By Kaleem Kawaja
From the beginning, the basic purpose of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie Padmaavat was to promote the right-wing Hindutva agenda. Part of that agenda is to show that most Muslim rulers, who ruled significant parts of India for more than 600 years, were tyrants who suppressed Hindus and their culture.
This has been a favorite publicity theme of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the last 35 years. Another part of the agenda is to glorify some archaic elements from the ancient Hindu customs, including the abominable practices such as Jauhar and Sati — women immolating themselves in fire at the death of their husbands — as the most sublime act of a Hindu woman. It should be noted that the practice of sati existed till 1860, when the then ruling East India company government banned it.
Today, women in India — be it Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or those belonging to any other religion group — are empowering themselves by acquiring higher education and pursuing careers in male-dominated industries and technologies, and are successful in determining the course of their lives. Because of that, a few old-fashioned men feel that their culture and world, which have always been male-dominated, are under threat.
At the moment, the BJP is ruling at the center as well as in nine states across India. In addition to enforcing Hindu supremacy in a secular nation, they are aggressively promoting the ancient Hindu culture that glorifies several customs and traditions from Hindu mythology. One of them is the supremacy of males over females and the right of men to tell women what to do with their lives. And to some extent, this return to the ancient mythology-based culture is gaining popularity.
To some degree, Bollywood movies and television serials, too, are taking part in this campaign of back-to-archaic-traditions culture. Many movies and television dramas are now being based on the pre-10th century India culture.
A couple of years ago, Bhansali himself had made a movie, Bajirao Mastani, which glorifies an 18th century Maratha Peshwa named Bajirao and some backward elements of the Hindu culture of that era. And now, in Padmavaat, he paints a successful 13th century Muslim ruler, Alauddin Khilji, as a monster and glorifies the customs of Sati and Jauhar with much gusto.
Well-documented history books, including books by credible Hindu and Muslim historians of the medieval India, tell us that though Khilji was an aggressive and ambitious king, he also carried out many reforms throughout his kingdom.
Some examples are reforms in the revenue and tax system that reduced taxation on farmers. He also banned prostitution and liquor from his army; made it easier for ordinary citizens to access the royal court; and built a huge reservoir in Hauz Khas, in Delhi, to conserve water as a precaution against possible droughts. He also successfully defended the northwestern part of India from several attacks of the Mongols.
Bhansali has two objectives in resorting to these themes in his last two movies, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. The first is to make money by cashing in a on a current resurgence in the Hindu culture and simultaneous demonization of Muslim kings from medieval India. The second objective is to curry favor with the ruling BJP by supporting the party’s theme in elections in various states in 2018 and at the center in 2019.
But for the Hindu women, it is a huge step backward, as Bhansali’s movies decry the right of Hindu women to chart the course of their lives and not to be at the mercy of men. In the last 70 years, young Hindu women have broken many barriers. Instead of accepting marriage before the age of 20, they are now completing higher and technical education; they are becoming successful scientists, doctors, engineers and corporate executives.
More and more Hindu women today are emphasizing that women’s lives mean much more than their bodies being treated as sexual objects, or men having a say on how women use their bodies, and that their lives are not totally dependent on the lives of their male spouses. They consider Sati and Jauhar as horrible, barbaric customs that forced women to die when their spouses died. Unfortunately, Bhansali has thrown them and also women from other Indian religious communities under the bus.
(The writer, a senior engineer at NASA, is a community activist in metropolitan Washington, DC.)