What Padmavati Gets Wrong About Alauddin Khilji

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What Padmavati Gets Wrong About Alauddin Khilji

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

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t’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re born into a Rajput family, you will grow up immersed in history. We’re a proud people, so in my Amar Chitra Katha comics and evening storytelling sessions, I’ve heard tales of Rajput valour and honour, from Rana Pratap to Rana Sanga. I’ve been intoxicated by the heady brew of romancing the past, and it has led to a lifelong fascination with history. A fascination that suddenly, the whole country seems to share.

Suddenly, with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period film Padmavati, the story of Rani Padmini and her resistance against the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, everyone in the country seems to be obsessed with historical authenticity. Rajput groups, led by Rajput Karni Sena, saw room for our cultural heritage to be misrepresented, and came forth to protest the film’s release in typical Indian fashion – violence and vandalism. What would Prithviraj Chauhan have to say about his descendants turning to Shiv Sena shenanigans (Senanigans)?

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The Big Issue here is the depiction of Rani Padmini – will she be (falsely) shown as consorting with Khilji, will she uphold the great and hoary ideals of Rajput womanhood, and will her ghoomar dance be on point? Rani Padmini is no mere Piku or Fanny, so Deepika Padukone’s portrayal is under intense scrutiny. The latest development is that the BJP has requested the Election Commission of India to take a call on banning the film, for its supposed distortion of historical facts. In other news, irony died a quiet death after hearing the BJP’s request. It’s true, Padmavati is a gross misrepresentation of facts… just not the ones the BJP is so upset about.

This is not a sarcastic call-out of Padmavati’s source material, a medieval poem written two centuries after the siege it was based on took place. Even though there is considerable debate over whether the events in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat represent history or fantasy, this isn’t about the legitimacy of Rani Padmini’s existence. It is Ranveer Singh’s Sultan Alauddin whose character is getting assassinated, who is the subject of a deliberate demonisation campaign.

Rani Padmini may or may not have been an actual historical figure, but Alauddin Khilji certainly was. As many schoolchildren have learned, much to their despair, it is not possible to be the Sultan of Delhi for a 20-year reign and not leave behind a trove of historical records. Try whatever right-wing logical acrobatics you wish, you can’t deny that he is one of the best-known monarchs from medieval Indian history.

The depiction of Rani Padmini – will she be (falsely) shown as consorting with Khilji, will she uphold the great and hoary ideals of Rajput womanhood, and will her ghoomar dance be on point?

But who needs records, when you can have a historical figure resemble any trending character du jour? Singh’s look as the Sultan has been compared to both Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit and Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones. He dresses in black furs, greedily rips meat from the bone like a Viking, and conveys a general sense of savage danger. His army marches at his back like a band of roving raiders, led by an Alauddin who seems more beast than man.

The only problem with accepting this version of Alauddin Khilji is that it requires me to go back and set fire to every history textbook I read as a student from school to college. Khiliji might have been tall, dark, and handsome like Ranveer, but a caveman he is not. Instead of Thorin and Drogo, we’d probably find a closer reel parallel to Alauddin in Dilip Kumar’s Salim in Mughal-e-Azam.

Like Salim, Alauddin was a noble from birth, born as a nephew to the Sultan Jalaluddin, who later adopted him as his son. As seen in paintings of him, he would have been attired in all the finery of the lordly class, a far cry from the ragged furs we see him wearing in Padmavati. Also, he was hardly an uncivilised savage (that honour goes to the goons beating up the filmmaker), as his tax reforms and treaties with Hindu kings hint at a ruler who understood the power of efficiency and compromise.

Naturally, I was surprised at the Padmavati trailer, when I saw an Alauddin who looks like an extra that got lost looking for the sets of Conan the Barbarian. But that surprise paled in the face of the shock of realising that it was Rani Padmini’s depiction that was problematic for the rest of the nation. Of course, protecting a Rajput queen’s reputation, even one who may not have actually existed, comes before the realistic depiction of a Muslim ruler.

Just imagine how much grief Bhansali could have spared himself had he just outright declared that Alauddin was his film’s villain, and would be portrayed as such. It would have satisfied the rabid Rajput conservatives and spared him a slap, scored him some brownie points with people who enjoy their history bigoted, and let him celebrate Diwali without his rangoli being ruined. Instead, he wanted his film to be taken seriously as a period flick, and ended up paying the price.

What do we learn from the Padmavati episode, kids? Historical accuracy is cheap, nationalistic pride is priceless. This is how films like Mohenjo Daro and Asoka get made, despite presenting ancient India as a land where every character has a Gold’s Gym membership and gets full body waxing done. There is a way to bring alive India’s colourful history. All we need, is to get our priorities right.

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