Why is this country in thrall to ideological purity? Many of my friends refuse to see Padmaavat because it is allegedly (a) Islamophobic, (b) homophobic, and (c) misogynistic. The Karni Sena, of course, along with several state governments, had said they would not see it because it is (a) critical of Rajputs, (b) anti-national, and (c) too sexual. For once in my life, I’m going to go with the Karni Sena.
Not with their violence, of course. But with what they say about the film. Padmaavat is a serious indictment of Hindutva nationalism with its ideological investment in Brahminical supremacy. Not only is the most evil character in the film a Brahmin, he is also irredeemably evil. This former “Raj guru” defects from the Rajput court to the court of the Delhi sultanate because he is expelled from Chittor by Raja Rattan Singh. And what is his crime? He has spied on Rattan Singh and Padmavati’s lovemaking: The Brahmin is fascinated by Padmavati’s beauty and sexual allure.
But in the film, this fascination is ascribed to Alauddin Khilji. And thus begins the dance in which “Rajput” and “Muslim” become mirror images of one another. Khilji’s court of decadence is serviced by a Brahmin, while Rattan Singh has multiple wives (as, of course, did many Hindu men until 1955). The Rajputs sacrifice the goat that Khilji eats. Rajput women are constantly in purdah; Rajput men disguise themselves in veils in order to penetrate Khilji’s fort. Rajput architecture is a proleptic version of Mughal design. The Rajput court constantly celebrates festivals without doing much work: Decadence, anyone? Who is the Rajput and who the Muslim? Far from being “Islamophobic,” this film shows us the intense mirroring of Rajput and Afghan that has created the mix we now call “Indian”.
But surely, the ideological purists will say, Padmaavat is also filled with pro-Rajput dialogues that valorise the bravery and ethical uprightness of the Rajputs (this is why some members of the Karni Sena changed their minds about the film once they saw it). Doesn’t this suggest the film is Islamophobic, since many of these dialogues are in the context of asserting the superior moral compass of the Rajputs as compared to Khilji? But hearing these dialogues as being Islamophobic and Hindu-centric forgets the tiny detail of how hilarious they are. For instance, subjected to yet another tirade from Rattan Singh about how noble he, Rattan Singh, is, Alauddin Khilji replies with a wry smile: “Tum kitne acche ho” (how good you are!).
This ironic tone marks the entire film, and the jokes are always on the pietistic Rajputs. It is also a camp film in which the humour is used to undermine a sense of seriousness about oneself. When first presented with Malik Kafur as his slave, Khilji asks him: Naam kya hai? (what is your name?). Pat comes the reply: “Malik Kafur.” “Tumhara nahin,” Khilji responds, “ittar ka” (not yours, the name of your perfume).
Khilji’s interaction with Malik Kafur is camp and warm and fabulous. Those who would have liked to see a more obviously homosexual relationship between the Sultan and his slave miss the fact that anything more obvious would have been less satisfying because it would have been woven into the realm of the ordinary. Khilji is Kafur’s only love, and vice versa. They stand by one another, and they would die for each other. They each know the other’s every need and recognise the other’s every expression. If that’s not love, then what is?
Bhansali is repeatedly fascinated by unlikely desires, desires that are not recognised or allowed in the world in which we live. Forbidden desires. Hidden loves. Strange fruit. His art never normalises such desires but always heightens their allure: We wonder at them, marvel at their beauty, long for their magnificence.
Indeed, the entire film pivots on Khilji’s intense desire to possess the beauty of Padmavati, sight unseen. He camps outside her fort for months, drives his army to the verge of mutiny, exhausts his rations. And all for an idea of beauty that can only be his at the great cost of human lives.
And in this desire, Khilji is mirrored, neither by the Brahmin nor Rattan Singh, but by the Rani of Chittor herself. The so-called jauhar scene at the end of the film — which should be renamed the never-ending-march-towards-a-pyre-that-does-not-actually-burn-anyone — is a visually stunning example of the deadliness of desire. Both Khilji and Padmavati are in the grip of a desire that kills rather than fulfills. This is a desire that is irrational and takes no prisoners. It is utter annihilation — what the Sufis call fanaa. It is a desire that flies in the face of reason, and cares for nothing but itself. This is the absolute threat that desire wields. This is the reason why “love jihad” has become such a big issue for Hindu fanatics: Because desire is the only thing that can break the fetters of religious dogma.
And this is the desire that fascinates Bhansali, an erotics of death that ends in a conflagration of forts and bodies and empires. The jauhar scene is not about women immolating themselves. Do not make the mistake of reading it literally. Like the term “love jihad” itself, “jauhar” is a metaphor that allows the film to literalise the fires of passion. Bhansali does not show any women burning themselves even as he clearly portrays the horror of that idea by showing hordes of women and children cowering under Rajput patriarchal rule. The metaphor allows him to show Padmavati being consumed by the fire of her desire, and Khilji being devoured by the flames if his passion.
And so my urgent plea: Secularists, homophiles and feminists, watch the film. Its lack of ideological purity will make you wonder at your own desire to cling to it.