Padmavati And Sanjay Leela Bhansali: The Limits Of Fiction In History 

Sumedha Verma Ojha

Feb 03, 2017, 07:58 PM | Updated 07:58 PM IST

Ranveer Singh, Sanhay Bhansali and Deepika Padukone (Bollywood Hungama/Wikimedia Commons) 
Ranveer Singh, Sanhay Bhansali and Deepika Padukone (Bollywood Hungama/Wikimedia Commons) 
  • Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new venture is only the latest attempt to whitewash the horror and agony that followed the Islamic conquest of India
  • This week let me deviate from writing on ancient Indian history and consider instead the art and form of historical fiction, an example of which has roiled emotions in the past days.

    As the writer of a historical fiction series set in Mauryan India as well as a writer of an upcoming non-fiction popular books on history, the cusp where facts and fiction collide is agonisingly familiar to me.

    What is called historical fiction in the literary world has its parallel in cinematic ‘period dramas’, a genre in which Sanjay Leela Bhansali has made his mark. The concepts are similar; a story or work set in an age which is in the past, using characters or events from the time or merely using it as a setting for a fictional story.

    The historian looks at the past from the perspective of the present. The historical fiction writer tries to bring the past to be the present itself, recreate in all its splendour or squalor a time gone by; so does the film-maker setting out to create a period drama.

    The questions that arise are those of ‘authenticity’, ‘facts’ and ‘verisimilitude’. Research is the solid foundation of historical fiction; I have laboured for a decade to bring the story, the sights, sounds, smells and colours of the Mauryans to the pages of literary fiction. Bhansali no doubt has his own research team and methods in place.

    With the rise of post-modernism and the point of view that all narratives are flawed and subjective, historical accuracy is an increasingly slippery area. What then qualifies as the truth? And how much license does creative license allow?

    In India where the past is now a hard fought battlefield with some of the toughest and most dangerous questions about its present being projected to ancient and medieval times, this question takes on an unimaginable potency.

    The current media reports on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film ‘Padmawati’ which was to have included a romantic interlude between Allauddin Khilji, the terrible and brutal despoiler of India and Rani Padmini who committed jauhar to deny Khilji the satisfaction of his lust, has laid open a favourite fault line of historiography in India.

    That there was a Muslim invasion of India is a fact of sub-continental history. How it is understood has been an unfortunate blot on Indian historiography of India after 1947. It was a Nehruvian project to deny the fact that there was large-scale pillage, loot, rapine and violence against the Hindu populace of the sub-continent and also that the cultural, social and economic fabric was ripped apart by marauding invaders. An entire civilisation was wounded and broken. Defaced temples and sculptures lie across the face of the country as mute witnesses.

    The Nehruvian project laboured hard to deny this so that the Hindus and Muslims of the country could live together in peace, or so went this muddled and dishonest way of thinking. How India’s eminent ‘secular’ historians collaborated to turn history on its head in India and thereby lost the trust and credibility their work should have commanded is a story well chronicled by those such as Arun Shourie.

    Obfuscation of the naked evil inherent in violent invasion continues to be a practice not only amongst historians but also writers of historical fiction and makers of Indian films, perhaps on the principle that if they ignore it, the memories will go away.

    But memories have a habit of enduring, especially in this ancient land where folk memories are the repositories of a lived history, not a dead one open to post mortem.

    Using history harnesses popular interest in remembered events and people; meddling with it is like salt to open and festering wounds.

    Rani Padmini
    Rani Padmini

    Rani Padmini is not merely the heroine of Jayasi’s Padmawat as is being busily peddled in many left-leaning magazines, but also a folk heroine. As has been pointed out by others, Jayasi himself probably based his poem on other, older folk sources. Padmini was and remains a symbol of resistance, pride even in defeat and also a counterpoint to the brutality of an invasion for riches, territory and religious glory.

    Reports have it that Bhansali is thinking of reprising the interpretation of Khilji as a tortured anti-hero as he has been represented in Albert Rousell’s 1923 French opera, re-adapted in 2008. The mere fact of one of today’s most popular male stars, Ranveer Singh, being signed to play the role of Khilji and his real life partner and international star Deepika Padukone reprising the role of Rani Padmini speaks volumes.

    Is Bhansali entitled to creative license to represent the past as he sees it, can it be a projection of his creativity and passion, the historical characters and roles being a mere vehicle to that end? Is it, after all, ‘just a movie’?

    There are two questions here, the first of the ethical responsibility of the content creator and the other of films and books being far-reaching tools of propaganda or popularity, if you will.

    In the description of this genre, fiction is preceded by the word history and any director/author who has taken on the mantle of creator of the past has to live up to its discipline; otherwise, she may as well work in the genre of fantasy. History is definitely a constraint and fiction can be used, if at all, to create ‘verisimilitude’, fictional elements deriving from the setting inexorably needed by a plot or story for it to make any creative sense.

    After all, why have Rani Padmini and Khilji been picked up to tell their story? It is because they live in the public imagination. To then use the public imagination as bait and switch the story to some privately imagined extravaganza is disingenuous and unethical, maudlin self-indulgence. Merely adding a rider that the film/book does not portray historical events is worse than useless in terms of actual discrimination of facts from fiction as the general population is hardly interested in niceties.

    The other question is that of propaganda. Books and films are fabulous tools of propaganda and she who has the money and the means has the voice. There is a stark asymmetry in the reach of a Hindi film made by a famous directors like Bhansali and the average Rajasthani who listens to an old folk song and relives the horror of an invasion.

    Queen Nagamati talks to her parrot, an illustrated manuscript of Padmavat, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 
    Queen Nagamati talks to her parrot, an illustrated manuscript of Padmavat, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

    From Shakespeare as a propagandist of the Tudors to stories of Tenali Rama of Vijayanagara metamorphosing into Akbar-Birbal stories, cruel queens and kings have relied on the pen or the camera to make their images fuzzy, soft and acceptable. Sometimes their propagandists work far after their death as in the case of Karnad and Tipu Sultan.

    History being the fickle mirage she seems to have become, we are all no doubt victims of some propaganda or the other. However, when we see propaganda being prepared as it were, in front of our eyes, it has to be nipped it in the bud and called out for the whitewash, obfuscation or misrepresentation that it is.

    If I may end with an example I do not normally use, the Holocaust has been painstakingly memorialized in films, books, museums etc. The 2nd millennium invasion of India, far more brutal and horrific and affecting millions more has on the other hand been attempted to be painted in the most bland and reassuring of colors. This is simple dishonesty with the past; it leads not to reconciliation but resentment, distrust and anger. It is time to face the truth, only then can reconciliation come.

    After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service, Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.

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