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Opinion: How Sanjay Leela Bhansali plays to the gallery with Padmaavat

Padmaavat enjoyed a free run in its second week with no other major Bollywood film releasing. Photograph:( WION )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Jan 27, 2018, 07.13 AM (IST) Shomini Sen

By now half of the country has watched Padmaavat. Even those who haven't - I am sure - intend to watch it in the coming days. Because even if you aren't a fan of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film or Deepika Padukone, or just don't like period dramas, Karni Sena has ensured in the past few months that you get curious about Bhansali's magnum opus and rush to watch it in theaters to understand what the fuss is all about. 

Here's some good news for those who haven't watched it yet. There really isn't anything offensive about the Rajput community in the film. Instead, it glorifies the community to the hilt. The film also for the first time, shows a leading man as bisexual. Okay, it just hints that Khilji swung both ways. But that itself is an achievement from Bollywood which has for generations treated members of the LGBT community as comic relief in films. Neither has any of the leading men in commercial cinema played a character who could lust over women and also get 'physically' comfortable with his prime confidant at the same time like Khilji does with his manservant Malik Kafur in Padmaavat

It's a first in Bollywood and hopefully, the crackling performances by both Ranveer Singh and Jim Sarbh will encourage more writers to write bisexual and homosexual characters as leads in films and inspire more mainstream Bollywood actors to take up such roles. 

But did Sanjay Leela Bhansali really think of breaking the taboo when he wrote Khilji and Malik Kafur's characters? Or was it an accidental breakthrough? Because if one looks at Padmaavat closely, (and shut all the unnecessary noise that Karni Sena is creating) Bhansali's film sticks to all sorts of stereotypes and plays to the gallery. 

At its core, Padmaavat focusses on Khilji and his maverick, brutal ways. He is the antagonist in the film, even though the story is from his perspective. He is pitted against the moralistic, brave Rajputs. 

A Muslim invader, who is ruthless, barbaric and conniving, Bhansali's depiction of Khilji is far from how the actual Sultan of Delhi was. It just clearly ticks all sorts of stereotypes that one can possibly think of while depicting a Muslim ruler. His tents are dark, he is unkempt, he philanders, plunders, loots and chomps on meat like a barbaric nomad. Something that Khilji actually wasn't. 

History states that in real life Alauddin Khilji was not cruel but a great administrator and that his siege of Chittor was clearly politically motivated. He wanted to take charge of Chittor and eventually the rest of the Rajput kingdoms and expand his territory of rule. He wasn't, in fact, motivated by any woman or her beauty. 

On the other hand, the Rajput ruler Ratan Singh is shown as a man of principles in Padmaavat. He is loyal to his wives (yes, wives), fights to protect the honour of his people and his love, and doesn't even attack or kill the enemy when he comes visiting his palace as a guest. Because his morals don't allow him to kill someone outside the battlefield, unarmed. He is shown as the epitome of all things right and yes, he is a Hindu ruler, a worshiper of Bhawani. 

The narrative, pretty evidently, makes clear demarcations. The righteous one is Hindu, the ruthless, barbaric one is a Muslim. Khilji is flawed in every possible way. He only knows and understands the language of killing. And unlike his Hindu enemy, Khilji isn't governed by usool or marayada or shaan. Bhansali's depiction of Khilji is all black, there are no grey spots even. In the final battle scene, the antagonist wins the battle by unfair means, but the viewer's take away is of the moral victory of the righteous Rajput king. 

Which is why the fact that Khilji is shown as bisexual could also be just one of the 'negative' traits that the character possesses. Maybe, the fact that he lusts over women, and even eyes his eunuch commander general is also supposed to be a flaw. That even though he is obsessed about Padmavati, he is not really loyal to anyone. 

The film not just caters to a certain section of the society with its subtle jingoism, but it is also regressive in the way it over-dramatizes and glorifies something as horrible as Jauhar. And no, the disclaimer, in the beginning, doesn't help much. But that's a discussion for another day perhaps. 

The irony is not lost on anyone. Bhansali plays to the gallery and his film can appeal to a larger population- going by the current sentiments of the nation, where demarcations are often made on religious lines. Yet, the film is opposed by those very people who harp about their national identity time and again.

Shomini Sen

Shomini has written on entertainment and lifestyle for the most part of her career. While writing on cinema remains her first love, her other interest lies in topics like gender, society and Indian literature.