A lot has been written recently about the opposition to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati, originally scheduled for a December 1, 2017 release. This is an opportune moment to reflect on other recent historical films in Hindi as well – including Jodhaa Akbar (2008, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar) and Bajirao Mastani (2015, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali).
Subjecting historical events to the genre conventions of commercial Hindi cinema typically involves the addition of several elements – romantic love between the male and female lead actors, songs sung mostly by the lead characters, as well as the narrative structure of melodrama. That is to say, social relationships are characterised in terms of moral polarities – good versus evil – so that a desirable social order can be posited in the climax as the ultimate triumph of good.
Among the features common to all these recent ‘historical’ films are the scale of the visual spectacle and the opulence of their production values. Audiences viewing these films in the DVD editions can now learn of the logistics involved in producing such opulence through footage of the shooting of the film, the construction of sets, the designing of costumes, and the filming of key song sequences. The imperative towards producing such spectacle, arguably itself an object of consumption for the audience, dictates the introduction of anachronisms with that intent. Thus, Bajirao, an 18th century Marathi Brahmin warrior, engages in swordplay drawn from the idiom of kalaripayattu from Kerala. In Jodhaa Akbar, mevlevi dervishes from Turkey sing of devotion to an 12th century Sufi pir from Ajmer. Whirling Sufis are visually more compelling than the seated qawwals singing of their devotion to the pir and to Allah at a dargah in South Asia.
Moreover, the audiences for Hindi commercial films have come to expect a certain kind of “action” sequence from such films. Pretend-armour is made from fabric to allow the hero to engage in the whirl of action (accentuated by computerised special effects), that is now a stock element of the genre. In contrast, a real coat of armour made of chain mail, as it would have been in the 17th century, would have been so heavy as to severely constrain the mobility of its wearer. However, merely to list such anachronisms and complain about the misrepresentation or distortion of history is to miss the point, either for the films’ makers or for its audiences.
Instead, it is much more productive to consider how these films are intended to be seen. What such films demonstrate is the usability of the past, but with a decidedly ethical end – this is, quite self-consciously and overtly, intended to be didactic history in the medium of film. Here again, the conventions of melodrama turn out to be useful. In narratives where the “good” characters triumph over political rivals now reinterpreted as “evil”, the filmmaker can insist that great historical personalities have been accorded the utmost respect; and that it was never the filmmaker’s intent to offend anyone’s sensitivities. In fact, both Gowarikar (Jodhaa Akbar) and Bhansali (for Bajirao Mastani) have argued that they set out to celebrate key episodes from a glorious past for the nation.
And yet, well-told stories (whether historically accurate or not) can get audiences arguing about perspectives and motives. In Jodhaa Akbar for instance, Akbar has two mother-figures, his biological mother, Hamida Begum, and his former wet-nurse and adviser, Maham Anaga. The two senior women react in very different ways to the marriage between Akbar and Jodha. While Gowarikar’s Hamida is kind and welcomes Jodha, the film’s Maham Anaga greets the Rajput princess with hostility and makes every attempt to have her removed from the household. As Gowarikar retells the story, the reason for Maham Anaga’s hostility is twofold — she suspects Jodha of being an assassin planted by the Rajputs to kill Akbar, and she quickly becomes aware of Akbar’s attraction to Jodha and perceives her therefore as a rival for the emperor’s favour. Her plot to convince Akbar that Jodha plans to murder him on behalf of her Rajput relatives is successful at first; Jodha is sent back to her natal home in dishonour. Eventually, Maham Anaga’s false accusation is revealed. According to the logic of melodrama, romantic love has thus prevailed over obstacles in its path. And, in what is surely not a coincidence, the figure of the wet nurse has been delegitimised so that the biological mother can be recovered.
Similarly, Bajirao’s mother plays villain to the love-story between the protagonists in Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani. She fears that Bajirao’s attachment to Mastani will threaten the Brahmin Peshwa family’s prestige, hence her hostility. Even when Kashi discovers Bajirao and Mastani’s romance, she acknowledges the necessity of Mastani’s presence for her husband’s happiness. While Bajirao’s mother concerns herself with the image and status of the household, Kashi is concerned only with Bajirao’s emotional well-being. Both films create a binary between women who harbour political ambitions and noble women who are selfless and nurturing. Furthermore, both films follow an overdetermined model for the narrative arc of romantic love. A woman of a different religious denomination is introduced into an elite household and is greeted by two senior women — one who welcomes her in the interest of the male protagonist, and one who shuns her in the name of political ambition and provides the obstacle which the protagonists overcome, or to which they succumb.
