‘Only strong women give birth to soldiers.’ Says the Spartan Queen in the movie 300. Readings of history and warrior legends show to some extent on screen and the movie has been praised for its alternative scripting of women in medieval Europe.
‘Come back with your shield or on it.’ She says to her warrior husband leaving for battle. Historical retellings of the vanquished is also visible in the villianisation of Xerxes, the Persian King.
Closer home, Jodha Akbar was a quietly released, Bollywood’s successful alternative take on the Hindu-Muslim marriage between a Muslim emperor and a Rajput princess. No heads rolled, no noses were cut.
Yet neither film is a stranger to controversy. 300 has been accused of racism (banned in Iran) and Jodha Akbar of historical inaccuracies. Both allegations are but standard issue occupational hazards in the retelling business.
Alternative history on film is a powerful format to create a metanarrative founded on deconstructionism. Powered by dissent it’s movement from the margins to the mainstream is foundational to disruption art. Without it cinema and literature would curl up and die. Banning alternative history is banning dissent. It happens only in totalitarian regimes where centres are locked down from its margins.
And then, here’s a scenario.
In the movie 300 what if the Spartan King broke into an item number while he was being decimated by the Persian army? No? Why not? Just to keep the morale of his troops up? What’s wrong with dance?
What if in a Shogun movie a samurai quickly knitted a few sweaters before committing harakiri? As a sentimental parting gift to his sweetheart? No? Maybe just one sweater?
What if Charulata did a Tango in Paris, in a halter, on skates? Just as a quick pep up for the audience? No? Not even as a dream sequence?
What then would be the genre, the nature of this cinematic beast? Spoof? Meme? Fantasy? Opera? Operatic fantasy? Fantastic Opera? Calling it a historical film would be an arrogant overreach.
Journalists privileged with private screenings declaim about what a beautiful expression of Rajput pride Padmavati is. Are we supposed to consider this movie review by a news anchor credible, especially when it is amply evident for all to see that the released promo already precludes the possibility of this ‘beautiful expression’?
Bhansali fetishes on competitive dance-offs between two women for the coveted prize, the man. He did it between the characters played by Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai, between Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, and tried it again in Padmavati’s ghoomar dance sequence. The younger better looking Rani enraptures the King while the older Rani looks sullenly on. Bhansali obviously has no clue about the sorority of Queens. In any case he is very efficient at transforming female characters into courtesans. Padmavati too must become a courtesan at some point in a Bhansali film. As the female lead, it’s mandatory.
The nikasi is a poignant ritual when a Rajput Queen sees the King off to battle. The ceremonial sword is tied to the waist, the safa around the head and the forehead anointed with the goddess’s tilak. Very reminiscent of the Spartan queen handing over the battle shield and helmet when she says ‘come back with your shield, or on it.’
This cannot become a prolonged moment of Bhansali love by any stretch of the imagination. The King and Queen cannot become separating lovers. There can be no Radha Krishna type holi love play between them. She will not darn the King’s safa. It just smacks of Bhansali’s neurosis for clothes and accessories. The King will not wear an embroidered zardozi wedding safa to battle. Again for the same reasons. There will be no tears. She will anoint his forehead with the goddess’s power, that she embodies, that his mother embodies. She will not cast out the Evil Eye like an ayah to a trussed up baba getting ready for an outing. She will not even touch the King’s feet. Because her duty to strengthen his will for battle is as important as going to battle. She will not grovel on her knees like his handmaiden. The nikasi is not a lovesick farewell. It is a powerful woman’s gift of fearlessness to a warrior facing the prospect of death. A Rajput Queen is not a fawning, fasting, weeping wife. The feet touching, the tears, the grand dress up promotional sequence is Bhansali’s indoctrinated sexist spillage of the woman as the sexualised caregiver. It is contra posed to Rajput culture, where a Queen is a symbol of will and strength, of the evil destroying mother goddess. That is why a Rajput Queen will never be seen gyrating out an item number in public. However sensual or artistic she maybe her public image never deviates from the high pedestal of unimpeachable power to become a sexualised performer on display.
These are very serious mistakes. By creating a regressive Padmavati metanarrative Bhansali has destroyed the inherent feminism of a historical icon.
A film historian’s understanding over reams of columns in the centre page of Times of India this week, comes to alarming conclusions. Jauhar, she says, is a self-immolatory sacrifice, and Mother India unlike Padmavati is a more progressive and powerful ‘space of femininity’. One is lead to conclude that a female icon is defined by sacrifice, and Padmavati lost the race to Mother India.
Mother India is cinema’s biggest victim of an unjust socio economic system.
