By Sonali Sudarshan
I went to watch Padmavat, as it is now called, with great trepidation. No, not to see a jauhar take place (the medieval Indian ritual of women immolating themselves), not the affronted vaginas a la Swara Bhaskar, or its director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose movies I have not always agreed with, or liked.
I went, of course, to watch a movie that had created much dissent across demographics and gender. From the Karni Sena and vast tracts of the Hindi belt who decided it was an affront to their queen Padmavati – never mind if she is fictional – to feminists who feel Bhansali is glorifying a misogynistic, dangerous ritual, was there really anyone the movie had not offended?
I wanted to see the movie in isolation, a kaleidoscopic representation of art, inspired by another work of art, and therefore like all art, open to interpretation.
The aftermath left me with many thoughts and questions. To begin with, there is always the biggest one asked so many times across so many epics – from Hollywood’s Troy to Saving Private Ryan to Game of Thrones – which is the question of war. What is the human cost of war?
In this case, each character becomes part of a tragic epic and, like all tragedies, is imbued with a fatal flaw: Padmavati with her beauty, a fragile and temporal thing; Khilji in his desire for acquisition and in his mistaken assumption that all is to be conquered; and Rana, with a skewed code of ethics that had no place in the grim realities of statecraft or war.
I viewed the movie a little more dispassionately than as a re-telling of an old story. The greatest takeaway for me from the movie was the sight of Khilji jumping across the ramparts, a conqueror of forts, lands, kings and women. And, yet, also a man who could not conquer the final bastion, the immortal human soul.
Chittorgarh and Padmavati fused into one, a fort and a woman, to be subjugated and conquered by an invading force who saw only the price of acquisition.
In contrast to this was the very palpable love between the Rana and his wife, co-rulers and lovers, who took decisions not just as husband and wife, but as people defending a small kingdom against a very real threat. Padmavati’s ‘honour’ (even if it is a patriarchal construct) was not just her own; it hung in balance against the lives of the people of Mewar.
Contrast this with the very ‘aloneness’ of Khilji, a boy-king and spoilt bully, living in dark unlit spaces hungering for attention and fame, and yet killing everyone close to him, dependent emotionally on a semi-slave and lover.
That love cannot be won but needs to be freely given, hence the very premise of ishq that Khilji weaves around himself, becomes the fantasy of a spoilt little boy who will kill his puppy if it does not love him back. Again, like all archetypes, these are unidimensional polarities and should be seen as such.
In the other instance were the women themselves – and that scene is always in my mind. The fort must be defended, and like the fort, the body that houses the human soul must also not be defiled. If that is the case, then there are two battles being fought in the movie.
One on the temporal plane: the grim reality of war fought from Khilji’s side without honour, as the only rule in war is victory. The other: fought by the women, fought with honour, to have a final say on their bodies.
The sight of them fleeing in their colourful dupattas to their final moments then is to be seen not as an act of cowardice, but an act of valour, a political statement, perhaps the only one open to the women.
My concern then became, what could a woman do in those troubled times? Could she fight back? Could the Rajputs have taught their daughters to live and die by the sword? Perhaps, but they didn’t, and we cannot judge history or fiction.
In such a scenario, how many choices were left to a woman? And in the very questioning of patriarchy, what was the choice for men but to go to battle and face their deaths? There were no other options for either gender.
Perhaps they could have chosen a more humane method to die, by the sword or by poison, but they chose fire, like a canvas on which to mark their protest. Can a woman, therefore, choose what does not happen to her body: a gruesome death versus a lifetime of slavery?
I think that the act of jauhar by the women in the movie was their last strong stand and indictment against the conqueror. In this last act of defiance they made a case for themselves to die free, as opposed to die in chains.
In the same way that we would today defend for women all that happens to their bodies – to survive rape and fight back, to have the right to abort or keep life, to wear what they wish, and to express their sexuality as they choose – in that sense, who are we to judge what a woman chooses to do with her body, vagina included?
Whether history, fiction, romance or tradition, for me Padmavati won, and in the sensitivity and lack of judgement in the treatment thereof, Bhansali has also won.
Sonali Sudarshan is the founder of public-relations firm Intelliquo. Views are personal.