‘Padmaavat’ is much ado about nothing: Ratna Singh


I watched Padmaavat. I have been wanting to for ages, ever since the first look of the characters was revealed last year. Then broke the controversy and a large ruckus followed. I have been quite vocal against the violence and the brouhaha. Being a Rajput warrior is as much about justice and fair play as it is about honour and courage; more about commanding respect rather than demanding it. Besides my findings after the movie are old news, for the historians appointed by a Rajput group have already declared the film inoffensive. Anyhow, people cautioned and warned me against venturing out for the movie, but I was resolute.  Booking tickets online, I chose aisle seats located conveniently near the exit. On the day of the outing, I dressed with care, sturdy running shoes in case a hasty retreat was required, and set off.

The theatre was barricaded all around with a police van guarding the entry point. It was actually all very quiet, just another weeknight.  A disclaimer appeared on the screen along with an audio clip stating that the film was a work of fiction and did not represent any culture, community, dress etc. “Well, there you go,” thought I, “that takes the wind out of the sails, for those taking offence, no ground left to defend”. However, as the film progressed I was surprised at the disappointment I felt. Perhaps it was the hype or I expected too much.

It is a good-looking film to be sure.  The visuals are stunning.  The characters of Rawal Ratan Singh and Rani Padmavati look divine and I quite enjoyed the quirky, dosed with shades of insanity character of Khilji played by Ranvir Singh.  And now, the reason for the disappointment. But before that, a peek into the moulding of a Rajput mind, even ones like me, with a modern education and having grown up far away from the Rajputana region. 

You grow up on a diet of courage, honour, standing up for those who cannot defend themselves, with large helpings of stories of Rana Sanga, Hadi Rani, Rana Hammir, Maharana Pratap, Rani Padmini and so on. Physical robustness is specially prized and signs of weakness are frowned upon. At age six, we have a grand ear-piercing ceremony.  A goldsmith with a sharpened gold wire simply pierces your ear after smearing some turmeric and ghee on the ear lobes to ward off infection. All eyes are upon the child to see if any tears roll at the pain. I remember not crying and being lauded for it, while recently my nephew went through the same rite and didn’t shed a tear.  Somehow one just imbibes the essence of belonging to such a community, by observing more than being taught. My grandmother hailed from the Mewar region; her family, like in the movie, was ‘suryavanshi’ or descendants of the sun. She rose at dawn to pray to the sun and never, till her dying day ever looked upon a sunset, no matter how gorgeous. (They considered it inauspicious to see the setting sun)

Rajput hospitality, courtesy and etiquette in traditional homes can be quite overwhelming for an outsider and this I guess is what stuck out sorely. I had to keep reminding myself that the film was fiction, but even if it was historical fiction, there was a dire need to do some research and adopt some of the mannerisms of both the Rajputs and the Afghans to make it more real. Something that Amir Khan’s ‘Dangal’ did beautifully.

 Courtly culture is elaborate even now, so one can only imagine how nuanced it would have been centuries ago. The maids and the soldiers, even the general would interact with much, much more deference to the ruler, while males would never make eye contact with the queen, even if she was face to face. I just kept ticking off errors in court behaviour, because though it may be fiction, it’s about warriors of the Rajputana, with real names of places and people, so it was personally hard to disassociate.   Royalty in these parts were highly revered and a sense of sanctity surrounded them. They in turn were very conscious of that office and behaved accordingly. Therefore, when the movie shows the Queen dancing in a group, even though it’s mostly an all women gathering, it is something that would never happen. Not then, not now. The good rulers usually displayed and upheld the highest traits of human conduct, generosity, bravery etc. The sovereign was usually the fountainhead of not only leadership and justice but the populace looked up to them to set the bar for human conduct. Rani Padmavati dancing would almost be like the Dalai Lama or say even the Pope shaking a leg at a party!!

Also, in the movie, the queen and subsequently the king agree to Khilji’s demands of wanting to see the queen as he has heard so much of her beauty. Her reflection is seen by him in a mirror. This would have been unthinkable back then.  This incident finds mention in the book Padmavat by Jayasi on which the film is based. But, considering that the community still observes a lot of ‘Purdah”, one has to agree that it’s fiction.

And not just about Rajputs, Khilji’s forces have been depicted as one barbarian horde of Muslim raiders. It does well to remember that it would have been a mixed army with many mercenaries who were not Muslims as well. His personal aide Malik Kafur too was originally a Hindu. I feel filmmakers apart from freedom of expression also have a responsibility, especially in India and especially now when it is easy to incite mobs and polarise in an already edgy state of affairs.

It could have been a great film, if the same attention to detail had been put in developing the story and actually transporting audiences back in time with the language and body language as has been done for the make-up and dress.  The King did not do much apart from romance the queen as Khilji lay siege to the Fort. I expected great swordplay, military manoeuvres, espionage, something a bit more thrilling. However, when I do go beyond myself, I do think that people would enjoy the visual treat.

Ratna Singh is a Naturalist, working in the field of Responsible Wildlife Tourism  and Conservation. She is an Animal Lover, Yoga doer, amateur writer, Jungle dweller.