News from the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s beleagured historical Padmavati never fails to ignite the imagination. There’s a story doing the rounds, possibly apocryphal but delicious if true, that the December 1 release based on the mythical passion of fourteenth-century ruler Alauddin Khliji for Padmini, the queen of Chittor, will feature a song between Khilji and his general and chief ear-bender Malik Kafur.
Khilji has been described by some disputed accounts as bisexual, and Kafur as one of his lovers. The rumours mills have declared that Padmavati will include a song between Khilji (Ranveer Singh) and Kafur (Jim Sarbh). In the absence of an actual on-screen encounter between Khilji and his object of desire, it will have to do.
Same-sex passion between rulers and their courtiers had already been filmed in Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan (1983), one of four movies directed by the aesthete. Amrohi’s account of the first and only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, who wrote herself into the history books for sitting on the throne between 1236 and 1240, hasn’t held up well. The plot is creaky and disjointed and the acting stiff. The depiction of thirteenth-century India is not as immersive as K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960), on which Amrohi was one of the writers. Amrohi’s focus on the supposed romance between Razia (Hema Malini) and her Abyssinian slave general Yakut (Dharmendra) reduces the complex power play to a squabble between suitors.
If Razia Sultan is remembered, it is for Bhanu Athaiya’s costumes and NB Kulkarni’s sets, Dharmendra’s blackface, Hema Malini’s regal beauty, Khayyam’s enduring soundtrack and a daring moment of lesbian passion between Razia and her confidante Khakun (Parveen Babi).
Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega is dropped on unsuspecting viewers minutes before the movie’s masterpiece, Ae Dil-E-Nadaan. Khakun is attentive to Razia’s every need, and when Razia sails about in a boat at her palace dreaming of Yakut, Khakun rides along.
Lata Mangeshkar’s sanitised voice cannot hide the erotic charge of Jan Nisar Akhtar’s suggestive lyrics. Khakun sings that Yakut’s deadly arrow has pierced Razia’s heart, and the stains of that wound are in danger of dripping all over her.
Razia’s eyes gets clouded and her toes tremble as she dreams about the horse-riding Yakut. Khakun seems to be playing both loyal aide and sexual aid, helping along her mistress’s fantasies until the point where she leans over Razia and caresses her. A white plume covers their faces, suggesting a kiss and prompting the eyes of one of the two women steering the boat to widen. The other woman orders her to ignore the decadent ways of the royals, who love in ways too strange for the serving class.
Your dream will ease you into sleep, Khakun croons. Is she educating Razia in the ways of seduction or projecting her own feelings onto the queen? There is no other moment in the movie to suggest that Khakun harbours anything more than loyalty towards her mistress. The moment remains unclassifiable, open to interpretation this way or that all these years later.
Vijayendra Ghatge, who plays Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, one of Razia’s suitors, in the movie, concurred about the potency of the moment in Hema Malini’s recently published biography. In Ram Kamal Mukherjee’s Hema Malini Beyond the Dream Girl, Ghatge says:
“Well, there was a scene between Hema-ji and Parveen Babi, which had a hint of bisexuality. After the film was released, the press and public did talk about this scene and I still remember that years later when the film was shown on Doordarshan, this particular scene, followed by a solo song sequence by Parveen Babi, was cropped. I really don’t know whether Razia was a lesbian or not. I guess Kamal saab would have been the right person to answer this question. But I would also like to say that both Hema-ji and Parveen did a fantastic job. It was aesthetically done. In a way, Hema-ji deserves kudos for having the guts to do that scene.”