I approached Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani with apprehension, having disliked his previous films, and given up on them for years after Black. Bajirao’s energy surprised me, and Ranveer Singh was a revelation. He did the impossible: made a Marathi Brahmin male character cool. The release of Padmaavat returned me to the square one of low expectations following Raja Sen’s scathing review and Swara Bhaskar’s trenchant critique of the film’s politics, among other harsh takedowns. Having written in Scroll.in about Padmavati, and about a princess of Mewar who would make a better subject for a film, I felt obliged to watch Padmaavat despite these negative notices. In the event, I found Nandini Ramnath’s assessment in Scroll.in closest to my own response. More importantly, I perceived little of the Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny that have been attributed to the film, and felt it deserved a defence against these charges.
While Padmaavat incorporates a few facts about Alauddin Khilji’s rise to power, it advertises its disinterest in historical veracity right at the outset, when Ranveer Singh’s scene-stealing Alauddin Khilji saunters into a fort in Afghanistan leading a CGI ostrich on a shiny leash. The ostrich helps him win the heart and hand of Jalauddin Khilji’s gorgeous daughter, but he bangs another woman Sonny Corleone style while his bride is downstairs at their wedding celebration. At least Sonny had the decency to wait for his sister’s wedding to do that deed, and did not murder the man who interrupted it. Alauddin Khilji has no decency, and no moral sense. He takes what he wants when he wants using any means he can. He is a sensualist, a lover of music and dance, of women and men, of birds, jewels, and perfume, and, above all, of things unique, unsurpassed, unattainable, नायाब.
To say the word “Nayab” is used more frequently than required in Padmaavat is like stating Mukesh Ambani has a little more money than he needs to feed his family. I’d love to see a YouTube video incorporating every shot of Ranveer Singh uttering that word intercut with every instance of Shahid Kapoor’s Ratan Singh mouthing, “Rajput”.
That quibble aside, the dialogue is sharp and witty through most of the film, with Ranveer Singh hogging the best lines. There is even a meta moment acknowledging modern historical relativism. When a courtier tells Alauddin Khilji that history will not forgive his murder of his mentor Jalaluddin Khilji, the newly crowned Sultan asks Amir Khusro if that is true. Khusro comes up with the instant defence that history will view the act as a demand of the time, वक़्त का तकाजा. This exchange makes explicit what is implicit throughout the film, which is that Bhansali is keenly aware of the political context in which his work will be viewed. He struggled with the issue of contemporary Hindu-Muslim tension in framing Bajirao Mastani, and has found an excellent solution in Padmaavat: he has created an Alauddin Khilji so divorced from religious sentiment and belief, so wrapped up in his own desires, that no sensible viewer would ascribe his actions to the faith to which he formally adheres.
Though Alauddin Khilji is no pious Muslim, Ratan Singh is an arch Rajput. This seems like an imbalance, with one man embodying a system of being and the other representing only himself. To explain why it works, to the extent it does, I will read the film as an allegory. I do this following the tradition of Malik Muhammad Jayasi, who composed the poem on which the film is very loosely based. Near the end of his 16th-century epic, Jayasi offered an allegorical reading of the action, in which Chittor is the body, Ratan Singh the mind, Padmavati the intellect and Alauddin Khilji maya, or illusion. This allocation of symbols feels unsatisfying to me (in what sense does Alauddin resemble maya?) but I am attempting something similar using as my basis the most influential myth of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud’s conception of the human psyche. Freud divided the psyche into three, the id, the ego, and the superego (In German, the Es, Ich und Über-Ich, or It, I, and Above I). The id is composed of instinctive drives, needs, and desires; of sexuality and aggression that strive for immediate gratification without moral inhibition. Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji is the most effective personification of the id in cinematic history.
The polar opposite of the id is the superego, which consists of internalised cultural rules and moral values, passed from generation to generation and from parents to children. Shahid Kapoor’s Ratan Singh, with his code of Rajput values, is the personification of the superego. The code he represents sometimes appears noble, at other times absurd, but he lives by it without question.
