In a scene from Padmaavat, Alauddin Khilji makes an emotional plea to his demoralized soldiers to carry on. He makes a case for the nation, and encourages them to rise as patriots and uphold the flag, in spirit. In a silent tableau, his aide Malik Kafur brings forth the flag of the army, which Alauddin drops to the ground with dramatic elan. His soldiers rush to hold the flag up, falling over themselves. Alauddin turns to his doubting commander in chief with a triumphantly raised eyebrow. Like any marauding conqueror knows, the sentiments of the populace are meant to be used, not understood or even deemed important enough to matter.
Marauding conquerors and rulers of kingdoms operate from a different set of rules. That much is evident, from the outset. The former seeks to increase boundaries at any cost, subjugating any signs of rebellion, independent thought, making an example of anyone who gets in the way. The latter is meant to bring stability, improve the lives of subjects and create a base for civilized life and behaviour.
So, what’s common between these two categories? They will face off in battle at some point and the marauder will fight to win, while the ruling king fights to protect his way of life, his subjects and family. What tips the scales in favour of either one is the strategy employed. You don’t play fair with someone who is going to play dirty. You take the chance when there is an opportunity and end the menace. Something which Padmavati suggests to her lord and master, and he, smug in his position as righteous ruler refuses to do since that would be an admission of weakness. However, he was weak and so were many of the ruling kingdoms of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Weak due to lack of unity, lack of unanimity and loyalty, they held on to personal pride and lost the bigger battles. Many clans were simply burnt out due to Alauddin’s relentless campaign. They chose to die in battle and burn in pyres rather than unite and fight.
But, it’s ironic that years later there is a united view that the burning of Padmavati on a pyre was an act of glory and Alauddin’s true defeat. For a country that’s plagued with the disposition of being literal, the act of Sati is ostensibly a woman dying for her honour, in the event of her lord and master’s death. Though the actual legend was more about a petulant daughter who consigned herself to flames when she could not bear that her father called her husband a wandering mendicant and refused to accord him the divine stature he could lay claim to. Another version has it, she offered herself up as an offering to the holy fire since her husband wasn’t on the list of the gods being worshipped and she wasn’t about to let that kind of blasphemy be committed. Through it all, the divine husband stayed alive.
In many ways, the act of Sati in the film is more cruel than the actual act, since it’s brought back a social evil to the fore and made people acknowledge it as a fact. Perhaps, given all the other liberties that were taken in the film, cinematic, artistic and historic, the one liberty which was called for, would be not showing the Sati sequence and certainly not as martyrdom.
Note to reader : The title of this post is credited to my neighbor, Mr. A. A staunch Marathi gentleman, who refused to watch Bajirao Mastani since the great leader Bajirao was depicted dancing in a sequence. His words, translated from his mother tongue were Tough Guys Shouldn’t Dance, emphasis on Shouldn’t. Not can’t, not won’t. Shouldn’t.
I hope his ire is assuaged now, since Allaudin Khilji is depicted in an energetic item number in this version of Padmaavat.