Recently, an article shared by someone on the social media got my attention. It was written by someone named Tanika Godbole about the film Padmawati. The writer understandably expressed her resentment of the physical assault received by the film-maker and the death threats to the actress in the lead role.
But she went one step further and blamed the film-maker himself for making a film that glorifies Jauhar, the practice of self-immolation by the Rajput Women, at the time when Rajput men were dying in the battlefield and when defeat was certain.
According to Godbole, the cinema (the trailer) is tailor made for Hindutva politics. In her words: “We all know that a movie where a woman dies a horrific death and a Muslim man doesn’t get what he wants is a bhakt’s wet dream.”
Further, she claims that the glorification of Jauhar is to protect the Rajput Caste “Honor” where a Hindu woman can’t dance (refers to the objections raised about the song ghoomar), can’t appear in a Muslim man’s dream (refers to the alleged dream sequence) but must die a painful death for her Hindu, Upper Caste husband.
In the end she blames the film-maker for making a film based on a story that is “Patriarchal” (she also alleges that the story is Islamophobic and Casteist: but let’s stick to patriarchy here. Just as a passing remark on Islamophobia: she must be referring to people like Malik Muhammad Jayasi and Avanindranath Tagore as Islamphobes).
Is the story of Padmawati, a celebration of “Patriarchy”?
I think it’s quite the opposite: It’s a story that breaks the gender stereotype, a story that a woman is capable of making extreme sacrifices for ones she loves, things she adore, and ideas that she thinks is worth fighting for. The courage to “embrace” death bravely has been stereotypically associated with Men. It is men who have been said to have the courage of the protection of the honor of the motherland, it is men who can die for her in the battlefield. Padmawati’s legend breaks that myth.
True, she didn’t fight with a sword like Rani Laxmi Bai, but when the Rajput men were “embracing death” in the battle-field in their “suicidal” attempt to save the city (Saka), Padmini was “embracing death” too. And she was doing so, not to protect the caste honor of a Rajput woman, but to protect the honor of the land of which she was the queen. The battle was fought because of her, thousands died for her, her honor was synonymous to the honor of Chittor.
I wonder, how a feminist can view a woman of extra-ordinary strength like Padmini in the harem of the aggressor, reduced to a war booty, as an appealing outcome of the entire story. Tanika Godbole’s heart may bleed for the Muslim man being denied of his coveted fruits of the war, but the opposite would be an extreme injustice to the strong character that Padmini is!
Padmini denied the invader the satisfaction to capture her alive, and paid the ultimate respect to the men who died for that very same cause outside the walls of Chittor. Let me remind Godbole of another courageous woman depicted on screen by the same actress: Preetilata Wadeddar, the Bengali rebel that fought the British with the great revolutionary leader Surya Sen, committing suicide in the face of being captured by the ones whom she fought valiantly.
It is pertinent to note here, that even Amir Khusro, the great Sufi poet and the chronicler of Alauddin Khilji’s military victories hailed this extreme sacrifice on the part of Rajput women as a “heroic” act. It’s such a pity that an Indian feminist missed the heroism in Padmini’s story.
The second reason why I think Padmini’s story breaks gender stereotype is because it’s a story of a woman exercising autonomy on her body. In the face of defeat in the hands of an invader, the choices are limited between enslavement (read rape) and death: but it’s a choice nonetheless.
Jauhar was not imposed forcefully upon her, she voluntarily took it upon herself. Why does it irritate a feminist like Godbole so much to think that a woman is capable of choosing death over enslavement? Isn’t the act of rape a direct assault on a woman’s dignity, her free will? And isn’t it central to feminism, that a woman exercises her free agency in things that matter to her? Why then, Godbole must answer, so many Yezidi women in the recent past committed suicide to escape being sold in the slave markets of Iraq by the Islamic State?
As a Bengali, I have had the opportunity to meet a few rape survivors of the 1971 war of liberation in Bangladesh. When the Pakistan Army was on rampage, these women were captured and taken to the Army camps by the Razakars. I don’t want to narrate their stories here: the horrors experienced by them beggars imagination. If Padmini dying a horrific death is a Bhakt’s wet dream, then is her being enslaved and subjected to such horrors, the wet dream of Godbole?
At least in that Bhakt’s wet dream, Padmini exercises her agency to decide what she wanted to do with her body, in Godbole’s vision, she must passively submit to the victor’s will. The story of Padmini over the years have captured the imagination of poets, because she chose death over a dishonorable and miserable life. Some women like some men are capable of making the hard choice and Padmini is celebrated because she had the courage to do so.
Godbole alleges that the story depicts a devoted Hindu wife dying a horrifying death for her upper caste Hindu husband. Does it occur to Godbole, that a wife can love her husband, even though her husband is a “despicable” Hindu upper caste man? Isn’t it the same husband whom she rescues from captivity of the invader?
By the way, that is an entire episode altogether! She uses shrewdest strategies against an extremely cunning man and eventually succeeds. That in itself is a testimony of her extra-ordinary capabilities. And isn’t it the same Hindu Upper Caste husband that died in the battlefield for her? Why is it so unpalatable for Godbole that the wife chooses to make the same sacrifice for a husband which the husband has made for her?
The point that Godbole misses, due to blatant hatred, is that this is not a story of a wife’s devotion to husband imposed on her by a patriarchal value system: Padmini didn’t need to sacrifice herself for her husband, the Rajput men had left to die anyway. But the fact that she did, is what makes her larger than life. It’s a story of a lover dying in honor of her beloved- a horrifying death, but poetic nonetheless.
Let’s save this story of love, courage and sacrifice from the bigotry of a few philistine elements like Godbole, who needs to fit every story into the binary of men oppressing women.