The point of this analysis is to suggest that both for their narrative and their visual power, historical films in the idiom of commercial Hindi cinema are worth taking seriously: they reshape the visual imagination and reinterpret the past in ways resonant of their own predilections in the present, as the protestors against of each of these films have been astute enough to recognise.
In each of these instances – in the instance of the queen now remembered as Jodhabai, Akbar’s wife from the Rajput ruling lineage of Amer, in the instance of Mastani and the nature of her relationship with Bajirao Peshwa, and in the instance of Padmini of Chittor – the historical record is either sparse, or simply missing. And yet, these are stories that are told and retold repeatedly, adapted in each instance to the needs of the moment in which they were/are retold. In that sense, the films under discussion are merely the latest in a long series of adaptations and reinterpretations of the past. The additions, erasures, and reinterpretations involved in these retellings point to the labour involved, either in remembering or in forgetting.
This is where we depart from much of what has been discussed in the media about the Padmavati controversy. Much of the discussion thus far has been about whether the figure of Padmini is based in history or whether she lives in Rajput cultural memory. As we go on to argue here, the perpetuation of legendary figures in the collective memory requires as much deliberate and sustained effort, as the remembrance of historical figures and events. Legendary figures can be recovered and projected in the public domain. Equally, they can recede into obscurity if the efforts to perpetuate their presence diminish. In this sense, memory is constructed just as much as history. The difference is that professional historians adhere to a set of protocols on what constitutes evidence, and what the rules are for interpreting distinct kinds of evidence. This is comparable to the rules for evidence and inference followed in any discipline, including the sciences. Memory, for its part, is quite overtly and self-consciously projected, especially in the modern period, as unmediated, and therefore as the authentic repository of any given community’s identity. The appeal of ‘memory’, in other words, is in its somewhat disingenuous claim to existing prior to, and independently of, any process of recovery and reinterpretation.
Some examples will illustrate what we mean by the labour attached to remembering, reinterpreting, and forgetting. It is worth noting that the Rajput investment in the figure of Padmini is recent – until the work of the Englishman James Tod in the early 19th century, Padmini was not a particularly celebrated figure in western India, being the subject of poetic narratives primarily by a handful of Jain poets and their Oswal Jain patrons. It is not clear whether there was physical commemoration of her history at the Chittor fort until the beginnings of tourism in the later 19th century.
In fact, contrary to contemporary assertions of the primacy of Rajput memory, the great historians of Rajasthan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kaviraj Shyamaldas and Gaurishankar Hirachand Ojha, pioneered the critical scrutiny of historical sources that is the hallmark of modern historical scholarship. That is to say, they were agnostic about sources, evidence, and inference in the recovery and reinterpretation of regional history. Shyamaldas established a Historical Records Office in Udaipur under the patronage of the Mewar ruling lineage. And, differing sharply with Tod, Shyamaldas showed, in a scholarly article published in England in the 1880s, that the Prithviraj Raso was not a contemporary account of the 11th century Prithviraj Chauhan, but was composed in all likelihood in the 16th and 17th centuries.
As for the figure of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Rajput queen (from the Amer ruling lineage), now remembered as Jodha Bai, official history produced in the royal courts of Rajasthan has always been silent about her. There is no mention of her in accounts from the courts of her kin and descendants at Amer in the 16th and 17th centuries. As far as we know, one 18th century genealogy of the Amer-Jaipur ruling house mentions her name as Harkhan Champavati. The Rajput silence about her stands in sharp contrast to the details about her marriage to Akbar that are available in the Persian-language chronicles produced at the Mughal court. In these, she was remembered with great fondness down to the time of Shah Jahan, at least five decades or so after her death.
