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India’s Padmaavat: An Ode to Conservatism and Moral Victories

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India’s Padmaavat: An Ode to Conservatism and Moral Victories

Both the movie and the controversy around it show how we judge things and people we do not know.

India’s Padmaavat: An Ode to Conservatism and Moral Victories

Princess Padmavati ca. 1765 Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So much has been said, shouted, and written about Padmaavat that the controversy surrounding the movie could have become a book that would offer more surprises and plot twists than the film itself. Such an achievement, by the way, would not be that hard, judging by the story of the film.I wrote a piece about the controversy for The Diplomat, and a more up-to-date text with a broader picture was recently penned by Priyanka Borpujari.

While most of the quarrels about the movie happened before it was even allowed to be screened, Padmaavat is now rocking the cinemas, and hence I decided to surrender to the popular mood once again and write about the film as such. I will try my best to retain this focus and keep the subject of the controversy at the margins and the ending of my text, but I cannot promise I will discipline myself completely: after all, Padmaavat without the controversy around it is not a full picture.

True to its title, the movie is partially based on a 16th century poem bearing the same title, and written by the Muslim Sufi poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi. Like the poem, Padmaavat tells the story of Ratan Singh, the king of Chittaur (in northern India), who while visiting Singhal (Sri Lanka) chanced upon the beautiful princess Padmini. The two were hitting on each other from the very start, as the encounter started with Padmini accidently hitting the king with an arrow. They agree to marry and move from the damp, forested island of Singhal to the arid kingdom of Chittaur and its rock-perched fort (“One thing I can’t bring you here is the sea” the king tells the queen; “Your eyes are like the sea,” she replies).

The film then leaves out many parts of the poem and many of its magical elements (such as the talking parrot that brought the news of Padmini’s beauty and the entire sea voyage) and cuts to the chase – in this case, the chase enacted by the wicked sultan Alauddin Khilji who resolves to kidnap Padmini and make her his wife. Here, the movie employs a number of historical personae and events: not only the Turkish Muslim Sultan Alauddin Khilji, but also his trusted slave, the cunning military commander Malik Kafur or the court poet Amir Khusro. Khilji’s wars with Mongols, his plundering raids across India and his siege of Chittaur are some of the historical events shown in the film.

The work is a visual masterpiece, even if that is one of its few pluses. The movie’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is known to create exactly these kinds of movies: storming your eyes with colors, rich with design and robes, courtly in style, and a bit slow in action. Every scene seems so meticulously planned that it looks like a painting. For me, their beauty is in the small and careful details: the ornaments on the walls, the burned holes of the sultan’s tent after it was attacked. The two parts of another recent Indian hit, Bāhubali, were amongst most expensive Indian and highest-grossing movies of all time,  but their creators could learn a thing or two about visual effects from Bhansali. But the movie scenes are like paintings in more than one way: they are also often slow, theatrical, and the actors sometimes often speak to the audience like preachers.

The scenery may be fiercely colorful but the moral message of the film is predominantly black-and-white. The protagonists of the movie are virtuous to the marrow of their bones: the warriors would not stab someone in the back, would not attack a guest, would not strike a wounded enemy. Tyrion Lannister would grind his teeth to dust at these heroes. They are good people and they are good Hindus: they observe all the religious traditions. It must be stressed that a wicked Hindu priest does play a crucial part in the plot, but so does the king, who cannot sentence the immoral priest to death as killing a Brahman would be “against the rules.” As King Ratan Singh and his kin belonged to ethnic group of Rajputs (and the Rajput caste exists in modern India), the film is full of praise for Rajput valor and virtue. The exhortations of Padmaavat go even further: eventually even moral victories are praised; the good win even when they lose, and the evil fail because they win.

