In a corner of the sprawling Chittorgarh fort, there is a run-down room with a large dome. What is peculiar about this room is that it is — or at least was till recently — fitted with cheap mirrors that reflect a small garden some distance away.
I don’t know if the mirrors are still there. They may have been quietly removed since the controversy around Rani Padmini turned into a rallying point for Rajputs. But, while they were still there, the mirrors told a story. Legend has it that in sometime in 1303, Alauddin Khilji was allowed passage into the fort to look at the reflection of Rani Padmini, believed to be the wife of Chittor’s Rajput ruler, in the mirrors. Having stood once at exactly the same point where Khilji once supposedly did, I can vouch that the distance between the mirror and the garden where Padmini was purported to have posed for a glimpse of her beauty to the invader is such that nobody could have figured out if the reflection was that of a man or a woman. Yet, Khilji was, supposedly, not only mesmerised by the reflection but also launched a brutal attack to claim Padmini. But, that is besides the point.
The point here is this: For decades, the legend of Rani Padmini, the parable of her reflection in the mirror, the siege of Chittorgarh by Khilji and then the final assault that led to the death of Rajput warriors and jauhar (self-immolation) by their women has been part of the Rajasthani lore. It has been passed on from generation to generation as a symbol of Rajput pride, and bravery and honour of the Rajasthani women. So, what exactly is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s fault if he trying to retell a story that almost every Rajasthani knows? Why exactly is Bhansali being attacked? What is the reason for this hilarious call for trying him for sedition by a member of the film certification board? Why are the Rajputs seeking a ban on Padmavati, a fictional account of a fiction penned by a bard some 240 years after the siege of Chittorgarh?
The demand for trying Bhansali for sedition is hilarious. It is symptomatic of a closed mind — and we have plenty of them on display in this age of WhatsApp wisdom — that believes a great nation like India, which has survived hundreds of invaders and years of British occupation, can be harmed by a film-maker’s retelling of a fictional account. The puerile demand makes us pity its proponents who believe that any affront (imagined or real), to an individual’s belief is an attack on the nation. Frankly, such individuals need some sessions on a shrink’s couch.
Even the Rajputs bristling their moustaches and brandishing their swords need to tell us why exactly Padmavati should be banned. Is making films on myths and legends outlawed in India? If that were the case, BR Chopra and Ramananad Sagar would have never dared to turn India’s most famous epics into blockbuster TV serials. If that were the case, the history of Indian cinema would not have been adorned with hundreds of movies based on lores and legends.
The charge against Bhansali that he is distorting history is farcical. Because, in order to distort history, you need to first have one. The story of Padmini, most historians argue, is a fictionalised account. It first originated not in Chittorgarh. It was, by author Jayasi’s own admission, a “made up” account of events that have no historical basis.
Consider the irony: A film-maker is being attacked for filming a fictional account. It is like India going up in arms some centuries later, claiming a film on Chulbul Pandey would distort history! Who are the real dummies here? Obviously, those who are passing a fictional account as authentic Hindu history, and, thus, belittling our own past. These purveyors of faux history are the real enemies of our culture.
Unfortunately, the Rajputs have had a history of being touchy about their past, both imagined and real. This is primarily because in their minds they are convinced of the greatness of their ancestors; the infallibility, almost God-like status of the Rajputs who ruled their kingdoms. For them, their faith is fact, their belief is history. So, anytime a counter narrative appears on the horizon, they rush to protect their collective faith and belief in their own golden past, passing it off as history. For them, it is difficult to believe that their ancestors lost almost every battle of significance — even Chittorgarh was sacked thrice — and Rajput kings made matrimonial alliances with Mughals. Instead of embracing, analysing and accepting it, they try to smother a debate on every counter narrative, regardless of its veracity.
There is some irony at play here too. One of the vocal proponents of a ban on Padmavati is Diya Kumari, daughter of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur. Kumari, who is also a BJP legislator, would know a word or two about the might of the community and honour of women. Years ago, when she had married Narendra Singh, a commoner, Rajputs demanded that she be ex-communicated, and her father — the late Brigadier Bhawani Singh — be stripped of his titles. All this for marrying against the wish of the community.
And the hotheads who are beating their breasts for the fictional queen of Chittorgarh have their roots in the organisation that wanted glorification of Roop Kanwar, a real young woman who was drugged, chained and burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband in Rajasthan’s Deorala village 30 years ago.
So much for honouring and protecting women!