The heroine of the monumental 1960 Hindi movie Mughal-e-Azam is a wonder: so beautiful that a sculptor can successfully pass her off as an alabaster statue, so steely that she doesn’t even flinch when the prince of India, a celebrity newly returned from battle, fires an arrow in her direction and rends the veils that cover her statue-still form. “How does a mere girl remain silent when her life is at risk?” the prince’s father, the emperor Akbar, exclaims upon learning the truth. Her response is addressed to him, but made for the benefit of his son: “I wished to learn if there was any truth to the legend.”
Well, ethereal harem girl, there is and there isn’t. The contradiction between history and myth helped lay the foundations of Indian cinema. From its inception, its purpose has been the exhibition of things heard but not seen, felt if not known. British India’s first feature film, a silent movie made in 1913, was the retelling of a legend called Raja Harishchandra. India’s biggest money spinner in recent years, the two-part Telugu epic Baahubali, updated this “mythological” genre, the mainstay of Indian cinema’s first two or three decades, with CGI and the protein-shake masculinity of American comic book fantasy. Mughal-e-Azam, which blended history with fiction, was a by-product of this genre—for the mythological can be located in history without bearing more than a tenuous relation to its facts.
It doesn’t matter that a century of seeing gods and heroes depicted on-screen has made most Indian moviegoers accustomed to these things. For a year before the release of 2018’s first blockbuster Hindi film, Padmaavat, the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali—considered one of India’s most significant filmmakers, and known outside India for the splashy melodrama Devdas—had to contend with violent opposition to the project. In January 2017, he was assaulted and his set damaged by people purporting to be offended by it. When the film’s trailer was released in late 2017, more protests followed. The governments of several Indian states gave in to demands to prohibit the film’s screening. Courts threw out petition after petition demanding the film be banned for its violation of Indian culture.
“Padmaavat” is the name of a 16th-century Sufi epic, the retelling of a popular legend about a Hindu queen who preferred to burn on her husband’s pyre rather than be dishonored by his conqueror. In the poem, the aggressor is the sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, an unpopular figure in his time. Padmavati or Padmini is the queen of the fortress kingdom of Chittor in Rajasthan, a glorious beauty whose fame drives the sultan to lustful conquest. (It only seems strange for a Muslim poet to celebrate the moral victory of a Hindu woman over a Muslim man at this four-hundred-year remove: Sufi clerics, shrewd wielders of power, always loved to put the sultans in their place.)
The dramatic tension of any version of the Padmavati story usually derives from Alauddin’s craze to lay eyes on her, even though convention forbids him from doing so. In a bizarre reversion to the logic of purdah, which requires women to remain unseen to preserve their purity, the protestors acted as though the honor of Padmavati would be compromised by the very act of embodying her on-screen. It didn’t matter that no one had seen the film; the whole endeavor of the protest was that no one get to see the film. Perhaps the fact that the stars playing Padmavati and Alauddin were said to be dating in real life led to suspicions that the movie might overturn convention and portray the two as something other than sworn enemies.
As it happens, not even a dance-off between Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, the gorgeous and charismatic millennials playing the main roles, might have saved the film itself. Padmaavat is visually derivative and clumsily written, its score terminally dull. It renders the Afghan Khiljis as flat, two-toned imitations of the steppe-haunting Dothraki of HBO’s Game Of Thrones (a special kind of irony, as the historical Alauddin defended Indian territory from multiple incursions by Mongol armies, of whom the Dothraki are a caricature). The upper-caste Rajput royals who command Chittor are cartoons. Laughs went up in my movie hall at the literal rendition of the folk legend about a soldier whose body battles on after his head is severed from his neck. Bhansali’s films are always full of coy psychosexual drama, but in spite of a plethora of washboard stomachs and dewy makeup, both lawful married love and forbidden lust look labored and waxy in Padmaavat. The less said about the film’s take on Alauddin’s sexual relations with the castrated slave-general Malik Kafur—one of history’s more gifted villains—the better: Bhansali traps the dreamboat theatre actor Jim Sarbh in a queer fantasy right out of the contemptible vision boards of Zack Snyder.
Accordingly, the sexiest sequence of the film is a revolting final act in which Padmavati and the female population of Chittor, outfitted as brides, leap into a pyre in hope of eternal reunion with their slaughtered husbands. So shocking was this climax that at last, on opening weekend, critics awoke to the problems of bringing Bollywood glamour to a story that ends in sati, the upper-caste Hindu practice of widow-burning that has been outlawed since 1829. The Supreme Court of India, which must be so tired of hearing about this movie, turned down a petition to excise these portions from the movie just last month.
When Padmaavat was announced, almost no one was thinking about the fable’s religious fault lines. True, the story was talismanic to many kinds of Hindu revivalists over the 19th and 20th centuries, making its way into forms as different as Bengali poetry and Tamil cinema. But it’s also a tale of derring-do about proud warriors, magic parrots (just go with it), and a hero-queen with principles that equal her loveliness. (I was told the story twenty years ago on a Girl Guides trip to Chittor by an enthusiastic tour operator who all but suspended the putative Muslim slaver and the betrayed Hindu husband from the proceedings). True, too, that Bhansali is a fetishist for virtuous Muslims and quirky Christians in hoary Bollywood style, but his past films had embraced characters and relationships outside the narrow spectrum of upper-caste North Indian society typical of Hindi movies.
