Print edition : March 03, 2017

Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Lokendra Singh Kalvi (centre) and other leaders of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena at a press conference after the assault on Sanjay Leela Bhansali, in Jaipur on January 27. Photo: PTI

A promotional still from the director's "Bajirao Mastani" (2015).

The attack on Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Jaipur seems designed to send a message that history in films can only be depicted from a Hindutva perspective.

AT the height of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi, while reacting to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s provocative slogans, advised Indian Muslims to take pride in Raskhan, Kabir, Malik Mohammed Jaisi, etc., and not in Babur or Aurangzeb. The implied, if faulty, message was that Indian Muslims took pride in the founder of the Mughal dynasty or the last of the major Mughals, and that was why they defended Babri Masjid, whereas they needed to take inspiration from the works of poets such as Raskhan who sang praises of Hindu deities while being practising Muslims. Jaisi and Raskhan were supposed to represent the bonds of commonalities between the majority and the minority.

Joshi’s words were dismissed by India’s largest minority as as an attempt to bring them under the Hindutva fold, which was supposed to be an all-pervasive umbrella. It was akin to the claims that all Muslims in India were in fact Mohammadi Hindus, a term many BJP leaders used with great enthusiasm at that time. It was even suggested that if the community reconciled itself to its alleged ancestry of forcible conversions, temples could have statues of the Prophet, too. The suggestion was nipped in the bud, but the advice about Raskhan and Jaisi, was repeated periodically by various leaders. Now, it turns out that even Jaisi is a red rag for the proponents of virulent Hindutva. The Chishti sufi exponent’s 16th century epic poem Padmavat and a film based on it by the National Award-winning director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is being used to peddle hatred. It also signals a change in the Hindutva proponents’ perspective with regard to Jaisi.

Bhansali was shooting for the film Padmavati, starring Deepika Padukone and Ranvir Singh in the lead, at Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur when activists of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena arrived unannounced. They resorted to unprovoked violence and destroyed costly shooting equipment, including the camera and a monitor that Bhansali was using. With the mob ransacking the premises and raising provocative slogans, the crew tried in vain to shield Bhansali from its ire. The activists spotted him, and a volley of abuses and blows followed. In a video which went viral, Bhansali was seen ducking for cover even as the protesters rained blows on him with their hands and what seems like a leg of a tripod.

The attack was carried out on the suspicion that the director was filming love scenes depicting Rani Padmini, wife of Raja Ratan Singh, the Rajput ruler of Chittor, and Alauddin Khilji, the Delhi sultan who is said to have raided Chittor as he became besotted with her.

Bhansali was too shaken to comment but fellow film-makers Karan Johar and Ashutosh Gowariker, who have been at the receiving end of similar frenzy, came out in support, advising him to stay strong. The local police arrested the protesters but the shooting was cancelled. Later, activists of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena demanded a change in the title of the film.

There is a school of thought which believes that Khilji could not lay his hands on her because the queen committed jauhar (the custom of mass self-immolation by women to avoid capture by invaders). Deepika Padukone said: “As Padmavati, I can assure you that there is absolutely no distortion of history.” But it fell on deaf ears as the activists insisted on seeing history through their blinkered glasses. “The film presents distorted facts about Padmini,” one activist argued, even before the film’s shooting was completed. How he got to see the claimed sequence and whether it was part of the script or not were immaterial. As far as the Shree Rajput Karni Sena was concerned the film was about a love story between a Rajput queen and a Delhi sultan.

Interestingly, Bhansali’s previous film, Bajirao Mastani, was lapped up by the same section because it depicted a version of history it is comfortable with.

The goons took the law into their own hands making the role of the Central Board of Film Certification in these matters redundant. The activists manhandled the film-maker and used Padmavati as a tool with which to beat Muslims. Bhansali was to be made an example of, and a message conveyed to other film-makers: history has to be shown only from a certain perspective. To those familiar with modern Indian history, it all seemed so predictable: hail everything non-Muslim in the past and hold present-day Muslims accountable for any real or imagined acts of omission or commission by Muslim rulers in the past.

