Friday’s attack on filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali during a shoot in Rajasthan of his upcoming production Padmavati proves that history is a deeply controversial subject for cinema – even when the subject may not actually have existed.

Padmavati stars Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor. The ambitious and expensive production is scheduled for a November 17 release. Outrage followed the announcement of the project. Self-declared guardians of Rajput history were angered at the idea that a song-and-dance film treatment could potentially humanise Alauddin Khilji, the ruler at the heart of the legend. The men who slapped Bhansali and pulled his hair are members of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, which had previously denounced Ashutosh Gowariker’s movie Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Ekta Kapoor’s television series Jodha Akbar (2013) on the grounds that both works distorted history. The organisation’s founder declared that Bhansali “should not film things that have not happened in history”.

If anything links Jodhaa Akbar and Rani Padmavati, it is the question of whether either woman actually existed. Historians are divided on the question of whether Jodha was indeed one of Akbar’s wives. They also question the belief that Padmavati was the wife of Rawal Singh Ratan of Chittor (present-day Chittorgarh) in fourteenth-century Rajasthan, and suggest that she was the product of the imagination of the bards and minstrels who mixed fact, fiction and fantasy in their epic poems.

Princess Padmavati, circa 1765, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Helen of Troy-like Padmini legend is based in most part on the epic poem Padmavat, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi two centuries after Khilji’s reign. According to the legend, Khilji was obsessed with Padmini’s beauty and set out to capture Chittor in order to forcibly wed her. When the Rajput army fell to the invaders, the women of Chittor, led by their virtuous queen, committed “jauhar” – they jumped into a fire to protect their honour.

The drama inherent in the story and the trope of Hindu valour trumping the lusty Muslim invader have galvanised the imagination of Indians down the ages. Apart from a few movies, the story inspired the television series Chittod Ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur on Sony TV in 2009.

The Tamil film Chitoor Rani Padmini, directed by Chithrapu Narayanamurthi in 1963, stars Vyjayanthimala as the queen, Sivaji Ganesan as the Chittoor ruler, and leading screen villain MN Nambiar as Khilji. This version featured many dances by Vyjayanthimala, which “went against the grain of the film, thus affecting box office returns”, Tamil cinema scholar Randor Guy noted in his review.

The best-known movie versions in Hindi are by Jaswant Jhaveri. Jai Chitod, made in 1961, and Maharani Padmini, released in 1964, are faithful renditions of Jayasi’s Padmavat. A few songs from Jai Chitod, scored by SN Tripathi, survive on YouTube.

Jai Chitod (1961).

In the version that came three years later, Anita Guha replaced Nirupa Roy as the queen whose beauty launches a war, just like Helen of Troy. The opening credits of Maharani Padmini expresses gratitude to the government of Rajasthan for extending the production the opportunity to shoot “on the proud soil of Rajasthan – which radiates the memories of Rajput courage, bravery and chivalry”.

A second, curious disclaimer, in English, follows: “The history of a slave-country is got written by its rulers. Thus, facts travel more convincingly to us through bards (sonnets) sung by singers and the incidents narrated by word-of-mouth. Therefore, relying upon aforesaid sources, we have bridged over certain prejudices of history-dictators and flattery made by historians, so as to treat this subject purely on logical lines.”

In Jhaveri’s second historical, Khilji (Sajjan) is sold the idea of Padmini as the greatest beauty in the universe by his scheming general Malik Kafur. Khilji’s army under Kafur forces its way into Chittor while supposedly heading for Gujarat, but the Delhi ruler’s anger at Kafur’s actions dissipates when he hears Padmini’s voice in his head. The smitten ruler’s wife questions the real reason behind the conquest, but she is crushed by his response, “I am the ruler of the flower of Hindustan, I will pick any flower I want.” When Khilji finally sees Padmini in a reflection, he is gobsmacked: “Allah! Meri jaan!”

The film reflects the real and imagined courtesies of the age. Khilji’s wife is welcomed by Padmini as her sister, and the queen persuades her husband to see reason by quoting the Koran. But it’s too late for Padmini, who gathers the womenfolk for a mass suicide.

If there is a villain, it’s not the lovestruck Khilji, but the power-hungry Kafur. In the final sequence, Khilji, like Emperor Ashoka before him, looks at the carnage on the battlefield and weeps in regret.

Maharani Padmini (1964).

Bhansali had been fascinated with Padmavat for several years. He had previously directed the opera Padmavati in 2008, based on French composer Albert Roussel’s work from 1923. Bhansali’s version, which featured local actors, the original score, and a tiger, a python and an elephant, was premiered at the Theatre Du Chatelet in Paris in 2008. The director of the opera house, Jean-Luc Choplin, had invited Bhansali to direct Padmavati after watching his movie Devdas at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

“I thought that the choreography and all the art of Mr Bhansali of creating great choreography, movements… those things are very close to the opera direction,” Jean-Luc Choplin said at the time. “After, I saw the film Black I again thought it was very theatrical. So when I was looking for a director for this French opera ballet of Albert Roussel with an Indian story, I immediately thought that it would be a great chance if we could interest this great Indian film director to do an opera.”

The Padmavati opera (2008).

Following a worldwide tour, there was talk first of filming the opera and then making a fresh Hindi version with Kareena Kapoor in the title role now played by Padukone.

Possibly buoyed by the success of Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ramleela – his version of Romeo and Juliet – and the historical epic Bajirao Mastani, which followed the failures of Saawariya (2007) and Guzaarish (2010), Bhansali decided to go ahead with a movie version. Details of the new production are scanty, except for the cast list. Bhansali has composed the music, while the screenplay is by his frequent collaborator Prakash Kapadia.

In an interview to journalist Anupama Chopra in 2008 when the opera was being staged, Bhansali revealed his thoughts on the queen who supposedly drove Khilji insane with desire. “Padmavati’s story is not sad because I find that there is a whole paradox of finding her as a warrior in her last moments of destroying herself,” Bhansali told Chopra. “Because her husband lost the war and she did not give herself to Allaudin Khilji, she said, ‘No, I will not die.’ Now that needs so much more courage, to walk into the fire and say, ‘The enemy doesn’t get us. Our pride, our dignity remains.’ So it is not tragedy, it is for me a great ending.”

Whether or not Padmavati existed – as Bhansali seems to believe she did – it is clear that the symbol of Rajput honour against Muslim conquest continues to fire the imagination. The attack on Bhansali has been roundly condemned by the film industry, but going by the previous objections raised against Bajirao Mastani, it is apparent that the direction’s renewed attempt to tackle history and myth has entered the battle zone.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.