PADMAAVAT (2018) – FLAWED BUT EPIC RETELLING OF A LOVE LEGEND IN MEDIEVAL INDIA

Padmaavat is a 2018 Indian historical epic based on the poem “Padmavat” by Malik Muhammud Jayasi. Padmavati is a fictional character though several Indian Rajput groups insist on her being an actual historical queen despite the lack of evidence. The characters of Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate and Rana Ratansen (or Ratnasimha or Ratan Singh) of Chittor are real though. Padmavat is meant to be an allegory, not a narration of a historical event, because in the poem, Chittor stands for the body, Raja (Ratnasimha) for the mind, Singhal for the heart, Padmavati for wisdom, and Alauddin for lust. The only historical facts in the legend, according to many historians are that Alauddin captured Chittor, and that the women of the fort (including a queen of Ratnasimha) died in jauhar.

A bit of history here – Jauhar was a Rajput tradition involving the act of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by foreign invaders, when facing certain defeat during a war. Culturally it is related to the banned Hindu custom of Sati, the custom of a widow to commit suicide by self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre, while Jauhar was collective self-immolation by women to escape being taken into slavery by Islamic invaders, when they expected certain defeat. The practice however occurred rarely and was a form of chivalric suicide by Hindu women to counter the Islamic invaders. Some modern day right-wing groups claim it began only as a way to save the honor of the Rajput Hindu women in the face of the barbaric Islamic onslaught but according to historians the practice existed a millennium before the Islamic invasions.

Coming back to the movie Padmavat, it is shown as a love story between Rana Ratan Singh and his beautiful and courageous Queen Padmavati (or Padmini) and the lust for her beauty leading Alauddinto invade Chittor. The movie begins with the origin of Alauddin, who marries Jalauddin Khilji’s daughter (creator of the Khilji dynasty in the Sultanate of Delhi). We are introduced to the base Alauddin who is greedy for wealth and power and lustful for women, but is an excellent General who thwarts several Mongol invasions of India. He later murders Jalauddin and ascends the throne, alongside his slave (later General) Malik Kafur. In the movie, Malik Kafur is shown mostly as an obedient but ruthless slave and his military talents are ignored.

Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khiji in single combat to the death – still from the movie – historically no account of it ever happening

Meanwhile Ratan Singh while in Sinhala (modern-day Sri Lanka) is injured hunting in the forests, by Padmavati. As she tends to his wounds, they fall in love with each other and return to Chittor with Padmavati as his new Queen. In Chittor, the chief Priest and Advisor of Ratan Singh, Raghav Chetan, who being enamored by Padmavati’s beauty, witnesses an intimate moment between Ratan and Padmavati and is banished. He travels to Delhi and informs Alauddin of Padmavati’s beauty, as an act of revenge. Alauddin, who is fixated with having anything that is exceptional, invites the Rajputs to Delhi but his invitation is rejected. Enraged, he lays siege to Ratan Singh’s capital Chittor though after six months he is unable to break through the defences of the well-defended and stocked fort. Alauddin feigns peace on account of Holi and is allowed to enter Chittor where he meets Ratan Singh. He asks to see Padmavati; Ratan Singh grants this request, but only momentarily while preventing Alauddin from seeing her face. Later when Alauddin invites Ratan Singh for a meal, before Alauddin returns to Delhi, he is treacherously captured by Alauddin and imprisoned in Delhi. He informs Padmavati that Ratan Singh would be freed if she comes to Delhi.

Deepika Padukone as Padmavati and Shahid Kapur as Rana Ratan Singh – notice the brightness in the portrayal of the noble and honourable Rajputs in contrast to the dark themes associated with the ruthless Muslim conquerors

Padmavati agrees to see Alauddin under some conditions: she will meet Ratan first; and Chetan will be executed for his earlier treachery. Alauddin agrees and sends Raghav Chetan’s head to her; Padmavati then travels to Delhi to meet him. Meanwhile, Alauddin survives an assassination plot by his nephew, though he is wounded. He tracks down his nephew and kills him. The Rajputs, disguised in women’s dress, who are part of Padmavati’s entourage, plan to ambush the Khilji soldiers in the morning, at the time for morning namāz. Padmavati, along with Chittor’s generals, Gora and Badal, free Ratan Singh, and escape with Mehrunisa’s (Alauddin’s Queen) help. Ratan confronts Alauddin, who urges Ratan to take this opportunity to kill him in his weakened state. However, Ratan refuses as this is against the Rajput credo of not attacking the wounded. The Rajput ambush goes ahead as planned, but the Khilji soldiers are alerted to it and repulse the attack, killing the attacking Rajputs. Both Gora and Badal fight valiantly but are killed.

Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji – note the dark and maniacal portrayal of the Islamic ruler

Alauddin imprisons Mehrunisa for helping the Rajputs and marches to Chittor. He and Ratan Singh engage in a single duel; Alauddin drops his sword but Ratan doesn’t kill him as he is unarmed; Kafur takes the opportunity to mortally wound Ratan while his back is turned. While dying, he berates the Khilji forces for fighting dishonorably. The Khilji army defeats the Rajputs and captures Chittor, but are unable to capture the Rajput women who perform jauhar (mass suicide) along with Padmavati, thus denying Alauddin the prize he most desired.

As you see from the plot of the movie itself, several flaws emerge – Alauddin Khilji was portrayed as barbaric, honourless and a lustful conqueror while the Rajput Ratan Singh is shown to be honourable, brave and dignified. A major trend in recent Hindi historical movies such as Baji Rao Mastani and Panipat, shows Muslim rulers as ruthless, blood-thirsty monsters while the Hindu kings who were defeated, are never shown to lack military tactical skills but rather were betrayed or tricked. The whole honour being more important than logic and tactics, is a major flaw in many Hindu military rulers. Ratan Singh committed several tactical errors, in the movie (we do not know if that was the case in reality). Alauddin historically, was an extremely able, sophisticated and ruthless ruler. He did order the massacre of the population of Chittor on conquering the city, slaughtering almost 30,000 Hindus, but it was a trait common to several rulers throughout history upon conquering a new city.

Nobility in death – the Rajputs

Padmaavat scores high in terms of its costumes (though Alauddin’s look is definitely not accurate for a Sultanate ruler), the stunning visuals and the grandeur portrayed on screen. It scores low, if one claims it as historically accurate or if one desires a more realistic portrayal of the Muslim conquests of India. If however, you look at Padmaavat as a fictional portrayal of a love story set in the context of a historical event, it comes close to being a good one-time watch. The portrayal of the valour of the Rajputs and their warrior code is all true but it should also highlight their lack of unity, tactical prowess and egoistic decision-making leading to their defeats against the Delhi Sultanate, other Muslim invaders and later the Mughals. Padmaavat needs to be watched if you enjoy lavish sets and opulent scenes. The acting is decent though Ranveer Singh as Alauddin goes a little over-the-top and plays loose with the definition of crazy.

What might strike as the defining moment of the movie is the ritual mass-suicide by the Rajput women when facing imminent defeat. The jauhar, in which the Rajput women led by Padmavati walk into a huge fire pit and immolate themselves rather than risking capture and dishonor at the hands of the Muslim conquerors. Historically, the Jauhar was not committed after all the men had died – when the Rajputs defending a fort realized they faced imminent defeat, the women immolated themselves in huge pyres, fanned by the men, who poured ghee or clarified butter into the flames to make them rise high while chanting the names of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses. After the women died, the men donned saffron robes, drank an opium laden beverage and roused themselves into a state of frenzy and charged at the conquerors – a form of suicidal attack and died fighting instead of surrender. To many Islamic invaders of the past and Western viewers in the present day, this Jauhar and ritual suicide would seem to be a waste of lives but to Rajputs who gave higher importance to honor over their lives, it was like having no choice. It was similar to Spartans of old, or the Japanese Banzai attacks during the Second World war.

Rani Padmavati walks into the flames

JAY’S VERDICT

Watch Padmaavat for its grand portrayal of the Rajputs and Medieval India and if you enjoy tragic love stories and grandiose plots.

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