The Shree Rajput Karni Sena had objected to Ashutosh Gowariker’s film Jodha Akbar because it showed a happy union between a Rajput queen and the Mughal emperor. They claimed that the film distorted history. However, in the case of Padmavati, there is no recorded history about Padmini.

It may be recalled that Jaisi wrote Padmavat around 1540, during the reign of the Afghans, particularly Sher Shah Suri, the man who paved the way for the all-inclusive politics of Akbar. In Padmavat, a poem written in the Awadhi language, Jaisi celebrated love in all its divine hues. The poem had more than a single layer to keep the reader engaged. One layer was about the Sinhalese queen Padmini or Padmavati. Raja Ratan Singh was said to be so fascinated with her that his love endured all hardships, trials and tribulations. It was raised to the level of a sufi’s love and longing for the Almighty.

At yet another level was the military advance of Khilji, who is said to have captured Chittor out of lust for the queen. It was pretty common those days for victorious kings to walk away with the queens of the vanquished; while some were admitted to the royal harem, many others performed jauhar to avoid capture. Forgotten amidst all the din over love scenes was the rule of Khilji, a man who gave a stable administration, led many military conquests, and extended the frontiers of his kingdom. On his military expeditions, he did not spare Muslims either; he dismissed all New Musalmans from his service. And when they hatched a conspiracy to get rid of him, he ordered their massacre.

In An Advanced History of India R.C. Majumdar, H.C. Raychaudhuri and Kalinkinkar Datta use the word “tradition” when referring to the said battle. “If tradition is to be believed, its immediate cause was his infatuation for Rana Ratan Singh’s queen, Padmini, of exquisite beauty. But this is not explicitly mentioned in any contemporary chronicle or inscription. The Rana was carried as a captive to the sultan’s camp, but was rescued by the Rajputs in a chivalrous manner.” Some Rajputs are said to have resisted Khilji's invasion, but when further defence seemed impossible, they preferred death. Amir Khusrau, much hailed for his trenchant wit, was part of the campaign at Chittor. Nowhere does he mention the queen of Rana Ratan Singh. Nor do non-Persian sources give space to her much-talked-about beauty, capture or possible jauhar. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, an expert on medieval Indian history from Aligarh Muslim University, states: “It is all a fictional account. Jaisi’s work was fictional. At the end of his work, Jaisi himself says that Padmavat’s love story is a fictional one and the names of characters are metaphors. It is total legend.”

Saying that there are no historical details available, Rezavi reveals that the first mention of Rani Padmini and Khilji can be found more than 200 years after the Chittor battle. “Khilji attacked Chittor in 1303, but the first mention of the queen comes only in 1524,” says Rezavi. “Probably, Jaisi took the story from there and developed it in 1540. Even then, there is not such a significant time lapse between the two works of 1524 and 1540. It is important to note that for more than 200 years no historian mentioned it, including Rajput historians.”

Mythology as history

Rani Padmini may or may not have existed. She may or may not have committed jauhar, but her legend lives on. In an era when history is being debunked and mythology is being passed off as history, Padmini’s alleged story may not be the last in the ongoing tussle to rewrite history, real or imagined. Even as self-appointed moral custodians of society force cancellation of film shootings, protest against film screenings and shy away from a reasoned debate, Rezavi says: “The current controversy is part of a longer chain of mythology being considered history.” Next up is Rana Pratap Singh, who, it is alleged now, won the Battle of Haldighati against Akbar.

There is also a whisper campaign to rename Akbar Road in New Delhi to Rana Pratap Road. “It is all about pride in our history,” a BJP leader said, while demanding the renaming of Akbar Road. What he left unsaid was, “Pride in everything Hindu, and casting aside of everything Muslim.” It is a reiteration of the same old ideology propounded by M.S. Golwalkar about India belonging only to those whose janmabhoomi and punyabhoomi lie here.

As for Murli Manohar Joshi’s advice, his words, too, have been rendered obsolete.

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