“Padmaavat,” a film set in 13th-century medieval times, has occupied the headlines of modern India for weeks. The film — part history, part myth — tells the tale of how a Muslim marauder, Sultan Alauddin Khilji (an actual historical figure), set out to conquer the Hindu Rajput Kingdom of Mewar (which is in present-day Rajasthan) ruled by Queen Padmavati (who historians argue is mythical). Hard-line groups claimed that the movie demeaned India’s Rajput community. Violent protests and calls to ban the movie broke out and included an attack on a school bus and brazen threats to the film’s lead actors.
The controversy has rocketed “Padmaavat” to global success. It crossed the $30 million mark within four days of its release on Jan. 25; outside India it had the highest opening of any Hindi film, picking up more than $4 million in the United States during its inaugural weekend. The film’s songs have even made their way to cheerleading squads at National Basketball Association games.
“Padmaavat’s” success seemed to be poetic justice. I really wanted to love the movie.
And then I watched it.
While “Padmaavat” became a liberal cause célèbre for free speech, it is a movie steeped in patriarchy, parochialism and prejudice. In particular, I watched the last 30 minutes of the movie in absolute horror. In the climax scene, the queen leads thousands of women into Jauhar, or suicide, as Rajput women set themselves on fire rather than subject themselves to rape and captivity by the lustful Muslim invaders. (Padmavati is revered even today in Rajasthan for spearheading the Jauhar.)
I have never seen a mass suicide look this pretty on screen. The movie’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, known for his baroque cinematic extravaganzas, orchestrated a scene with the women — their pink dupattas fluttering in the desert air with operatic synchronicity — walking in elegant slow motion into the flames. Among them were a pregnant woman and a small girl. Yet the film was asking us to applaud this moment; I felt my disquiet morphing into disgust. This was misogyny dressed up in diamonds and drama.
The subliminal message — in a country where one woman is raped every 20 minutes — is that an “honorable” death is preferable to sexual violence, a message that only reaffirms the shameful stigma attached to victims and survivors of such crimes. It reminded me of a woman I met a few years ago. She was fighting to get justice for her daughter, a young woman who had been murdered by a man who had also tried to rape her. The mother believed that her daughter had been killed because she fought for her “honor.” I mean no judgment on the naturally distraught mother, but we just have to stop implying that rape equals dishonor.
Yes, the practice of Jauhar by Rajput women to protect their “honor” is a historical accuracy, as was the wider practice of Sati — the burning of widows. But are we to apply 13th-century notions of chastity and courage to the 21st century, especially in the absence of authentic accounts by the women themselves? If so, why does Indian law firmly outlaw these repugnant practices? And since “Padmaavat’s” climax is distinctly celebratory about women who choose death over rape or abuse, why did the filmmakers place an opening disclaimer that they did not support Sati or Jauhar in any way? A filmmaker has every right to chronicle the customs of a particular era, but how that ritual is presented is critical. Bhansali could have presented the fact of Jauhar without dressing it up in ribbons and bows.
After all, Indian society today has turned a similarly critical gaze on the films of the 1970s and ’80s, which would routinely show a male hero chasing a reluctant heroine until her “no” transformed into a “yes.” Now that stalking is a jailable offense, we see how such movies made harassment socially acceptable.
Ironically, the actor who plays Padmavati, Deepika Padukone, says the film “celebrates women power.” Indeed, she has shown steely courage in how she handled the threats. In demanding to be paid more than her male counterparts in the film, she has also led a public battle to bridge the gender gap. But by claiming that the film celebrates female power, she is being disingenuous. In a film supposedly built around the queen’s valor, she hardly has any substantive lines or even much to do. The defining trait of her character is that of sacrifice, which recycles another lazy old trope: women as long-suffering, sacrificial beings, who suppress their individualism for the greater good. Why should we be lauding that trait in modern India?
There are many other problems with “Padmaavat.” The film is a comic-book depiction of Muslims. Khilji is shown as a barbarian who rips meat off the bone when he is not in a (presumably drug-hazed) trance. The only “good” Muslim character in the film is his (once-again long-suffering and victimized) wife, who helps a captured Padmavati and her husband escape. The community of the warrior Hindu Rajputs is emphatically eulogized by contrast. Seen in the context of modern-day politics, this extreme broad-stroking carries its own implications.
To make it clear: The movie has every right to exist, and I would always defend that principle against censorship and hooliganism — even when I hate the message the film conveys.