If the legend of Padmini offers an instance of a figure from the distant past deliberately invested with great significance in the present, then the instance of Jodha Bai demonstrates the deliberate erasure of events and personalities from accounts of the past. Both the remembering and the forgetting need to be understood equally in historical terms. Thus, Rajput unease about daughters married into the Mughal imperial household makes perfect sense when we recall that such marriages were understood as indexing the Rajput lineage’s entry into a relationship of vassalage with the Mughal overlord, through the surrender of daughters. In the mid-20th century, Gayatri Devi, who was married into the Jaipur ruling lineage, clearly articulated the official Rajput perspective on Jodha Bai when she asserted that the woman who had been sent to Akbar’s court was not a daughter of the Amer lineage, but a servant.
Whether in the instance of Jodha Bai or Padmini though, what has been at stake is the determination of some Rajputs to insist on their exclusive prerogative to control the narrative of not just Rajput history, but regional history. In this context, it is also worth considering the responses of the English-language press. As journalists have been figuring out the details of the legend, and reading scholarly works to ascertain whether Padmini really existed, they have been confronted by protestors who dismiss their arguments. For the protestors, the details don’t matter, what matters is their ‘belief’, along with their ‘right’ to control the narrative.
In the face of such vehement assertions of ‘Rajput belief’, journalists and scholars need to explore two sets of issues.
First, they need to get a sense of counter-narratives of regional history from groups who were subordinated by the Rajputs – we get a sense of the existence of such counter-histories from the work of Shail Mayaram on the Meos of eastern Rajasthan. Even within the region, then, Rajput histories offer only one perspective; counter-perspectives are available, especially in the region’s numerous hero cults.
Second, it is worth pondering why the accounts of Rajasthan’s history that are most readily available to the English-language press, uniformly echo the official, Rajput perspective. We need to grasp which histories make their way into English, which is the language of a trans-regional, metropolitan elite across India. This means that we also have to contend with which counter-perspectives never make it to the medium of English, and thereby remain relegated to the realm of the ‘vernacular’, as local – and less pertinent – knowledge.
For its part, the Anglophone, middle-class elite from whose ranks journalists and commentators in the English-language print, online, and television media are drawn, has turned its back on knowledge produced in the regional languages. Nobody in this Anglophone world is aware of the work of the great scholars of Hindi in the mid-20th century: Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Mataprasad Gupt, Bhanwarlal Nahta, Agarchand Nahta, Narayan Singh Bhati, Vasudev Sharan Agrawal, and Shyam Manohar Pandey. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, these scholars, writing from towns like Banaras, Agra, Jodhpur, and Bikaner, produced most of what we now know about the Hindi literary tradition from its beginnings in the fourteenth century. Nor does anyone in the Anglophone press know of the work of more recent scholars like Namwar Singh and Purushottam Agrawal, who have contended with the shaping and reshaping of the Hindi literary canon.
The consequences of such ignorance are crippling. If the entry to one’s own backyard, so to speak, is through the English-language media or television channels, then the collective sundering and deracination from the vernacular across metropolitan India means that we have no capacity to comprehend, let alone counter, protests from those beyond the Anglophone sphere of influence. So, we have no capacity to ask the protestors why there was no celebration of the legend of Padmini in Rajasthan before the 19th century. We have no knowledge of a scholar like Muhata Nainsi who, in mid-17th century Jodhpur, wrote several comprehensive accounts of the region’s history. In our collective ignorance, we cede authority over the past to those who claim merely the linguistic medium in which that past was narrated.
Moreover, our ignorance of the non-Anglophone world extends into the present. We do not ask why the Rajputs of Rajasthan and Gujarat did not protest a series of Hindi films on Rajput history made in the 1950s and 1960s, nor even Shyam Benegal’s Padmavat, shown on Doordarshan as part of the Bharat Ek Khoj series in the 1980s, but now protest every single film that they believe usurps their monopoly on regional pasts. We do not ask questions about a transformed present that generates new sensitivities about the past among Rajputs in western India. And we do not understand that ultimately, a historian cannot answer these questions about the present. This is not a question of historical veracity or cultural claims. The protests are rooted in a present moment of tumult in western India. And it is sociologists, political scientists and political economists who need to shed light urgently, on the nature and extent of this new political mobilisation that generates such protests. To continue seeking Padmini is to miss the point once again.
Ramya Sreenivasan is a professor and Samana Gururaja is a doctoral student at the Department of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania.