PADMAVATI / PADMAAVAT dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Emoji summary: [no emoji summary bc i am fuming, this doesn’t deserve one.]
i’m writing about Padmavati/Padmaavat bc it was hyped and it made me super uncomfortable. i left the cinema feeling heavy with the weight of it all, tears streaming down my face. My boy turned to me and laughed, and i shouted “THIS IS LIKE CAT PERSON, YOU JUST WON’T UNDERSTAND”. this film was meant to be released last year in december (?) i think, but hindu nationalists have been making a fuss, throwing tantrums about it since they started shooting. in January last year, a faction of a hindu nationalist group called Rajput Karni Sena burst onto the set of the film and assaulted some of the crew and the director. Akhilesh Khandelwal, a politician n member of the BJP (who r currently in power atm) offered cash for someone to assault the director and in November last year, someone (can’t find a name) threatened to chop off Deepika Padukone’s nose for her role in the film. All bc Padmavati is about a Queen, a 11/12/13th C(?) Hindu Rajput Queen of Chittor in Rajasthan from a 16th C legend,,, who maybe didn’t even exist in the first place, but was dreamt up by the MUSLIM POET WHO WROTE PADMAVAT (AS FICTION) BC HE LIKED WRITING ABOUT LOVE N WANTED TO CREATE HETEROSEXUAL DRAMA. i want to start with transparency, by emphasising my obvious disgust for Hindu Nationalism; the implied and explicit islamaphobia (both in the nationalists’ violent backlash to the film and within the space of the film itself), the Vedic-brahminism/the casteist bullshit (that existed before it, the very essence of hinduism kinda demands it, but hindu nationalism courts it violently), the thinly veiled misogyny n disdain for bodies described as female, the very mere premise that India has ever been anything but a secular nation (the way hindu nationalism is a kind of scar tissue of divide and conquer),,, just all of it. I will say this,,, as a Hindu and a Muslim both (i am a beautiful vessel containing both i’ll have u know) i have been watching India from afar, from the other end of a long corridor;;; as an islamophobic genocidal war criminal was elected prime minister of my mother’s homeland; as ethno-nationalism slowly spreads like a cancer. It is important to say that Hinduism is entirely compatible with conservatism in the same parallel way that Islam is fundamentally aligned with Marxism;;; the very existence of a caste system (the building blocks of the religion itself) are enough for me to be ok with that statement. it makes my heart heavy speaking this aloud, esp in such a public way. But this is kinda fundamental to understanding the complexity around the film itself.
The Hindu nationalist groups that halted and delayed the release of the film (that urged British Hindus to burn UK cinemas to the ground after the BBFC passed the film without any cuts) were angry because Queen Padmavati, a rajput woman, was in a dance scene with her midriff showing (see video >>>), because there was rumoured to be a dream sequence which insinuates some unspecific kind of intimacy between a hindu queen and a muslim invader/sultan. They are angry bc of unproven, unseen, ASSUMED historical inaccuracies in a dream sequence in a film based on a 16th C FICTIONAL poem. the historical inaccuracies they cite r about muslim/hindu intermixing IN A FILM BASED ON A POEM WRITTEN BY A SUFI, AN ACTUAL MUSLIM. i repeat myself bc this irony is lost on them. i would like to mention that if this kinda petty nonsense were raised by muslim groups about depiction of a muslim woman; even without the calls to burn down cinemas in england, or the threat of chopping off a woman’s nose,,,, Tommy Robinson would deffo have a comment, Katie Hopkins would be screaming about cockroaches and all these white people would be up in arms. I think that is an interesting note to dwell on; that certain ppl are ok with radicalism from certain demographics. Bc Hindu fundamentalist groups exist and flourish even in the UK, even safe out here in the diaspora. They have manpower and resources and i know it’s real bc they actually brought Modi, the indian prime minister, to literal wembley stadium. They kicked up a fuss here too. my point is definitely true and you know it, i dare u to fight me on this.
