‘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.