Feb 12, 2017

Padmavati and the protest

[Img: Wikimedia/Ravi Varma]  
Ironically again, I have the Karni Sena and their protest against the upcoming movie to thank. If you had asked me a month ago about Rani Padmini, I'd have immediately told you the story of the siege of Chithor and the Jauhar - asserting confidently of the story's historical validity. I'd have been wrong. Apparently, there is little historical evidence, and the earliest source of the story of Padmini is an epic poem written by a Sufi mystique almost a couple of centuries after the events. Thanks to a wonderful book on historiography by Sanjay Subrahmanyam,  I did wonder if perhaps the poem was based on some kernel of truth? Turns out, the poem, as declared by the poet himself, is an allegory. Khusrau Khan  (whose name is already familiar to me, thanks to the research I did for my book), my trusted Wikipedia says, doesn't even mention her name.

At a certain level, I suspect, it would not matter to the protestors that Rani Padmini was fictional. It is unlikely that they are concerned about the distortion of the truth. After all, even if one were to hypothetically grant that the story is true, the story does talk of Alauddin Khilji wanting her. A fantasy sequence between Khilji and Padmini then ought to be acceptable. But protest against it, they did. I just read the announcement that there would be no such scenes between the two of them, after all.

Would a lecherous gaze and lewd words from the 'evil' Khilji have been acceptable? Why is it more disturbing to us to envision the physical touch? 

In Valmiki Ramayana, Ravana physically lifts Sita up by her waist and throws her into the chariot.  There is the graphic description of his hands on her head, her waist and thigh. As I write the words I remember my grandmother gasping out loud while she watched this scene in the serial Ramayana on Doordarshan long ago. For, we were more familiar with the gentler version of this episode from the Kamba Ramayana until then. In the medieval era Kamban's version, Ravana does not touch her but instead lifts the whole hut, ground up. 

I can understand how that makes Ravana less evil but is that just it? Does it somehow make Sita purer?  Does the man himself matter - if it were not a Ravana, [Kamban's version of Ravana is more refined], but a thoroughly evil sundry rakshasa would it have been more acceptable? 

So we are not only wanting our ideal woman to be chaste but so chaste that she would not induce any desire in a man other than hers.  How grossly unfair to tie the chastity of a woman to a random lustful man and his unwanted advances! It is just a hop, skip and a jump away to blaming the victim. When the fundamental conflict in the narrative hinges on such an advance or desire, how do we handle it then? It is not enough for us that the said woman jump into the fire. We want to also ensure the villain doesn't get to touch her for eternity, be it in a dream or in a movie retelling. How fragile we must be. 

My advice to movie directors and artists bent on depicting prominent female characters from mythology with rakshasas or conquerors, try Mohini.

February 12, 2017