A few years ago, I saw a series of paintings depicting the “history” of South Asia at a state institution’s club. The first painting had a Hindu king, identified by his tilak and his bald Brahmin advisor. The people were painted under him, starved, their bones protruding, as the tyrant king’s soldiers oppressed them. The next painting represented the Muslim conquest of India, with the invading soldiers facing the oppressive regime. The final painting was that of a Muslim ruler and his happy subjects, highlighting how India had emerged from the dark ages.

Such propaganda is common in Pakistan. Government-sanctioned school textbooks are riddled with them. I remember a conversation I had with my Islamiyat studies teacher in Class 3 that showed how instructors teaching biased syllabi cannot seem to operate outside of this prejudice. Perturbed at something she had said, I asked her if all Hindus, good and bad, would go to hell. “Yes,” she answered. I do not remember how I interpertrated her response at that time. But I know that growing up, these narratives did not have the kind of impact on me that they were meant to.

Thinking back, one of the major factors for this was the Indian film industry. I was hooked to movies even before I had learned to speak properly. Mithun, Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar, Vinod Khanna, they were all part of my childhood. Growing up in a social environment where there were no Hindus around us, the formal curriculum presented the Hindu as an abstract concept, meant to be detested. However, films humanised them. They gave this abstract notion a face, making it harder to hate the other.

My love affair with films continued in my adult life and so, I found myself at the theatre last weekend to watch the much hyped Padmaavat. Before I say anything, it must be acknowledged that this is arguably one of the most beautiful movies ever. Every scene is a visual delight, a masterpiece. And to top it all is Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji, the ultimate villain. I cannot imagine anyone else in the industry bringing the same intensity to the character. Shahid Kapoor in Haider would be a close second.

The politics of the film, however, is a different story altogether – regressive, racist, sexist, Islamophobic and numerous other obscenities that cannot be captured in words. It puts together every single stereotype of Muslims in India, amplifies it, and presents it as art. It takes these human characters and dehumanises them, in a way that completely reverses the process of humanisation of Hindus that the Indian film industry did for me as a child.

In stark contrast to the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji and his oppressed wife is Rajput ruler Ratan  Singh and his independent wife Padmavati.
In stark contrast to the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji and his oppressed wife is Rajput ruler Ratan Singh and his independent wife Padmavati.

Stereotypical, dehumanising

There are, of course, those who would argue that the film is a work of fiction, based on an epic poem, and has the creative licence to reduce its characters to caricatures if that is what the art form requires. In fact, this disclaimer is stated at the start of the movie. Keeping this in mind, one can raise the question: should art be politically correct? It is not filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s job to humanise Alauddin Khilji or Rani Padmavati. Rather, they are his imaginary characters, divorced from historical characters – if there was any in the case of Padmavati.

But then, is the movie unconnected to the political reality in India today? Do people walking into the theatre not bring in their own stereotypes and prejudices? Have they not heard of the propaganda of love jihad – the supposed targeting of innocent Hindu girls by Muslim boys intent on converting them to Islam – or of the triple talaq case, projected to be an emancipation of Muslim women bound by regressive patriarchal religious traditions?

A sex-crazed Alauddin Khilji with no regard for social rules or regulations and his oppressed Muslim wife who, despite knowing the oddities of her husband, dare not say anything, stand in contrast to the Rajput ruler Rawal Ratan Singh and his wife Padmavati. There is greater egalitarianism in the relationship between Ratan Singh and Padmavati, who exerts herself when needed. In their first scenes, Padmavati is on a hunt in the jungle while Alauddin Khilji’s soon-to-be wife is deep within her house, guarded by men.

While the sexual relationship between Alauddin Khilji and his wife almost turns violent, there is sensuality in the relationship between Padmavati and her husband. While the film shows Alauddin Khilji with only one wife, it comfortably uses the word harem for the Muslim king. On the other hand, there is no addressing the fact that Padmavati is Ratan Singh’s second wife. In fact, so absurd is the lack of any explanation of the character of the first wife that one keeps wondering who she is right till the end.

If anyone missed these dehumanising aspects of the Muslim king, the sight of him eating meat should achieve that purpose. Is it even possible to depict the eating of meat in a civilised manner? I wonder if the gangs of young boys involved in recent “beef lynchings” in India saw the movie? How do you think they saw the scene?

Compare this to the dinner the Rajput king and his queen have in their garden, where Padmavati, the independent Hindu queen that she was, dissects for Ratan Singh the strategy of the deceitful Muslim king. For is that not what Muslims always do? Is that not what they did to the “motherland” in 1947? Is one surprised then that Ratan Singh is finally killed by an arrow to his back shot by a deceiver while he is engaged in a one-on-one combat with the Muslim king? Don’t they still support the Pakistani cricket team even when they play against India?

Unlike Padmaavat, Game of Thrones depicts the sexual violence and sexism of characters in a way that it appears as what it is – sexist.
Unlike Padmaavat, Game of Thrones depicts the sexual violence and sexism of characters in a way that it appears as what it is – sexist.

No ‘Game of Thrones’ this

While it is Alauddin Khilji’s wife who is oppressed, Padmavati’s final act of jauhar is depicted as an act of liberation. Of course, Bhansali could not have changed the story. The final scene had to be of Padmavati immolating herself. But could it not have been possible to present it in a way that underscored the absurdity of the act, a depiction of the ultimate hold of patriarchy, be it of Hindu or Muslim kings. No matter what the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie says, it is a glorification of sati, resulting in the ultimate victory of Padmavati over the barbarian Alauddin Khilji.

In fact, could the entire narrative, a highly subjective Rajput interpretation of the event, have been presented in a way that laid bare its subjectivity and underlying prejudice? Many shows and movies have been able to do this. Game of Thrones does this, by presenting the sexual violence or sexism of characters in a way that it appears to be what it is: sexist. The inherent racism and Islamophobia in the historical poem could have been accentuated in such a way that their hold on the film’s narrative could have been loosened. But that is a choice Bhansali did not make. Perhaps the stereotype of the tyrannical, barbaric Muslim king – patriarchal to the core, with an uncontrolled sexual drive that blinds him to all social decorum, ruling over a peace-loving Hindu majority in a land where everything was in perfect order before the invasion of this “foreigner” – is one that cannot be easily broken.

Maybe it would be an overstatement to suggest that anyone walking out of the theatre after watching Padmaavat would imagine Alauddin Khilji or any other Muslim king the way Sanjay Leela Bhansali did. But it would be fair to say that the movie definitely does not help humanise Muslims in the eyes of a young child surrounded by symbols of bias, prejudice and stereotypes. The movie brought back memories of the paintings I saw many years ago. The narrative was the same, just the characters were upside down.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail