I remember arguing with my mother about your open letter. She would say to me – Sanjay Leela Bhansali has taken up a piece of literature based in a different context and reflects the sensibilities of a particular point in history. Should the fact of self-immolation being a part of that story imply that we banish it from our memory? I would say to her – but why draw upon a piece of literature that glorifies a practice that was stopped for a reason? Maybe that’s what Swara is trying to say. And then I watched Padmaavat myself.
When I had read your letter, I remember feeling that a lot of what you were saying came from certain fundamental concepts drilled into us by our university education. Concepts that liberated us by – among many other things – liberating our language. While a few eyebrows may have been raised by your using the word vagina, for me the word had been normalised a long time ago. And so, I looked beyond it to see the point you were making. And I now feel as though a lot of that fundamental education didn’t make it into your argument.
Women have the right to live, you say. They do indeed. What they also have, however, is the right to make choices. And this includes the choice between life and death. From where I was looking, the movie was saying to me quite the opposite of what it said to you. I didn’t feel reduced to a vagina at the end of it. I felt, on the contrary, more receptive to how women have lived during times long before ours and how they’ve subverted the authoritarian regimes that have been imposed upon them. I also felt more alive to the horrific aspects of these regimes. Have you ever read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? Since you drew a parallel to race, I’d like to draw one too. The basic crux of the story is this – a woman kills her own children to protect them from a life of slavery. Her act is not glorified, but becomes a signifier of the horrors of slavery – horrors that have taught her that there is something worse even than death. When I read this book today, what I see in it is a reminder of what human beings have had to endure in history. It is symptomatic of a horrific reality that cannot simply be erased from history. Sure, Padmaavat is a far less subtle, much more melodramatic representation of a particular point in time, and the storytelling is flawed in several places – but it is nevertheless a reminder of the horrors women have had to go through when they were seen as vaginas and nothing more. The way Khilji treats his wife throughout the film tells me what Padmaavati’s life could be like, should she be captured by him. And when Mehrunnisa helps her escape – there is power there too. She has been physically and emotionally abused by her husband since the day of their wedding, and yet when she is banished to the dungeons, she leaves with her head held high.
Hark back to the books you read as a student, for a moment. All that background reading on patriarchy, hegemony and the whole idea of subversion – defying a system from within it. It is a form of limited rebellion, sure. But subverting a system is the first decisive step towards breaking out of it – a process that has taken hundreds of years, and here we are today, writing open letters, talking about vaginas, questioning the male gaze, and having a bona fide right to free speech and expression… to me, Padmaavati is a symbol of the beginning of that journey. Historically, who is to say what the story of Rani Padmini really was? But in this piece of cinematic representation, she is a signifier of strength, independent thinking and courage. And she is a woman – vagina and more.
When you talk about the man as the protector and the controller of a woman’s sexuality – does it not strike you that Padmaavati’s decision to embrace jauhar is her way of defying exactly that? Through her act, she is making a statement that no one controls her sexuality but herself. She chooses not to let Alauddin Khilji rule her body. If this is not agency, I’m not sure what is.
Placed in the 16th century, what we’re seeing in the film is a socio-cultural framework that sees women as objects of desire and yet, Padmaavati manages to defy her identification with ‘alaukik saundarya‘ too. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, she says quite simply to Raghav Chetan, and later affirms that lust – and the destruction that follows – is the onus of the beholder too. Instead of being relegated to the background as an object of desire, the film lets her emerge into the foreground and question the very concept of desire. If this is not independence of thought, I’m not sure what is.
The idea of jauhar is placed before her a long time before its actual manifestation, by an old lady from the Rajput court. When she chooses jauhar at the end of the film, it is not, therefore, an impulsive decision driven entirely by emotion. Besides beauty, the narrative regularly identifies her with rationality, and by suggesting jauhar earlier, it gives her time to think about it. In the final sequence, she is among hundreds of women who wage their own war against Khilji. In her speech just before news of Rawal Ratan Singh’s death reaches her, she addresses the women as warriors (kshatraaniyan) and refers quite literally to the war they will wage within the fort while the men fight outside it. The smouldering coal thrown at Khilji, the door closed in his face when he finally reaches the site of immolation, and his greatest desire taken from him forever – this is their war. Bhansali, in fact, makes this point visually too – shots of the women running are intercut with shots of the soldiers, drawing a clear visual parallel that supports Padmaavati’s speech. If this is not power, I’m not sure what is.
An ordinary woman with an opinion