How Padmavati Demonstrates India At Its Worst

Padmavati, from an illustrated manuscript of the Padmavat, c. 1750 (Image: Bibliothèque Nationale de France/ Public Domain)
Why is a Medieval legend being used to justify murder?

“We will reward the ones beheading [Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali] with Rs 10 crore, and also take care of their family’s needs.” – Suraj Pal Amu, BJP Haryana Media Chief Media Coordinator

“Rajputs never raise a hand on women, but if need be, we will do to Deepika what Lakshman did to Surpanakha” [cut off her nose] – Mahipal Singh Makrana, Rajput Karni Sena member

“The Kshatriya community and the youth of this country are capable of burning every theatre screen in the country if the movie is released.” – Suraj Pal Amu

Rarely do films evoke the kind of responses seen above – especially those that have yet to be released. But for the last few weeks, Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali have been at the eye of a storm over their upcoming film, Padmavati – which depicts the tale of a Rajput princess, Rani Padmini, who sets herself on fire to resist the invading armies of a lascivious sultan, Alauddin Khilji.

The root of the controversy has to do with a supposed romantic sequence between Padmini and Alauddin – one that the filmmakers and even early-viewers have denied exists at all. An organization whose members claim descent from Padmini and her clan took grave offence at the alleged romance. But how it even started may have to do with a misunderstanding.

According to an interview conducted with the leader of the Karni Sena, Lokendra Singh, it started when Ranveer Singh, Padukone’s co-star, said in an interview that he could take things a notch or two above being a villain if he were given two intimate scenes with Padukone’s character. Such a romance never happened – neither in the film’s plot nor in the legends told about Padmini. But to suggest it happens at all is haram to the Karni Sena.

The controversy snowballed from there. A BJP leader from Haryana offered a bounty on Padukone’s head, while Rajput organizations added to the threats against the Padukone, Bhansali and Singh. Chief ministers threw in their voices too – Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath refused to condemn his own party’s bounty-hunter, stating that the blame lay on both sides, calling Bhansali a ‘habitual offender’ who played with people’s sentiments.

History is a touchy subject in India. Especially when it is contested.

The debate over the film has raised many questions over its historicity. Did Rani Padmini exist in the first place? Who decides what is right or wrong?

Many people have tried to tell Rani Padmini’s story – as both fact and fiction. Each version presents a new twist to the tale.

The earliest complete reference to a heroic tale of Rani Padmini comes from the 16th-century Sufi mystic, Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who wrote the epic poem ‘Padmavat‘ in 1540 A.D. However, the poem ends with the words: “I have made up the story and related it.” Also written in this period was Narayandas’s Chitai-varta – which also tells the tale of a Rajput princess being desired by Khilji. However, in this version, the princess ‘Chitai’ is captured by Khilji only to be returned to her husband after he undergoes penance and some personal transformation. The imagined Hindu-vs-Muslim dichotomy that so polarizes people today – is missing.

The narrative of no-Padmini is exonerated by the account of the legendary poet, Amir Khusrau, who described the sacking of Chittor by Khilji – but did not mention any Rani Padmini.

Historians like Satish Chandra keep faith in Khusrau’s version – and believe the consensus is that Padmini’s tale was composed centuries after the actual sack of Chittor.

There is, however, a record in the history of Mewar in Abu Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari; considered Akbar’s official historiography. But even here, it is worth noting that Mughal historians based these accounts on Rajput poetry.

Rajput poetry and Rajasthani folklore, transmitted over the years form an oral history that has assumed historicity for the tale of Rani Padmini. In the 18th century, the East India Company scholar James Todd became the first to tell an English history of the queen – and he too relied on Rajput tales and poetry that was translated to him by a Jain scholar.

The consequence of confusing histories is that those contrasting versions are favoured by contrasting ideologues. Thus, a left-right divide has emerged on the historicity of Rani Padmini. But perhaps this is the point where it would help to turn to the film itself.

That Rani Padmini would have succumbed to the romance of a Muslim invader is never made apparent in the trailer. Khilji is clearly portrayed as a villain – which should satisfy the ‘collective conscience’ of the Rajput defenders today. But more importantly, Bhansali has denied attempts at historicity in his film, as he said:

We were not telling history as historians would approach it

Stepping aside from the questions of history, we find more troubling questions of humanity. Does Deepika Padukone – an actress who played a role agreed upon years in the past – deserve death and mutilation threats for doing her job?

The failure of the BJP to check its own ranks in condemning calls for violence reflects poorly on party leadership and commitment to law and order. Padukone, a Bangalore girl, has since received police protection at her family home in Bangalore – with the state’s chief minister, Siddaramaiah, stating that Karnataka stands with Deepika Padukone.

What is frightening is how alone Padukone looks in the matter. For an otherwise vocal industry, Bollywood’s biggest have remained silent on the threats facing its highest-paid actress – with only sporadic voices coming out in support of an actress who is known to suffer from depression.

From her Twitter and public profile, Padukone has maintained a stoic response to the controversy. Filmmaker Mudassar Aziz said it best when he said he wanted to make a film on Padukone:

Death threats against the actress and the filmmakers are disturbing. The people threatening her have affiliations to the ruling party – Suraj Pal Amu has been an RSS member for 39 years. Yogi Adityanath was the leader of the Hindu Yuva Vahini – who have set trains on fire in the past. The states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have both banned the screening of Padukone’s film – all are BJP-run states.

The backdrop to the tremendous noise over Padmavati is a high-profile case that concerns the BJP President itself – Amit Shah. Ordinarily, the alleged murder of a CBI judge investigating Amit Shah would make front page headlines. But the scandal Padmavati has firmly caught the nation’s attention, adding yet another question to the unending list of questions – is the BJP adding flames to a smokescreen?

Of course, the BJP is not the first party to stand by as rogues threaten citizens into silence. When a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for writing ‘The Satanic Verses’, India became the first country to ban the book. In 2007, the exiled Bangladeshi novelist was attacked by Majlis Ittehadul Musalmeen (MIM) activists in Hyderabad. In all these cases, we can see that the biggest enemies to freedom of expression in India are Indian people themselves.

Altogether, Padmavati has awakened an India at its worst – communally and ideologically divided, intolerant to new ideas and restrictive of creative freedom.


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