Over the last few weeks, the row over Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali's upcoming film, Padmavati, has taken over the national consciousness in India. That a Hindi filmmaker could hit the nerve of a despotic, extremist group that calls itself the Rajput Karni Sena, is not new to the regular news-reading janta of urban India. What's new is the form of threat to freedom of expression that has taken shape in the discourse of the controversy—one that is extreme to the point of a dead body being discovered outside Nahargarh Fort in Rajasthan with a graffiti reading, “We don't just burn effigies, we hang them.” The police haven't been able to establish whether it was murder or a suicide. In the meantime, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) passed the film with a 12A rating and zero cuts, following which the Karni Sena leader went on one of the primetime news channels in the country, called upon his “fellow Rajput brothers” and threatened to burn down British theatres that will screen the film. We see before us the resurgence of the misplaced pride of a community with a glorified past, where the stories of valour against insurmountable odds are now yellowed and possibly lost in time.
But before we delve into the hows and whys of the matter, let's roll back a little. To begin with, it's not uncommon for Bollywood to come under the radar of extremist groups and individuals. Bollywood films have often drawn ire because of the creative liberties filmmakers take for their projects that are loosely based on historical figures or events. In 2008, Jodhaa Akbar, starring Bollywood A-listers Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan, and directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, drew sharp criticism from the Rajput community. In 2005, Aamir Khan-starring Mangal Pandey: The Rising had a petition filed against it in the High Court for its portrayal of the historical figure who led the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In 2001, Asoka, starring Shah Rukh Khan, became infamous for going completely off the rails when it came to historical facts.
Bhansali, for one, has courted such controversies before, with his Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-Leela, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which highlights a relationship between a man and a woman of two warring communities. A Delhi court stayed the release of the movie (as per the suit filed by six petitioners), stating that the film hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. It went on to be banned in Uttar Pradesh. In his next film, Bajirao Mastani, about Peshwa Bajirao who falls in love with a warrior princess, Bhansali went on to put a long disclaimer right at the beginning of his film stating that it doesn't claim to be an accurate representation of historical facts. It still got banned in Pakistan for being “anti-Islamic”. A few of the film's shows were cancelled in Pune, Maharashtra for “distorting historical facts”.
Padmavati has been under constant attack since day one, ever since it was in the process of getting made—right from when Bhansali's set was vandalised by the Rajput Karni Sena when he was filming at a fort in Jaipur in January this year, to stoking debates on national television screens that questioned the director's liberties while making the films. A crucial question that came forth was: who was Padmavati? The film is based on the legend of Padmavati, a Hindu Rajput queen, who was written with much flair and pomp in an epic poem by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540. Titled Padmavat, the poem goes on about the queen, the wife of Ratan Sen, the Rajput ruler of Mewar, who committed jauhar (self-immolation) after her husband's kingdom was laid siege by the Turkish-Afghan ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Alauddin Khilji. It has been historically noted that the mention of Padmavati came almost 224 years after the death of Alauddin Khilji, who ruled between 1296 to 1316. It hasn't been established whether Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji ever had a history together. Historian Pushpesh Pant states in an interview by The Quint, “There may have been a character called Rani Padmavati but the legend of Padmavati is not entirely a historical fact.” The poem itself ends with Jayasi's words: “I have made up the story and related it.”
As our historical texts increasingly get lost in translation among the urban masses instead of being found, the latest casualty, that of Padmavati, is one for the books. In the process, though, what may have worked in its favour is the interest in the film and how it will turn out for its box-office success.
The writer is a journalist based in Mumbai, India. Suvigya Khatri is her pen name.