So perhaps everyone was insufficiently prepared for the narrative of sati to be refashioned two centuries after British administrators and Bengali reformers succeeded in proscribing it. (India’s youth bulge probably ensured that the majority of the film’s viewers had no idea of the national soul-searching occasioned in 1988, when the case of an 18-year-old widow who died or was murdered on her husband’s pyre made headlines around the country.) And what of the depiction of the film’s Muslims as monsters bearing ISIS-black crescent moon flags, a battle standard unknown in Indian history? The uproar that had threatened to tank the film before it was ever released had the weird effect of muting any response to its blatant Hindu supremacism. “The Karni Sena had nothing to complain about,” went the most common audience reaction to the movie, referring to the thuggish Rajput group leading the protests.
In spite of some critical reviews, Bollywood coverage fell back on press-kit formulas, anointing Ranveer Singh “Sexy Khilji.” Moviegoers shrugged, many perhaps enjoying the distastefulness of it all: it confirmed an already common view of India’s Muslim history. Padmaavat was banned from Malaysian theatres for fear of offending viewers in that nation, but tellingly, the film passed censors in Pakistan without a single cut. As the writer Bilal Tanweer observed, its nightmarish vision of Muslim masculinity validates how historical identity is constructed—native victims overwhelmed by conquering jihadis—on both sides of our border now.
To attack the film as a misreading of history or literature, as many able Indian commentators did after it came out, is pointless. The essential theological or critical argument has no bearing on the instrumental use of the story; it never does. The Karni Sena understood clearly that the battle was between two mythologies. Where historians and intellectuals could only squander their energies in correcting Twitter trolls, the Karnis reaped political capital from their efforts to impose their will on the film. Bhansali caved with a slew of last-minute edits; he even photoshopped a piece of fabric over Padukone’s exposed midriff to mitigate the effects of Bollywood polluting the sanctity of the Padmavati myth.
The Padmaavat protests are remarkable chiefly for the scale of their success. All kinds of groups have protested Bollywood for offending their religious or cultural sensibilities—many for good reasons—but its most faithful enemies have always have been Hindu fascists. They have hated and feared the spell the movies cast over Hindi-speaking India, because no other enterprise, save electoral democracy itself, has had more spectacular success in creating a national—and a nationalist—imagination. For its part, the movie business has always been extremely faithful to its duty as the keeper of an Indian dream. When the nation broke away from the British empire in 1947, the roaring business of Bombay commercial cinema was held together by two things: the business acumen of Partition refugees, and an undivided language—the blend of Hindi and Urdu kept alive by progressive writers and actors.
A plurality of these displaced cosmopolitans badly wanted their new government’s dream of a modern, syncretic India to come true. In their movies, the young fought to love whom they chose; the poor received, or were at least acknowledged to deserve, justice, and Hindus and Muslims were not bathing the streets in each other’s blood. These foundations were shaken and obscured by India’s social and economic transformations. But the past continued to cling to Bollywood all the way into the new millennium. The families who helped steady its ship continued to play a key role in the business, the stars were still made by the same social networks, and the industry continued to afford women and Muslims, the Gog and Magog of Hindu nationalism, a visibility and creative freedom unusual in most walks of public life.
This was what the Karni Sena was afraid of, because Padmaavat was made by a man who knows this particular mythology like the lines of his hand. A filmmaker who assisted him on an early project told me that Bhansali has always been “about” the 1950s vision of a grand national cinema. His own output makes that clear: for over two decades, he has attempted not only to match, but to outdo Bollywood’s sweeping conceptions of India and Indians. His movies contain more than one tribute to K. Asif, the madman who spent a decade making Mughal-e-Azam. That movie is still the grandest of all national narratives, incomparably larger than Gone With the Wind or The Godfather, India’s byword for movie madness, his profligacy and obsessive quest for perfection redeemed only by the fact that Asif in fact pulled off the task he set for himself.
Bhansali’s movies have never yet reduced culture to product; he, too, sees his work as something bigger than the sum of its parts. As “India’s biggest filmmaker,” to quote the Bombay tabloids, part of his aura comes from Asif-like stories about his attention to detail and expensive tastes. He hopes, perhaps, to be seen as Asif’s shadow on earth.
This, then, is the real bone of contention in the battle of mythologies that Padmaavat attempts to win, one in which neither the film nor its maker have any interest in challenging the Karni Sena and its masters. It is this mythology of Bollywood’s India, that Padmaavat attempts to surpass, and to which it succeeds in holding up a dark mirror. In Mughal-e-Azam, the emperor Akbar goes to war with his beloved son because the prince is hell-bent on marrying his harem girl. He wins, and the beauty is entombed alive. But—and this was the whole point of Asif’s movie—Akbar’s greatness is in his ability to be chastised. Cruel and implacable in the eyes of the world, the old man actually lets the girl escape through a secret tunnel, unwilling to cheat her of life even if imperial duty requires that he sacrifice the family’s happiness. But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is—well.