Communal Construction of the Past: Attack on Unit Filming Padmavati
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s (SLB) unit filming the period film, Padmavati was attacked recently (January 2017) near Jaipur in Rajasthan. The pretext was that there is a dream sequence in the film which depicts Alauddin Khilji, the Muslim King and the Rajput Princess Padmavati. The attack was organised by one Karni Sena which claims to be working for the preservation of Rajput honour and which felt that the film is an insult to the community honour of Rajputs. Interestingly the film is at the shooting stage and the Karni Sena has no access to the script of the film. The rumour about the dream sequence made them launch the attack against the film unit. It was not surprising that the state sat back, no condemnation of the attack by the state leadership was there. SLB also decided to pack off and not to do the shooting in Rajasthan. He has been threatened by BJP-VHP leaders daring him to shoot the film anywhere in India. The same Karni Sena had earlier vandalised the cinema theatres showing the film Jodha Akbar, depicting another Rajput princess.
The Allauddin Khilji-Padmavati story is from the annals of fiction, while some unauthenticated sources claim that since Khilji was for real; the tale about him must also be true. As such the reality is that the popular narrative of Padmavati and her Jauhar (immolation) are based on the work of fiction by a Sufi saint, Malik Mohammad Jayasi, in the sixteenth century, two centuries after reign of Khilji. The narration of Padmavati, a classic of sorts, revolves around the love story of Ratan Singh, the king of Chittor and Padmavati, the princess of imaginary Simhala Island. Ratan Singh came to know about the beauty of the princess from her parrot, Hiraman. Guided by Hiraman; Ratan Singh pursues the princess and the lovers unite. As per this fictional tale, Ratan Singh is betrayed by some Raghav Pandit, is attacked by the King of Kumbhalner and dies. King of Kumbhalner has also an eye on Padmavati. Meanwhile, Khilji, who has seen the beauty of princess and is smitten by that also attacks Ratan Singh’s kingdom, just to find that Padmavati along with other women have committed jauhar, mass self-immolation. The Sufi mystic who has written this immortal classic presents the tale as a metaphor for human soul seeking out and futility of power.
Over a period of time, the narration has just been reduced to Padmavati as a symbol of Rajput honour and Khilji as the Islamic invader; full of lust. The construction of the past by the communities has been greatly influenced by the present political scenario. This narrative revolves around the communal view of history where Kings are presented as the vehicles of their religion. The aspect of power as the central motive of kings is bypassed in this view of history. In contemporary times this is the orientation which forms the core of community memory, which has been constructed over a period of time. The aim of this narration is to present the valour of Rajput kings. As per this they defended valiantly against the Muslim rulers and protected the honour of ‘their women’. In turn, women also committed immolation rather than being defiled by the Muslim kings. This narrative is totally in opposition to the reality of the long historical stretch where the Mughal-Rajput interaction was the fulcrum around which political alliances were forged and Rajput daughters married the Muslim-Mughal kings in particular.
A few years ago when the film Jodha Akbar was vandalised. This film also has the theme of Muslim King-Hindu princess. Presentation of many an incident of the past has also been heavily coloured by the part of fiction as well. As such what was witnessed in the subcontinent was the attempt by Mughal kings to build an Empire, which involved battles and alliances both. Akbar and Rana Pratap had a battle but later Rana Pratap’s son Amar Singh enters into the alliance with Akbar’s son Jahangir. Rajput kings also adorned high positions in Mughal administration. Mughal Rajput syncretism, in particular, was the important factor of medieval period at social and political level.
There are two sets of presentations about the Rajput Princesses. The powerful and more gripping one, which captures the mass imagination, is the one which glorifies the self-immolation to save the community honour. The second one is that of the inter-marrying of princely families revolving around power. The prevalent patriarchal notions do see ‘giving away daughters’ as a sort of community defeat and so these narrations are being erased from memory and the notions of jauhar are being put forward as the badge of honour. Film Jodha Akbar presented the matter of fact marriage of a Rajput princess with a Mughal king as a political pact between two ruling families. Today the attempt is to wipe away such memories which are uncomfortable in prevalent constructions of community honour. So the discomfort with the presentations in Jodha Akbar was there.
With Padmavati, the matters are being taken one step further. The vigilantes of ‘community honour’ have attacked merely on the basis of a rumour. One does not know what the film director has in mind, but the dream sequence of a Muslim man with a Hindu girl is creating the discomfort in the minds of the likes of Karni Sena. Surely such attitudes have gone up during last three decades and seem to be growing unchecked over a period of time. The artistic freedom is being controlled by those belonging to right-wing nationalism and their wings are becoming stronger and going unchecked as the Hindutva politics is getting legitimacy and strength. Filmmakers have felt the wrath of these groups with increasing intensity. The political system which should be committed to the values of freedom of expression is mostly a bystander, underlining the fact that this ideology of Hindutva has no place for the diverse presentation of the past, neither for the creative freedom of the artists. The state is failing the ‘democracy test’ time and over again.