Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmavati starring Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranveer Kapooor is all set to hit the screens on 1 December, 2017. The INR 200 crore film has run into much controversy and is drawing sharp criticism from various groups. In fact, a group of protestors even resorted to violence against the director and destroyed the sets during the film’s production. Joining the bandwagon of protestors are the royals of the erstwhile princely state of Mewar who claim that the film is an affront to the Rajputana pride and heritage. The royal family claims that the film incorrectly depicts Queen Padmini, who is the epitome of pride, honour, beauty, and sacrifice. Let us now take a look at this legendary figure and try to separate the myth from history.
Who Was Padmavati?
Bhansali’s movie title is Padmavati but the queen on whose life this cinema is supposedly based was not called Padmavati. Versatile actress Deepika Padukone plays the role of Queen Padmini – the wife of Rawal Ratan Singh, ruler of Chittor. Queen Padmini is believed to have led thousands of women in Chittor fort to commit Jauhar or self-immolation in an attempt to escape capture and dishonor at the hands of Delhi’s Sultan Alaudin Khilji.
Did Rani Padmini really exist? Are there any historic evidences that point to the verity of this story apart from fictionalized works by renowned poets? It is in answering this question that most historians differ. Some historians who have studied the history of the Rajputana during the times of the Delhi Sultanate claim that there is no proof to confirm the existence of Padmini. Other historians, however, claim that the abundance of literature itself is proof that Padmini existed. They claim that Padmini was the 15th wife of the Guhila king Ratnasimha (king of Chittor), the regent who faced Alauddin Khilji’s siege in the year 1303. Many claim that though Padmini existed, (unlike popular literary accounts) Padmini was not a princess from Simhala Dweepa (Sri Lanka) but was born near Bikaner. There seems to be no irrefutable evidence that can settle the debate, though.
One of the best known works of Awadhi literature is Padmavat by the celebrated Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The epic poem is believed to have been written in the year 1540 AD. In Padmavat, Jayasi says that Padmini, the daughter of King Gandharvasen of the Singhal Kingdom was the most beautiful woman on earth. Her talking parrot makes its way to Chittor and ends up as the ruler King Ratnasen’s pet. Having fallen in love with Padmini’s descriptions sung by the parrot, Ratnasen leaves his kingdom and travels to Sinhala to marry Padmini. Coming back to Chittor, King Ratnasen’s wife Nagmati views Padmini as her rival and is consumed by hatred. On the other hand sorcerer Raghav Chetan summons dark forces and is banished by Ratansen for this. Raghav Chetan vows revenge and meets Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji.
As one of the musicians in the court of Alauddin Khilji, Raghav Chetan slowly starts to entice and taunt the Sultan for not having the most beautiful woman in the world. Khilji sets out to see Padmini but is denied a meeting due to the Rajput practice of keeping the womenfolk away from the eyes of strangers. He uses cunning and manages to see her reflection in mirror. Bewitched by the queen’s beauty he invites the king for a meeting (under the garb of friendship) and captures him. King Ratnasen is then freed by the brave Rajput men led by Gora and Badal. Unrelenting Khilji lays siege to Chittor and when the Rajputs are faced with certain defeat, Queen Padmini leads the 16,000 women in the fort to self-immolation. Death before dishonor – the queen’s motto – inspires the men who rode out and fight Khilji and his troops till they all perish. Queen Padmini becomes a shining example of Rajputana bravery and honour.
While we’re still uncertain about the historic facts surrounding Queen Padmini, the controversy surrounding the film Padmavati has started taking a more political tone. Various BJP ministers from Haryana, Rajasthan and other parts of the country have come out in criticism of the director for misrepresenting historic facts and suggesting a romance between Khilji and Queen Padmini. The director and the leading cast of the film have come out to assure the public that there is no historic misrepresentation of facts but the critics do not seem mollified.