After all of this denouncing, burning of effigies, and tbh blatantly politically expedient outrage;;;; the film’s depiction of muslims generally and Sultan Alauddin Khilji specifically is rampantly islamaphobic. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT. I CANNOT. turns out the film hugely panders to India’s growing trend of ethno-nationalism and right-wing hindu conservatism; idk if that’s an adjustment after the initial release was held hostage by the far-right, but all the same. The muslim Khiljis (not Mughals, but from Afghanistan/Turkey) are presented to us as barbaric:: wild uncombed hair, eyes dark with kohl, they rip at huge hunks of meat with their teeth,,,, beards wet with sweat and grease. The lighting for the scenes set in their palace in Afghanistan and Delhi (when they do win it) is dim and cold and bluey green - - - a subconscious tone of ominous fear and evil is made implicit. Alauddin Khilji is described by one film critic “as an Indian Khal Drogo”. this is a choice that goes beyond popular cinema’s tendency to simplify for the benefit of a smooth clean narrative. this is a problematic conscious choice to depict the Hindu king (Shahid Kapoor) as righteous, good, and fair, and the Muslim invader as evil, wicked, and barbaric,,, full of greed and pride, lust and hunger. “Historians were quick to point out that the sultan of Delhi who successfully stopped repeated attempts by Mongols to invade India would have been one of the most sophisticated men of his times and not a barbarian as he is shown to be”. bc it’s a specific barbarism, violence, hunger. it’s a hunger for expansion, for land. Alauddin wants to be Sikander Sani, the second Alexander. He wants the world as his empire; he sets his sight on Delhi and takes it, he sets his eyes on Chittor and takes that too, we wonder what’s next. In a political climate where India’s islamophobia is borrowing from the West’s vocabulary of hatred and fear of muslim terror and fundamentalism, n the expansion implied in those ideologies - these depictions are actively showing the Hindu far right what it wants to see. Where Bhansali could have taken the time to provide us with nuance and complexity, where he could have taken an opportunity to transgress, challenge and stand up to something truly truly dangerous;;; he slipped into a lazy and easy portrayal of muslim barbarian, one hand holding an enormous leg of lamb dripping w blood, the other hand on a globe. Alauddin and his courtiers scheme and cackle, it’s all very witches in Macbeth.
But enough. I want to talk about the end. If you don’t want spoilers then u have been warned. this is also where i let u know that the end scene i’m discussing depicts a rly quite horrific suicide (i am j letting u know so u can decide whether to read on or stop here. take care friend). Throughout the film there’s a running plotline that once this Muslim tyrant, Alauddin - - Sultan of Delhi;;; once he hears of Padmavati’s ethereal, otherworldly beauty, he desires to possess it. He desires to possess it by beholding it (this is where it gets v interesting RE: art n all that, u see, u see). Her beauty, one glimpse of her face, this is what drives him to lay siege to the fort of Chittor; bc he is a barbarian u see, everything precious he believes belongs to him. So he lays siege to Chittor, he cannot scale the walls so he waits it out. at some point (the film is v long) he requests entry to the fort under the guise of friendship, an olive branch, to celebrate Holi with the Hindu king. The gracious good holy wonderful (ofc) Hindu king is gracious holy good etc and ofc opens his arms to Alauddin, welcoming him into his home. he is received by a party of all men. the women are kept away from his prying eyes. Alauddin demands just a glance of Padmavati, saying he will pack up and go back to Delhi for good in return, and Padmavati herself agrees to his demand. she is revealed to him in a system of mirrors, behind a cloud of smoke from a sacred fire that she holds in her hands. it lasts only seconds and then she disappears. he never gets to see her face, only her shadow, the outline. Cheated, he storms off; other things happen, he kidnaps Ratan Singh (our gracious friend the King of Chittor), Queen Padmavati exits the fort to save him, against the opinion of everyone;;;; a woman above her station, it is not her role, she brings shame on Chittor etc etc blegh bleugh bluuuughhhh but she does anyway. Alauddin comes back, attacking the fort of Chittor again. this time Ratan Singh says ENUF, comes to meet him on the field to face him man to man. King Ratan Singh is shot by arrows from afar while in single combat w Alauddin, while his back is turned. He dies and Alauddin begins storming into the castle. Padmavati, enemy at her door, gives a compelling speech. she has been pursued by this man and his attention is unwanted, uncalled for, denied by everyone he makes these demands to. yet still he will not turn