The Larger Implications of Films like ‘Padmaavat’

I only went for the popcorn. And as far as that was concerned, it was a great evening. The movie, however, was an altogether different story.

Based on everything I’d read/heard, I knew that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat would likely infuriate me, so I made an effort to not take it too seriously from the start. In the process, I even managed to enjoy three quarters of the movie. The dialogues were insufferably trite but the film was visually stunning.

Despite the visual grandeur, Padmaavat has its share of flaws and then some. Alauddin Khilji, the formidable second ruler of the Khilji dynasty, has been inaccurately depicted in the film (a fact emphasised by several historians) as a heinous monster, no doubt in order to serve the script. The deliberate contrast between the depraved Muslim dynasty and the pure, ever-so-pious Rajputs is ludicrous. It is also irresponsible, considering the current volatile milieu of a country that has witnessed a spate of mob attacks targeting Muslims, as well as Dalits and other marginalised sections of society. It’s a shame because freed from these connotations, Ranveer Singh’s performance as Khilji would have been delightfully terrifying to watch.

It is worth noting that the women in Padmaavat are exceptionally submissive. While this may indeed be a reflection of the time period that the film is set in, any female who might have exhibited something other than absolute servitude towards men—such as Khilji’s mother-in-law or his first wife who is said to have made his life rather difficult—has been conveniently excluded from the script.

In Case You Missed the Bit About Rajput Valour 

Watching the film, one wonders if Rajput valour is simply an integral part of the story or if the film itself was created for the sole purpose of publicising said Rajput valour. Often it feels like the latter. Yet, in every single scene where Ratan Singh (played by a rather wooden Shahid Kapoor) makes a decision of some sort following a proclamation of Rajput honour and bravery, he ends up jeopardising his life and everyone else’s.

The nature of the sword fight that plays out between Khilji and Ratan Singh in the film’s climax is predictable. In line with everything that was previously established about Rajputs, the scene depicts how Ratan Singh has Khilji at the brink of defeat, only to have a succession of arrows cowardly fired into his back by the cunning Muslim army. This detail is not based on any historical fact, of course.

Padmaavat is not interested in any sort of nuanced portrayal of history, its rulers or the battles waged. It is a simple film that revels in the depiction of absolute good vs absolute evil.


And then they Sauntered into the Fire 

Regardless, I managed to watch the majority of Padmaavat with a sort of amused detachment. But nothing could have prepared me for the film’s denouement which depicted hundreds of women in vibrant attire heading determinedly towards the pyre—led by Deepika Padukone as Padmavati, her coloured hair fluttering in the wind—to self-immolate en masse (known as jauhar). This scene stretches on for what feels like an eternity. Gone was my contemptuous amusement as my heart beat rapidly and I felt nauseated.

The obvious issue here is that the jauhar scene isn’t portrayed as a gruesome tragedy but instead as a display of sheer bravery and strength. Bhansali even has the gall to end his film with the declaration that this act of jauhar was a great “victory” over the enemy.

This is what Deepika Padukone had to say about the scene: “It’s so powerful. You do not feel like she is doing anything wrong. You want her to embrace the flames because she is going to be united with the man she loves.” I hope I’m not in the minority here but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to see a woman “embrace the flames” to be with a dead guy.

And according to Sanjay Leela Bhansali himself, jauhar, in the context of the film, is an act of war. “I feel it’s [jauhar’s] an empowering thought,” he expressed in an interview. “It was a victory of dignity and honour.”

For those who see jauhar as a heroic act, if women across all sections of Indian society hadn’t joined the struggle for independence from British rule in droves, both through their intellectual and military contributions—if they’d all just plunged into burning pyres instead to prevent the ‘tainting of their dignity’—where would we be today?

Honour as a Regulatory Tool in Patriarchal Society 

In a country that is as deeply patriarchal as India, notions of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ continue to be widely prevalent. By associating them with female virginity/chastity/fidelity, these concepts are still used to effectively regulate and control the behaviour of women. And here comes a movie that only serves to reiterate the regressive belief that a woman is better off dead than raped, and that being raped is equivalent to being dishonoured.

The film reinforces, repeatedly, the concept of honour in the sexual context as something that can be “lost” by women, subsequently bringing shame and dishonour upon entire families/communities. Sadly, this regressive notion wasn’t left behind in the 13th century but continues to persist today. Men, unsurprisingly, are exempt from such limitations; yet this blatant double standard goes unquestioned.

For instance, the scene where Padmavati allows Khilji to catch a glimpse of her face is preceded by various objections stating that it would be dishonourable to do so. She is treated as a mere possession: she belongs to one man, one kingdom, and must be shielded from the lustful eyes of another.

Even if people might not be queuing up to commit acts of self-immolation anytime soon, the notion of “safeguarding” a woman’s honour (and the subsequent mistreatment that is meted out to her if she does “bring dishonour upon herself”) still endures. It’s particularly disturbing when this mentality becomes so omnipresent that people stop noticing or questioning it altogether. That seems to be the case with Padmaavat.

The only point that the film ultimately manages to make is that there is no room for logic in patriarchal society.

Related Reading from Around the Web:

1. Padmaavat is an Opulent Combination of Dazzling Technology and Regressive ValuesThe Wire

2. Padmaavat is pure misogyny dressed up in diamonds and dramaThe Washington Post

3. ‘Padmaavat’ and the question of artistic licenseThe Hindu

4. Padmaavat: Behind all the grandeur lies a regressive message, lack of objectivityHindustan Times

5. Bhansali couches regressive, opportunistic messaging in exhausting visual splendourFirstpost

(Photos: The Indian Express)

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