Fact and fiction singe together as Padmavati burns

Fact and fiction singe together as Padmavati burns

The protests against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Padmavati have intensified and are no longer confined to the desert state of Rajasthan. The protests have spread to several cities in India, especially in the north and western states. The Shri Rajput Karni Sena, the Rajput outfit behind the protests has written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which it has requested that some controversial scenes be deleted from the movie before it is released in cinemas. If the government fails to ensure this, the Sena has threatened a nation-wide stir on December 1.

The film has been in trouble right from the time Bhansali started shooting it, and has seen protests by the Rajput Karni Sena at every stage as the film's publicists released the trailer and then a teaser song and so on. The Sena alleges that there are two elements in the film that are not backed up by any historical record.

One is a scene in which Queen Padmavati is shown romancing Allauddin Khilji, the powerful 13th century ruler of the Khilji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. The second objection is to Padmavati being shown performing the 'Ghoomar' dance in darbar (royal court) which, they say, is an affront to Rajput culture as no queen or princess ever danced in the royal court.

Non-Rajput groups have also supported the Sena over these objections, including Muslim outfits and the Brahmin community of Rajasthan, who too staged angry protests. Queen Padmavati, a legend of whose existence there is little historical record, has been accorded the status of a deity in many homes across Rajasthan, irrespective of caste.

A typical Sanjay Leela Bhansali period drama, Padmavati was shot on lavish sets created by spending exorbitant amounts of money, with Deepika Padukone playing the title role and Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor as the male leads. But it may not see a release in Rajasthan, where the story is located. The protests by the Rajput groups have forced film distributors to stay away from buying its distribution rights. Distributor Raj Bhansal told DH, "Our argument is that if the film offends the sentiments of the people, due to distortion of historical facts, we will not pick up the distribution rights".

The row has also seen Rajasthan's erstwhile royals come on the same page to demand its ban. Padmini Devi of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur has expressed reservations against the release of the movie in its current form. Not surprisingly, Rajput leaders, cutting across party lines - from Congress MLA Pratap Singh Kachhriawas to BJP MLA Diya Kumari - were the first ones to raise their voice in protest.  

The social media has been abuzz about the movie since its release was announced some 45 days ago. People are glued to the twitter handles of the movie's stars, eager for the latest updates and criticisms.

One of the contrarian voices that has stood out is of Rukshmani Kumari, an ex-royal and a social activist, who tweeted, "(what) Raj women should be offended by is that their state is at the bottom on women's conditions, education, health, child mortality, etc." Her tweet went viral and was quoted and retweeted by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who added, "Agree totally. The #Padmavati controversy is an opportunity to focus on the condition of Rajasthani women today & not just of queens six centuries ago. Rajasthan's female literacy among lowest. Education more important than ghoonghats".

Fact or fiction

Even many historians, especially in Rajasthan, seem to believe that Padmavati represents a queen who chose to immolate herself, along with other womenfolk, to avoid falling into the hands of the invader Allauddin Khilji. However, Padmavati is a literary character created by the 16th-century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in his poem, Padmavat.

Written in 1540, Padmavat takes as its setting Allauddin Khilji's 1303 AD siege of Chittor, which is a historical fact. In this poem, as Jayasi points out himself, Padmavati represents wisdom and Allauddin Khilji represents lust. They are symbols in an allegory, not historical personages. But in Rajasthan, a large section of Rajputs have always questioned the story in Jayasi's poem Padmavat - that Khilji attacked Chittorgarh because of his lust for Rani Padmini, or Padmavati.  

Cultural theorists have a different viewpoint. Noted cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote told DH, "No film should ever be banned. It should be discussed and debated in a spirit of healthy criticism".

But with elections about a year away, political analysts believe that the Rajput community has seized on Padmavati as a stage to emerge on as leaders and get back the attention the community has lost. "Rajputs in Rajasthan have been feeling sidelined ever since their political and social rivals, the Jats, got OBC reservations and did a one-up on them in jobs, and in Panchayati Raj and polls to local bodies," reasons political analyst Rajiv Gupta.

Although Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who is herself an erstwhile royal of Dholpur, has so far maintained a silence on the issue, the protests and the widespread media coverage have made the movie the talk of the town. Can she avoid wading into the controversy sooner or later?

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