How Bollywood’s Padmaavat distorted a Sufi love poem

The Bollywood film Padmaavat is controversial for all the wrong reasons.

Padmavaat release Reuters
A member of the Rajput community holds a placard during a protest against the release of 'Padmaavat' in Mumbai, India on January 20, 2018 [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

Earlier this month, the release of Bollywood film Padmaavat sparked protests across India. Hindu right-wing groups, led by members of Karni Sena, a Rajput caste organisation, vandalised public and private properties and attacked cinema halls across five Indian states, demanding the film to be banned for allegedly “disrespecting the sentiments of the community”. 

The film is a period drama set in the 14th century about medieval Muslim King Alauddin Khilji, Rajput ruler Ratan Singh, and legendary Hindu queen Padmavati.

Were it not for the controversies surrounding its making and eventual release, Padmaavat would have been just another lushly mounted, superbly operatic film from Indian director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s school of opulent film-making. Were it also not for the sharply polarised times we live in, the Indian filmgoers – as well as assorted writers, thinkers and large sections of civil society – might not have made much of the film’s flawed take on history. Even its misogyny, homophobia and communal bias may have been overlooked in the face of its glossy visual extravagance. 

However, a ceaseless barrage of controversies from the time of the film’s announcement to disruptions during its production up till its release – secured only after the intervention of the Supreme Court of India – have invested it with far more importance than it deserves. What is more, the sorry saga surrounding the film underscores yet again the thorny issue of freedom of speech vs hurt sentiments, truth vs public perception, minority vs majority discourses.

Public anger verging on mass hysteria is not a new phenomenon in India. The strident illiberals have always managed to drown out the liberal, saner voices. And that bugbear of democracy – public opinion – has often decided what we should eat, drink, watch, read and so on. 

In the past, films starring Aamir Khan, such as Fanaa, faced an unofficial ban in Gujarat due to the actor’s defence of people displaced by the expansion of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which angered the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling the state. The 2007 film Parzania, a clear-eyed look at communal riots in Gujarat, was also banned in the state, as was Firaaq – Nandita Das’s directorial debut. Others with overt sexual content, such as Bandit Queen, Fifty Shades of Grey or Kamasutra, found release after multiple and often mutilating cuts.

Seldom has a Hindi film generated the sort of fire and fury Padmaavat has unleashed in large parts of the country; seldom has the release of a film been delayed till the results of elections in two influential states (Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in this case); and seldom has a film divided the viewing public along such unapologetically communal lines.

Watching the film, one wonders what the furore was all about. If anyone should take offence, it is neither the ultranationalists nor the vigilante group that calls itself the Karni Sena whose self-appointed brief is to protect the interests of the Rajput community; it is the Muslims of India.

They should be offended by the film’s demonisation of Muslims and all liberal, secular Indians who take strong objection to the glorification of the pernicious practice of “jauhar”, in which women commit mass immolation when their men go off on a doomed battle. While the film has been banned in Malaysia for its distinct communal bias, the Muslims in India are showing remarkable restraint.

They are leaving it to their secular, liberal countrymen to speak up against Bhansali’s ham-handed attempt to valorise one community while demonising the other and for setting up crude binaries: Hindu vs Muslim, native vs foreign, defender vs invader, pure vs impure, virtuous vs vile, refined vs coarse, and so on.

Louche and menacing when not outright sinister and bestial, actor Ranveer Singh’s portrayal of Allauddin Khilji feeds every Hindu right-wing cliche about Muslims. His slanting kohl-lined eyes heightening an almost feral appearance, his homoerotic encounters with the slave Malik Kafur, his lust for both men and women matched only by his greed for the untold wealth of Hindustan and his unbridled ambition to sit on the throne of Delhi at all cost combine to make him the stereotyped wicked foreign invader that the Hindu right would have us believe all Muslims have always been in India’s history.

In comparison, the serene and stately Ratan Sen, played by actor Shahid Kapoor, is the epitome of grace as the valiant ruler of Chittor. He indeed makes several very silly decisions, but all in the name of upholding his “usool” (principles). And the statuesque Deepika Padukone as the legendary Rani Padmavati, the lotus-like beauty venerated in Rajasthan as a heroic queen – not only for her redoubtable qualities of head and heart, but also statesmanship and skill with sword and bow alike – is relentlessly gorgeous.

While a directive from the Central Board of Film Certification compelled Bhansali to change the name of his film from Padmavati to Padmaavat – to emphasise the fact that the film is based on the fictional poem “Padmaavat” and not history – he is either unable or unwilling to engage with the spirit of the medieval text he admits basing his film on.

The original poem, composed in Awadhi though written in the Farsi script in 1540 by a Sufi poet named Malik Muhammad Jayasi, borrows from the existing tradition of “premakhyanaka kavya” or “poetry of the tales of love” to make a larger, deeply philosophical observation about the transience of all life.

In Jayasi’s allegorical tale, Chittor is the body, Ratan Sen the mind; Padmavati the intellect, Ratan Sen’s first wife, Nagmati, the cares of this world; the discredited courtier Raghava is the devil; and the sultan represents illusion. Hiraman, the parrot, is the spiritual guide who shows the way. Needless to say, Bhansali has done away with the parrot and lost his way in the quicksand of chauvinism and chicanery.

Had Bhansali simply taken the figure of Padmavati, a figment of Jayasi’s imagination, and spun a yarn of valour and romance perhaps he could have been forgiven. What is reprehensible is his distortion of a beautiful Sufi love poem, redolent with evocative images of multiculturalism and syncretism, into something divisive and insulting.

In his glorification of women taking their own lives for the sake of upholding their family’s honour, Bhansali is peddling regressive, patriarchal values in the guise of hyper-nationalism. In depicting the siege of Chittor as an early example of the perfidious practice of Muslim men dishonouring chaste Hindu women, he is lending credence to the obnoxious coinage “love jihad“.

And, worst of all, in establishing the binary of a valiant and honourable Hindu king fighting a just war against the treacherous Muslim invader, Bhansali is feeding the paranoia of an already divided society. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.