The antagonists are much more interesting, real, and nuanced. Allauddin Khilji is the sum of all evils, but he is also much more human than the protagonists: his passion and ambition give him fierce energy, but make him faulty; we see him triumphing on the battleground but we also see him weakened by wounds; we witness him plotting but we also see him dozing off to sleep before an important meeting. That scene is one of the funny ones, and it is worth adding that humor emerges as one of the brighter sides of the movie — rather unexpectedly for a stiff story about the clash between Good and Evil. Once again, however, it is the bad guys that act in most of the funny scenes.

Even after all social manipulations that fueled the controversy around the movie, it is still hard to understand why it was attacked by certain radical groups (before they even saw it). Padmaavat was expected to hurt Rajput sentiments, but the film is all about how wonderful Rajputs are (the movie, ironically, remains banned in the state of Rajasthan, the homeland of most Rajputs). The obscure Rajput Hindu organizations that attacked the movie expected it to contain an erotic dream sequence between the Muslim sultan and a Hindu queen, but throughout the three hours of the film the brutal Alauddin hardly gets a glimpse of Padmini. Here Padmaavat plays with the viewers: the question whether the sultan will even see the queen is one of the main engines of the plot.

It’s not that Padmini is escaping from Alauddin or that she is hiding from him — she is being hidden. Women are made the object, rather than the subject, of the plot. Padmini starts off as independent woman, yet, very soon – when the marriage offer appears – she is transformed into an obedient and loyal partner to her new king. In the middle of the story, Padmini seems to be taking the central stage again and prepares a daring plan that has chances of turning the tables at the enemy, but in an illogical and inconsistent plot twist at the very last moment before the execution of the plan, Padmini passes on to the initiative to her ever-so-knightly husband who spoils everything. This also means that after an hour, the story brings us back to where it had already been (the enemy besieging Chittaur) and sends Padmini back to where many would like to keep her – to the inner chambers of the palace.

There is a moment in the story when unarmed Alauddin is a guest at Chittaur and he demands to see Padmini. This is when the usually calm King Ratan Singh draws his sword at his guest. A man who is not part of the family or the community demanding to see his wife seemingly offends Ratan Singh more the other provocations of the Turkish sultan. What would actually happen if Alauddin did see – and only see – Padmini? Would he spoil her by just witnessing her beauty? Such a scene could have given her a chance to mark her stamp on the story, to confront the antagonist in her own way. Yet, Padmini is not given that opportunity because she is a woman and the men of her new family do not want an evil stranger to look at her.

The movie is very conservative – by the standards of Indian commercial movies – when it comes to women’s sexuality. It uncovers much less of the female body than the usual Bollywood blockbuster. The censorship reportedly including cutting out a scene of the heroine exposing her belly in a dance. At the same time, the Padmaavat offers a decent number – or maybe some would say “indecent” number – of stills with muscular, bare male chests.  King Ratan Singh, but much more the sultan Alauddin Khilji, stretch out and strain their muscles from side of the screen to the other (Ranveer Singh, the actor paying Alauddin, did the same in one of his earlier movies with Bhansali).

More notably, there is more than a hint that the slave commander Malik Kafur is homosexual, and one sequence suggest some erotic action between the sultan and the slave. Interestingly for the plot, Kafur, as a loyal servant, is helping his sultan in his endeavor to capture the queen but also wishes him to fail, hoping that sultan’s emotions would then turn to his male slave. While the Hindu radicals protested about a nonexistent Hindu-Muslim erotic dream sequence, I have not noted any criticism of an erotically charged scene between the two men which did appear in the movie.

Lastly, and most importantly, the film was attacked by Hindu radicals and was banned by Hindu nationalists in a few Indian states, while it should actually be used a textbook propaganda material for those that opposed it. We have good Hindus attacked by an evil Muslim sultan, and while Islam is not shown as his driving force, we are left with no doubts that Alauddin and his men are Muslims (and historically there is also no doubt that they were followers of Islam). We have a wanton Muslim craving to capture and ensnare a chaste Hindu woman, an element that touches the very bottom of Hindu nationalist stereotypes of Islam. That maybe the reason while the people that protested against the movie did not so far focus on the sensual scene between the two men – after all, it is a scene between the two Muslim men. The irony that the movie itself is to a large degree based on a poem written by a Muslim poet has not been lost on many commentators.

