Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khilji Let Us Down

Pop Culture

Why Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khilji Let Us Down

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

In Padmaavat, there’s a scene where Alauddin Khilji is sitting in his tent and burning historical scrolls that do not mention him. For Ranveer Singh’s Khilji, any historical record which shows him in a less-than-favourable light is not worth preserving. Even Khilji’s IRL counterpart was concerned about his reputation, keeping his courtier Amir Khusrau at hand to record his reign during his lifetime. I wonder then, how the real Sultan would have reacted to his own portrayal in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ill-fated opus. For a man so desperate to be thought the hero, Khilji is the villain of Padmaavat, presented to the audience as the embodiment of lustful evil and a scourge to the utopian Hindu kingdom of Chittor.

In another world, Khilji would have been the film’s hero, and not only because he is brought to life by an in-form Ranveer Singh. Compared to the goody-two-shoes Maharaja Rawal Ratan Singh, played by Shahid Kapur, Alauddin’s deviousness and trickery comes as a breath of fresh air. This is the era of anti-heroes, from Walter White to Dexter, and Alauddin would fit right in with the rest of them. He is both ambitious and driven enough to act on it, seeking victory at all costs, which are qualities we expect from a wartime leader. And he does not allow himself to be led into a trap for the sake of his values, like his Rajput rival.

So it’s rather a shame that this character, with so much potential, is reduced to a unidimensional villain in Padmaavat. A villain that fits right into the dominant narrative of the day.

In Padmaavat, Alauddin is what the script requires him to be. Unfortunately for him, it seems like all the script required was a Muslim ruler to serve as a vessel into which a depressingly contemporary take on communal relations could be poured. The movie tries to paint the siege of Chittor as a stand-off between a noble Hindu king protecting his wife from a rapacious Muslim invader of loose morals and ethics. At this point, the script seems to have borrowed inputs from a Hindutva indoctrination camp.

Despite playing the villain in a period piece, Khilji becomes the sum of all fears in modern Indian society.

The reality is that Alauddin was a conqueror with a tendency for, well, conquering. The siege of Chittor might have been to capture a queen or to satiate his expansionist ambitions, but only one of those makes for an interesting epic movie. The overarching theme of good Hindus vs bad Muslims feels like it’s been transplanted from our time, and not a medieval recreation.

Despite playing the villain in a period piece, Khilji becomes the sum of all fears in modern Indian society. Love jihad? Here’s a Muslim man looking to claim a Rajput queen. Section 377 debates? Look at the on-the-nose insinuation that Khilji and Malik Kafur were involved in a homosexual relationship. Aside from such overt examples, we also see Khilji’s adulterous and homicidal tendencies from the moment he’s introduced on screen.

To balance the pure evil that Khilji is meant to represent, we get the Rajput king, Rawal Ratan Singh, who is a paragon of virtue. Every second line he speaks extols the glory of Rajputs and their ways. If Padmaavat is a celebration of Rajput culture, Ratan Singh is the icing on the cake. Through his words we are supposed to see the clear difference between the honourable Rajputs and their dishonourable foes. He makes statements like “Rajputs don’t attack the weak and helpless”, “Rajputs would not kill an unarmed man”. Clearly, if this is the stock from which modern Rajputs descend, how could they be anything but a noble and proud race?

The intention of using Ratan Singh as a stand-in for today’s Rajputs was ill-advised, but not an entirely poor one. For starters, there’s plenty the modern defenders of Rajput culture could learn from their medieval forerunner. Perhaps the Karni Sena could take some advice from Ratan Singh about not attacking the weak, helpless, and unarmed. For now, it seems like the only one of Ratan Singh’s lines they’ve taken to heart is “jiska sar kate aur dhadd dushman se ladte rahe, woh Rajput”, if the dushman is the Supreme Court and the battlefield the movie theatre.   

The Rajput Karni Sena was afraid Padmaavat would besmirch the community’s name, but in between the portrayal of Ratan Singh and Padmini, and the glorification of the tragic act of jauhar, that is hardly the case. What’s more dangerous is the subliminal “Us vs Them” message that has been slipped into Padmaavat. In depicting the Rajput society of Chittor as a utopia that is burnt to ashes by a degenerate Muslim tyrant, the movie furthers the narrative that Muslims are outsiders to India. The reality, that Muslims have been a vital thread of India’s socio-political fabric for centuries, is covered up in favour of stoking communal tensions that have only recently begun to rise.

In retrofitting present-day sentiment to a period film and turning a Muslim villain into a beastly, lecherous caricature, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has done both incarnations of Alauddin Khilji a disservice. The historical ruler, who was also an administrative reformer and military genius – who staved off the Mongols six times – as well as the cinematic one played by Ranveer, who had a chance to become a truly iconic anti-hero instead of a run-of-the-mill villain in an overhyped film.