With all the debates and controversies that garlanded Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie Padmaavat one wonders what Rajput Karni Sena’s roaring was all about: they demanded a ban on Padmaavat, stating that it ‘distorts’ historical facts and defames queen Padmini. After actually watching the film, which was released in January 2018, they decided to re-frame their protest, declaring that the movie glorifies the Rajputs. By this logic it should be Muslims decrying alleged defamation.
Set in 1303 AD, in medieval India, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), a tyrant, shrewd warrior, debauched, a murderer and a rapist, has become Sultan of Delhi after assassinating his uncle Jalaluddin (Raza Murad). Alauddin’s opposite number is the Hindu king of Mewar, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). A principled and highly moral man, his bride is renowned beauty Rani Padmavati, the princess of Singhal (modern-day Sri Lanka). When Alauddin learns of Padmavati’s exceptional allure, the Sultan marches towards Mewar to subjugate Ratan Singh’s kingdom and win her over. What culminates is a duel between the two rulers, resulting in Padmavati going to extreme lengths to protect her honour and thwart Alauddin’s wicked plan.
Along with Alauddin, many notable Muslim figures are reduced to caricatures. Amir Khusrau, the 14th-century mystic, historian hand poet and one of the pillars of Sufi Islam and Persian literature is depicted as blindly supporting the savagery of our villain. Referred to as ‘Tuti-i- Hind’ (Singing Bird of India), this respected historical character is lampooned and consigned the role of court jester in the film.
The film projects an amalgamation of all the worst stereotypes of the monstrous, lascivious, immoral, savage, arrogant, cruel, inhumane, unreliable
and ‘other’. It is a disappointing portrayal particularly as the influence of the media and film industry on Indian society is well known. Those who already
have a negative perception of Muslims will only have their prejudices confirmed by the film.
Cinema is indeed a fiction but we have to consider its powerful role in shaping the opinion of audiences. This capacity to inform and educate should be channelled in a productive way, not used to malign and misinform. The same could be applied to the portrayal of any historical figure; the good thing about cinema is that it trans-creates/recreates from the actual. Instead of setting a binary, here a Muslim-Hindu, cinema could demarcate the boundaries that divide our societies. Sadly, this was a missed opportunity.
Muddasir Ramzan is an aspiring writer and a PhD candidate at the Aligarh Muslim University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.