Padmavati can never be a victim. Mother India fought for the survival of her family. A useless husband and two sons, sweet symbols of patriarchy, it can be argued. Padmavati fought for invincibility, for her emblematic power as a woman.
But such reductionist readings of feminism in film and history should not be surprising considering subaltern and gender studies of patriarchy in religion has not reached any level of enquiry in our hallowed universities. Even if they have they never come to light.
Sati was most prevalent among Brahmanised communities obsessing over the kacchi kali compulsion. Underage girls were customarily married to much older men. The men would in all eventuality be dead when she reached her prime, making the young woman disposable. This is evident by the geographical footprint of the reform movement in places where sati had to be eradicated. Sati is a Brahmin’s footprint, followed by other Brahmanised communities. Sati was not customary amongst Rajput royalty. Rajas have been known to marry women even a decade older than them. I know at least two preceding generations of women in Royal families who married way into their twenties to age appropriate and sometimes younger men, unheard of in other communities even today.
Jauhar is not sati committed by women ‘who have no choice to say no to sacrifice or living beyond their husbands who might die in battle,’ like the film historian writes, and many believe.
By definition, if there were any satis, it was the kesariya bana, the warrior who killed himself in battle after the death of his family.
Jauhar was committed before the men went to battle. So it was the men who were left with no choice. Smeared with the ashes of cremated women, clad in the saffron colours of renunciation, with a tulsi leaf (traditionally placed in a corpse’s mouth before cremation) on their tongue they became the army of the living dead. And they fought till not a single man survived.
What progressive alternative would critics like the film historian propose? Hand the women over to the enemy? Sell them to the highest bidder? It could have been a lucrative prospect considering slave trade was a thriving business then. Figuratively, many in similar dilemmas probably do make this choice.
The villianisation of Khilji too is a problematic nuance. The Rajput fought for his motherland. He did not fight the Muslim. Rajput generals have led armies of Mughal emperors and Muslim generals have led Rajput armies. The Rajput’s war was with an individual enemy not a religion. Because back then, religion was a matter of faith not politics. It is this cohabitation of coalesced histories that has made Rajput and Mughal art, cuisine and culture so indistinguishable from each other.
But Independence saw the birth of a new Hinduism and Islam. Not religions so much as political entities created by the exigencies of a polarising, delimiting, boundary seeking discourse. A discourse that is organically evolving into a right wing extremist narrative more and more difficult to contain.
Yet subaltern voices hark back to a time before Hinduism reinvented itself with Brahmanised versions of patriarchal hegemony and also the patriarchal hegemony of invading religions. A better time shared by Durgavati, Lakshmibai, Bhaumakara queens, Mohammed Jayasi, Gnostics, Sufis and Sahajayana Buddhists. A time that historians have yet to discover. A time when femininity was worshipped as Shakti and chivalry was a code to live by.
‘We are fighting for the power of women.’ An erstwhile Rani says.
‘I cannot raise my hand on a woman.’ A Rajput militant says.
But their voices are lost in the din, drowned in the clamour of stereotypes of clothes, languages and lifestyles.
Women in hijab are repressed.
Men with moustaches are goons.
Men who speak in Hindi are barbaric.
Hindi speaking men with moustaches are not only barbaric goons, they are contract killers.
Urban, modern, working women are protected from misogyny. This stereotype has been challenged by the #metoo campaign but is still highly functional.
Cinema is the bastion of ‘free expression.’ This stereotype is struggling with Harvey Weinstein but again pretty much still highly functional.
Shrill hectoring newscasters lament the redundancy of Padmavati and spend the next few hours of airtime discussing only Padmavati.
Rajput battle chronologies are being compared to cricket matches, and the score is not good.
First Padmavati didn’t exist, then Khilji didn’t exist, next, Rajputs will cease to exist.
As a hysterical media harangue writes and rewrites Rajput history, a rare opportunity for a feminist reading is consigned to the dustbins of millennial reductionism.
It’s not helping.
For all those who say that we should be discussing ‘real issues’ rather than non issues like Padmavati, but still can’t stop spewing derisive verbiage on the Padmavati topic-
First the facts.
1) Sixteen thousand women in the walled city of Chittor burnt themselves to death in a giant pyre. That’s all we really know.
2) Today people of all denomination and abomination are accusing each other of barbarism. The one who speaks in the right accent with the right television channel seems to ‘win’ the debate.
The rest is history. And while it gets written and rewritten by the man on top, here is what never comes to light.