The radical Hindus that opposed the movie and banned it in a number of Indian states should have promoted it instead. It is factually true that Alauddin indulged in excessive rapine of India and Hindus have no reason to love him, but the rhetoric of the film goes beyond history and into the realms of symbols and stereotypes. In a passionate speech by one of the characters, the Rajputs’ fight against the invading Delhi sultanate is likened to the eternal struggle between Good and Evil, yet another chapter of the same war which had been more than once fought between Hindu gods and demons (guess who the demons are, then).

No wonder that while Padmaavat was wrongly expected to hurt the sentiments of some of the Hindus in India, it was recently banned in Malaysia for hurting the sentiments of Muslims. Even the main protesting organization, the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, turned out to be divided on the issue. After prolonged protests, some of them violent, and after stalling the release of Padmaavat for months, Shri Rajput Karni Sena ridiculed itself when one of its leaders, having finally watched the movie, said that not only there is nothing objectionable but that it does indeed praise the Rajputs. Hence, he claimed, the group was withdrawing the protests. The main leader of the organization, however, was quick to deny that the protests were halted and claimed that the strikebreaker who dared to see the movie has been expelled from the organization.

One problem, obviously, is that I will never be sure if I am watching the same film as the one that was to hit the cinemas last year, if not for the delays. Even the title has been changed: it was supposed to be named Padmavati before, but finally became Padmaavat. I do not know how many changes were made and how deep the censorship went, but it seems certain that some changes were made. It seems quite possible that the final form of the movie does more to pamper the radicals than the original, but just how much more? At any rate, the creators of the movie declared many times that the rumored objectionable scene was not even in to the first version of Padmavat.

I was not tired after nearly three hours of watching, but I assume many were, and for good reasons. Padmaavat is too long but ends too abruptly. In the poem, the sultan eventually stands in destroyed Chittaur and realizes it was not what he wanted. His own desire destroyed the very object of that desire. I wish such a scene had been included in the movie but the message is in the story anyway. While the creators of Padmaavat focused on another moral (and they serve it to us with a subtlety of a shovel), for me the advantage of the film – regardless of its shortcomings, stereotypes and generalizations – is that it approaches the subject of desire. Alauddin came to long for Padmini though he never properly saw her. He loves her in his wicked way only because he heard she is the world’s most beautiful woman and having her by her side would make him a more accomplished conqueror. He thinks of himself as exceptional and thus wants to be surrounded by exceptional trophies.

Apart from the scale and the black-and-white picture, there is something deeply human in the way desire was shown in the movie. Most people are not Alauddins. But don’t we desire things only because we think them exceptional and because we hope possessing them would make us exceptional too? (Just in case: I don’t think of Padmini as a “thing” but in many ways the movie portrays her as such, so the comparison works). And aren’t we often swayed by hearsay or the look, don’t we often desire something or somebody before properly getting to know the nature of that object or person? Isn’t this what advertisements do to us so often? And don’t we often want the things we don’t or can’t have? Don’t we often want them only because they seem to be better when someone else possesses them?

Finally, there is at least one more parallel between the world of the movie and our world. Alauddin started to desire Padmini only because one person told him about her. He never paused to think whether the rumor was true – and the harder it was to witness and capture Padmini, the more he desired her. In reality, the people that opposed the movie did not see it (at least until recently). Their objections were fueled by even less then rumors: by their own assumptions. And thus the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, an organization about most people had never heard about, emerged as the central actor in the drama around the movie, becoming exceptional only because the situation was rather exceptional. Just like in the movie Alauddin demanded a few times to be able to at least look at Padmini, the members of the Karni Sena continuously pushed for a chance to see the movie before it was screened, in order to become its self-appointed moral censors. And, just like Alauddin, the actions of the radicals from Karni Sena and similar organizations eventually dealt damage to both the movie and themselves.