Between the two of them stands Deepika Padukone’s Padmavati, the only character in the film who demonstrates flexibility and rational thought. We meet her at the start as both hunter and healer. Later on, she argues it is worth showing herself to Alauddin Khilji in defiance of the Rajput code if it means warding off war. She wishes her husband had killed the Sultan when he could, though murdering an unarmed guest would violate the chivalrous code. She urges Ratan Singh not to go to the enemy’s tent unarmed, and, when he does and is captured, hatches a plot to rescue him though it means potentially exposing herself to strangers. In all this, Padmavati is the ego, negotiating between the rigidity of the superego and the wildness of the id.
Her decision to take her own life is also rational in the circumstances, which is not to say it is the only rational decision that could be taken in those circumstances. The glorification of jauhar is, of course, troubling, which is why I understand where Swara Bhaskar is coming from, but I entered the theatre assuming a commercial film would have to end more or less the way Padmaavat did, and was therefore interested mainly in the lead-up to the act. The schema I have outlined, with Padmavati at its centre as the sole rational agent, provides an alternate interpretation to that which reduces the film to a thesis in misogyny.
Having said this, I did find the last phase of the film unresolved. The slide began with the second siege of Chittor, when Alauddin Khilji assaults the fort using counterweight trebuchets that throw incendiary projectiles. I thought, “If you were handed down these fire catapult thingies by Saladin after the shoot of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, why didn’t you use them the last time round, instead of camping outside Chittor from Diwali to Holi?” After that, it felt like the director was bending over backwards to assuage the feelings of today’s Rajputs by putting in an extra dose of Khilji chicanery. That hurt the film’s quality, and did not do its job in the real world. Finally, instead of Alauddin Khilji running around crazily in the fort trying to stop the jauhar, it would have been incomparably more effective to have him enter a burned out shell as in Jayasi’s Padmavat, and attain a moment of realisation: “He took up a handful of ashes and threw it in the air, saying ‘Earth is vanity’. Until ashes fall upon it, this desire of worldly things will not be satisfied.”
That would have also made a good end to this column, but I am going to stretch it out to bring in one more idea, that of sympathy for the devil. The reviews are almost unanimous about Ranveer Singh being the most dynamic and compelling thing about Padmaavat. In fact, the entire Khilji contingent (his long-suffering wife Mehrunisa and murderous, kinky-minded slave Malik Kafur) is far more interesting and substantial than the cardboard cut-out personalities on the Mewar side – the interchangeable chieftains Gora and Badal, and sulky senior wife Nagmati.
This tempts me to say Bhansali is secretly on Alauddin Khilji’s side, even as he kow-tows to Rajput pride. There is a history to this interpretation, leading back to an epic poem composed in England a century after Padmavat, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Milton’s poem gained an ever broader readership, a consensus grew that its most interesting chapters were the ones dominated by Satan, the villain of the piece, a rebellious angel who tempts Eve and Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge. “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven,” Milton’s Satan proclaims, and his words found sympathetic ears among the Romantics who emerged in the late 18th century. In William Blake’s opinion, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. In Shelley’s words, “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is far superior to his God.” In the 20th century, the critic William Empson argued, “The reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad”.
A Satanic School of writing developed in the 19th century, with the Byronic hero at its head. In France, it influenced the idea of the “poète maudit”, or “cursed poet”, a man living a life of debauchery and violence at the fringes of society. Charles Baudelaire, the leading light of this group, was the inspiration behind the Rolling Stones’ number Sympathy for the Devil, which gave rise to the myth, often fed by musicians themselves, that certain rock groups were Satan worshippers.
In actual fact, there is no sympathy for the devil in Sympathy for the Devil. Lucifer, the ‘I’ of the song, claims responsibility for Christ’s crucifixion, the Nazi horror and the assassination of the Kennedys. No evil act being unworthy of his notice, he lays, “traps for the troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay”. What started with Milon’s text praising God while seeming to hold a sneaking affinity for Satan, ends with a song announcing its admiration for Satan which was taken at face value though its lyrics undercut the premise of its title.
This history of literary sympathy with the devil is a warning against ascribing meanings to works of art based on their overt claims for themselves. Bhansali’s Padmaavat trumpets the Rajput code, but Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji effectively taps into deep-rooted impulses, which we can call the id following Freud’s schema, to connect with the audience in ways the Rajput superego cannot, thus undercutting the apparent message, and making the film something more complex than a piece of propaganda for a chauvinist cause. Maybe the Karni Sena was onto something after all.