1. Padmavati was a belief system around the sacred feminine.
An entire city razed itself to the ground not for it’s king, but it’s queen. Get the drift. How many times has that known to happen in world history? Even among Rajput extremists today, she is not a queen, she is a symbol of the Mother. People who have been raised in cultures where mothers are birth giving disposable commodities struggle to comprehend the power of the Great Mother. Therein lies the seed of contention. For Persian mystics, Jayasi’s immortalisation of Padmavati as ‘the invincible spirit of ‘womanhood’ is the goal of all mystics. In certain swathes of land from Kashmir to Rameshwaram the Great Mother was worshipped before the prosyletisation of Brahmanism, Vaishnavism and Shaivism, the three great Hindu patriarchies. Most Rajput deities are female divinities, like Karni. Only on rare occasions in history do we see an extant culture evolving around the deification of the feminine.
Padmavati is a muse, not a person.
2. Death before dishonour is some type of honor killing.
No, it’s not. Once upon a time when wars were fought with swords and not tongues, a ‘true’ Rajput boy would be taught by his mother the Rajput code of chivalry. Never raise your hand on a woman. Never disrespect her. Protect her and give your life for her if need be. For a true Rajput does not fear death.
A Rajput fights for his motherland, not his fatherland. It was not just the women who died that day of Jauhar in Chittor, but men too. The Kesari banas, tied the saffron safas of martyrdom, and died fighting to the last man. Now that’s a cinematic nuance that might challenge Bhansali’s triangulated love formula to a breaking point. The stomach churns at the mid-riff showing unibrowed pirouetting Padmini. Bhansali’s depiction of a Rajput queen so far is an insult to artistic sensibility. A folk dancer in a Rajasthan fair can do better.
3. Jauhar is a type of sati.
No it’s not. Jauhar is the refusal to live a life of indignity, a refusal to be conquered, a refusal to be touched by a man displeasing to you. And your man is willing to die for this too, just so your wish is fulfilled. It is the opposite of sati, well defined as climbing into your husband’s pyre because you can’t live without him. A woman who commits jauhar will not commit sati, because sati establishes patriarchy, jauhar thumbs your nose at it.
Like patriarchy, you find feminism in unlikely places.
4. Feudalism is the same as patriarchy.
No it’s not. Feudalism, in its best practice, is corporate culture without the pink slip. The only difference between feudalism and corporate culture is that in a feudal society you get hired at birth but don’t get fired at death. And the expenditures, from birth to death, marriage ( sometimes many), children (also many) for you and your entire family is paid for.
Few know that in many Royal households the Rani inherited her mother-in-law’s lands and properties, and no one, not the Queen Mother nor the King could take it away from her. No scope for a dowry death there.
The Ranis of the hoary past, from the private confines of the zenana ran their parallel governments and held their private courts. The Rajas had no say in the matter or any other personal matter or any decision regarding their children. A strong Rani could easily run the kingdom and most of them did.
For every concubine, there was a handsome stable boy, and an even handsomer cook. Feudalism invented the open marriage.
It is an irony that many accomplished women I know today are still nothing but glorified secretaries of their husbands. They raise their daughters to be like them, and defer to their sons. They abject themselves to a gender skewered narrow divisive system they were raised in and continue to propagate. I cannot see them as examples to be emulated.
5. Rajputs are crude and barbaric.
Yet their customs, etiquette and havelis are a lucrative tourist exhibition of aesthetics and culture. Many try to imitate their Royal lifestyle but fail miserably. There’s only so much you can do with nouveau riche money, social climbing fame and a convent education.
Of the men vociferously denouncing Rajput barbarism, one has been accused of killing his wife, and the others are renowned gropers. Only no victimised woman will come out and speak about it.
They speak only when the topic turns to Padmavati, the non-issue.
How many Bollywood actresses have reached top billing by the sheer dint of woman-centric-powerful-performances?
Let’s call this phenomenon the Ace Woman of Spades card.
Answer is – So far only one, Kangana Ranaut.
Let’s look at the arcs of other actresses.
Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor
Strong players of the Buzurg Khan Piya Card.
Priyanka Chopra, Anoushka Sharma who had played this card in their early days are now struggling to break away from this mould while still swimming in the mainstream. They are attempting independent productions and women centric roles but changing the game doesn’t seem to be their intention. The Weak Woman Card.
Vidya Balan has an arc similar to Kangana but hasn’t reached top billing yet, but will be interesting to watch. The Wild Card.
Strictly from the safety of the comfort of their environment, many established actresses are time to time calling out gender issues. For example, when Padukone’s cleavage made headlines, and Rani Mukherjee talked about child trafficking. The Safe Woman Card.