad to give him a curlicue of credit and acknowledge his mighty deeds? After all, we are a secular nation even if only on paper.
This lack of nuance is proof of the prejudice seeping through Bhansali’s so – called auteurist sensibility that saturates every sumptuous frame and is every bit as offensive as the scant respect shown to the source material Bhansali has so liberally borrowed from. It is somewhat galling that someone who has lavished a fortune on decadent costumes, ostentatious jewellery, splendid sets; expended endless effort on synchronizing even the flickering of the flames in the umpteen lamps that twinkle in artificial harmony or the rippling of muscles on hyper masculine torsos, couldn’t be bothered with sparing a little time and thought towards ensuring historical authenticity and thereby creating a worthy work of art that would have deserved to be defended from the extremist elements that sought to suppress it. In the end, it was much ado over nothing, after all.