JAIPUR — Rakhi, a 25-year old Rajput woman, is willing to wager that neither the actors in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat nor the sword-wielding goons opposing it will be ones living under the long shadow cast by the ₹190 crore movie and the controversies surrounding it.
She, however, has felt a change in her family in recent months, a hardening of conservative and patriarchal attitudes, especially after the period drama was pitted against Rajput honour.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, Rakhi* said, “Please don’t use my real name. My whole family is opposing the movie. They will throw me out of the house if I speak out publicly. Or worse, make me marry some Rajput man who brandishes a sword just like those horrible Karni Sena men,” she said.
As the opposition to the Bhansali’s movie raged on, driven largely by a fringe group called the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, Rakhi has been admonished and lectured by her family members whenever she has spoken her mind on the movie and its titular character, Padmavati or Rani Padmini.
The Rajput queen first appears in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poem Padmaavat, a 14th-century fictionalised account of Alauddin Khilji’s siege of Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh. It ends tragically with Padmavati committing jauhar — an outlawed practice mass self-immolation — to avoid capture by the Muslim sultan of Delhi.
While the Rajput community has always championed Padmavati as the standard-bearer of feminine virtue and bravery, Rakhi, who teaches art in a local school, routinely irks her family by questioning conventional wisdom. The school teacher told me that she “feels nothing” for the Rajput queen. “What did she do? Kill herself. What good was that? I don’t think that Rajput women should think of her as a role model, at least, I don’t,” she said.
I don’t think that Rajput women should think of her as a role model.
On the flip side, the school teacher also gets flak from her family for mocking the Karni Sena.
Even though she is not a fan of Padmavati, the young Rajput believes that Bhansali has the freedom to make the kind of movie he wants to. Out of the many arguments which Rakhi has had with her family members over Padmaavat, there was one exchange that eventually silenced her on the subject.
It happened about one month ago, when Rakhi suggested that her family turn off a television debate which featured members of the Karni Sena screaming about “women’s honour.”
“I said something like ‘how much more of this nonsense do we have to listen to?’ They pounced on me. They said that ‘you are anti-national, anti-Hindu and a disgrace to your caste and to Rajput women.’ It went too far. They said that ‘you are like Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU’,” she said, referring to the former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union, who was arrested on charges of sedition in February, 2016.
You are anti-national, anti-Hindu and a disgrace to your caste and to Rajput women.
Following that outburst, Rakhi chose to stay mum about the movie. “I decided to shut up . What’s the point? Then, they will say ‘we made a mistake by educating her, by letting her work.’ I’m afraid of having that conversation and where it could lead.”
Rakhi put all Padmaavat-related thoughts out of her head until about a week ago, when she witnessed her neighbours brutally beating their wives in the street. It was a scene that she had seen play out many times her neighborhood and sometimes in her own home. But what the women did after they were beaten shocked her.
“The same women went to join the protest against the release of the movie, they signed up for jauhar. I just couldn’t believe it. They get no respect in their own homes and they care about some Rajput honour,” she said.
Then, after a pause, the school teachers sarcastically added, “Actually, it makes perfect sense. Perhaps, jauhar is the only way for them to get away from their horrible husbands and their miserable lives.”
The Karni Sena has claimed that almost 2,000 women have ready for jauhar if Padmaavat is released in Rajasthan today. Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in the three states that tried to ban the film, have stood by as the Karni Sena goons have vandalised movie halls, threatened cinema owners and terrorised the public.
The BJP may or may not reap the rewards of backing that agitation against the film and its vulgar evocation of “Hindu pride” in the run up to the state polls, this year. Rajasthan has voted the BJP and Congress Party into power in turns for the past five elections. And by failing to speak up for the release Padmaavat, the Congress has once again ceded the moral high ground it claims to have over the Hindu nationalists.
Rakhi said she felt angry, very angry, not just at the Karni Sena but also at the young Rajput women who were falling for a warped kind of traditionalism and the appalling practices that went with it. “I see teachers from my own school posting things on Facebook about joining the protests. They are not illiterate people but smart women. I don’t know what is wrong with them,” she said. “I want the Rajput community to get a slap on its face. I want to slap Lokendra Singh Kalvi (head of the Karni Sena). He should be the first one to commit jauhar.“
I want the Rajput community to get a slap on its face. I want to slap Lokendra Singh Kalvi. He should be the first one to commit jauhar.
Never a hero, now a curse
For a section of Rajput women, the glorification of Padmavati, whether in a Bollywood movie or by Hindu radicals, is a hugely regressive step, especially now, when at least a few of them have started challenging the patriarchal norms that determine who is “good” Rajput woman.
Two Rajput women, 30-year-old Anjali Shekhawat and 23-year-old Moomal Tanwar, who I recently met in Jaipur, said they liked wearing their hair short, preferred jeans to salwaar-kameez and they did not see marriage as the key to their happiness. The expectation that Rajput women should “relate” to Padmavati has infuriated them.
Tanwar, who described herself as a social activist and a sexual educator, told me, “We actually don’t hear about her while growing up. We never learn about her in school. Suddenly, she is everywhere, Padmavati, Padmavati and there is a pressure to be a ‘good woman.’ The boys I know ask me, ‘why do you have short hair. Only bad women have short hair.’ This kind of nonsense.”
We actually don’t hear about her while growing up. We never learn about her in school.
Neither Tanwar nor Shekhawat intend to watch the movie. Tanwar, who mentioned Yash Chopra’s Dharamputra and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as two of her favorite historical movies, said that she had seen promotional videos for Padmaavat and it felt like an “extended commercial for Tanishq jewellery.”
Early reviews of Padmaavat have in fact pegged the movie as yet another spellbinding visual treat from Bollywood’s most opulent director, with a fine performance from Ranveer Singh as Khilji. But critics have noted that even magnificent sets fail to cushion the ultimately linear narrative of film, a three-hour long ode to the Rajput valor, with a clear distinction between the good Hindu and the bad Muslim, which concludes with hundreds of women jumping into the funeral pyre.
Shekhawat, who is an animator by profession, said, “They tell us that this woman (Padmavati) was honorable because she lived behind closed doors, she did not talk to men, and finally her big act of bravery was that she killed herself because her husband died and she did not want to marry a Muslim man. What is all this s**t? Seriously, we don’t want to watch it.”
What is all this s**t? Seriously, we don’t want to watch this.
Rajput women like Shekhawat and Tanwar fear glorifying Padmavati in any context, historical or otherwise, because they live in a community which still rationalizes and reveres practices like jauhar and sati.
Just thirty years ago, the residents of Deorala village in Sikar district, just three hours from Jaipur, cheered as they watched 18-year-old Roop Kanwar being burnt alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. While one no longer hears of Sati cases, the belief that a woman who voluntarily kills herself after her husband’s death is worthy of respect continues.
The Ram Sati temple in Jhunjhunu district, which is dedicated to a woman who burnt herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, is not a small building tucked away in a back alley. The temple is a grand edifice of green and white located in the heart of town, drawing both faithfuls and tourists in large numbers.
Tanwar recalled the nasty comments and messages she received after publishing an article about Roop Kanwar and the evils of Sati, a few years ago. “People told me things like, ‘you don’t know what you are talking about. You should not criticize our tradition.’ It was really scary.”
Interestingly, Shekhawat told me that she did feel a “pinch” when hearing a story about a Muslim defeating a Rajput in battle, but her indignation does not extend to wanting women to burn themselves alive.
“It is so sick. So, say, someone takes over your country, then all the women should commit mass suicide to avoid getting raped. I’m not going to kill myself because I might get raped. My body is not that important to me. My mind is and my life is equally important. I would have rather married Khilji. Say, if she had compromised and stayed with Khilji, who knows what kind of life she would have led.”
I’m not going to kill myself because I might get raped. My body is not that important to me. My mind is and my life is equally important.
At this point, Tanwar chimed in, “If the Rajputs were not protesting against the movie, if this had not become a caste issue, I’m sure socialist and feminists would have addressed it?”
Shekhawat believes that Rajput women need to be hands-on about expelling the ghost of Padmavati. “We have to speak against this kind of glorification especially in our families. That can be very difficult. But if we don’t say anything now, they will say ‘Wow, if Rani Padmini could it then so can you.’ So, we should never be quiet, we should always oppose.”
(*Editor’s note: Rakhi’s name have been changed to protect her againt any backlash from her family.)
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