away, he will not give up his quest to possess her now he has set his heart to it. the only way for her to end this seemingly endless pursuit is to commit jauhar, sati, to burn herself alive. and that is what she does. the women of the fort follow her, calling her a goddess, tears streaming down their faces w happiness. and she throws herself into a raging fire with them following after her. it’s the only way to prevent this man from laying hands on her, from possessing her through her image (within the space of the film it is unclear whether this is something she cares about regarding her agency and autonomy or if all the other rajputs are the ones caring about it thru tradition n burden). within the space of the film n the narrative, isolated in the way i described it in this paragraph, i think half of me thinks it makes sense as an end point or climax. the only escape she has is the complete destruction of her body,,, the only way she will be free from the tyranny of men. i has the potential to be a damning indictment of patriarchy then and now; and also a tragic ending in keeping with Bhansali’s body of work that celebrates pining, loss, and utopia implied in the ~beyond~. i cried bc in that moment w that framing, i agreed. she couldn’t have fled,,,, he would have followed. she couldn’t stay, concede and offer up her body to him, what a dismal trade off; her life for her agency and autonomy;;;; never. Men will not stop until we have disappeared entirely, not even our bones remaining.
in a cinematic tradition (like any other) where the relationship between women and the camera does nothing but replicate and mime to the backing track of the male gaze, very Laura Mulvey and very under the skin of it all; this all weighed too much for me. i sank underneath it all. the history of the dancing girl from mujra to item girl to now, whatever liquid sprawling mess we uncover now. still, still, still under the skin in all cinema, every tradition there is an uncomfortable relationship between woman and camera; camera as man. the gaze of ~camera and man~ hits the ~woman as image~ with full force. Winded, wheezing she is doubled over with the weight of gaze and its power. the weight n value of gaze is only replicated in cinema;;; it has power within the space of film bc it has power IRL. The word my mother uses; nazar;;;; when i think of the evil eye in the middle east n Turkey it’s the same premise. Nazar performs something specific, i guess,,, the gaze of strangers and others that can do you harm (this is why ppl wear veils, there is an innate understanding of the power of being able to look and recognise someone as an image above voice or smell or anything else). This tenuous relationship between woman & gaze is sticky for me; (((i wrote about this in my review of miss meena & the masala queens ;;; drag as a way to subvert and bite back at the gaze hitting u, a radical reclamation of power & autonomy & bodies))). i was angry that i was presented with this complete destruction and disappearing of the body/self as a successful escape from it all; the only escape from it all. i ~am~ angry about that. i am angry yet i still half-respect it bc it might be infuriating but at least in some way (the narrative of escaping Alauddin’s gaze and the gaze of man & camera, nazar n gaze as destructive, and gaze as a way to possess - the body as an image) it is truthful;;; or honest in a morbid way. i am sad and heavy committing that to words. i don’t want to be held accountable for them bc even i do not wholly agree with them. i despise them as they leave my mouth.
this film felt uneven, lopsided to me. where i wanted nuance there was singular narrative: the muslim barbarian invader, Alauddin. where i wanted didacticism and something singularly polemic, there was only a haze: i wanted something distinctly feminist rather than something alluded to or implied. Women have thrown themselves into fires before, and i wanted something either to honour the deep void of their destruction/disappearance,, or to wholeheartedly condemn and mourn it. i hoped for both at the same time. my shouts echoed and no one heard so they fell to the floor. i cried all the way out of the cinema, down the stairs. i wept into my hands for my sisters burned, scorned, destroyed, scarred. i wept in tandem with them all,,, the synchronicity and power of women’s tears.
i wanted to mention the role of caste in this film, the way it works alongside or on top of the narrative - it's a real issue, the glamourising of Rajput values n supremacy. But it exists beyond the boundary of my agency and knowledge. And esp where i don’t have agency or authority i’d like to hand over to ppl who know what they’re talking about rather than be loud where it doesn’t concern me. Pushpendra Johar and Mangesh Dahiwale have written about the presence and absence of specific signifiers in a way i cannot so i will hand over to them for a better explanation and analysis.