Happy Monday! And the Padmavati trailer is out. Was released in the middle of the night. Quite a thing to wake up to! And be warned, this started as simple discussion of the trailer and ended up going into a whole different and very intense kind of direction. Which probably most of you will disagree with, I am happy to debate you in the comments so long as you remain respectful of those who disagree with you.
Do we all know what Orientalism is? It’s the kind of word that is thrown around a lot and sometimes you understand it, and sometimes you are just nodding your head in a wise manner as though you understand it.
Edward Said, a Palestinian-American, back in the 1970s sat down and wrote a massive fascinating wonderful book trying to explain how colonialism came about and still exists. Not in terms of troop movements and political treaties, but the way minds were changed, the way academics worked with politicians and popular writers and everyone else to somehow create a false vision of the world. To convince people that some people aren’t people. That the Europeans have a higher reasoning ability and so on, but that everyone else in the world is “tribal” or “angry” or “backward”.
(Edward Said was also extremely handsome. Which is neither here nor there, but needs to be said)
It’s the “else” that is the important part, Colonialism, unlike other eras of conquest, was not simply about “I want more power and land, I will defeat you and you will pay me taxes”. It was on a much larger scale than ever before, and in order to excuse that, because “we” are supposed to be better than that now, the explanation was given that “we” are not the same as “them”. That the world can be divided into “us” and “them”. And that the “thems” can be further subdivided in logical ways, you can parcel out and sort humans just like you can apples versus oranges. If you are French, you are romantic and cowardly. If you are Spanish, you are hot-tempered. All those things. And this invaded every part of life, the assumptions that people ARE NOT the same, that there are “racial” or “cultural” traits that are inborn and we can study and memorize them and then neatly slot everyone not like “us” into their own categories.
It’s tricky with Orientalism, because there are still SOME differences between cultures/people. Some cultures are polygamous, some cultures fast on Fridays, stuff like that. But what Said was attacking was the really dangerous kind of assumptions, like, “such and such culture doesn’t love their children, so it is best for us to take their babies away from them” or “such and such culture is naturally violent, it is best to imprison them before they can attack”. And that kind of assumption, that’s just not true. People are people, all people love their children, all people can, or cannot, become violent, and so on and so on.
And really, even the “safe” cultural divisions to learn about, like “these people tend to smile at others more easily while these people do not”, become very dangerous when they are used by an outside force who is in power against them. Because the next step is “they should smile more, because that is how ‘we’ do it, and so we will teach them to smile more. Because anything else is wrong and dangerous and I don’t trust it”. That’s where you get into colonialism forcing things like European style clothes, houses, farming techniques, into cultures where they made no sense. Where there were logical reasons for non-European clothes, houses, farming techniques, but those were never considered because if it wasn’t like “us” it couldn’t be right.
(Just as an example, in Africa before colonialism, farming tended to be done in small separated plots with mixed produce. The Europeans didn’t like this, they taught a “better” way of mass farming all the same crop. The soil was quickly depleted and all crops gave a lesser yield. Plus, the diet of the farmer suffered and nutritional issues became rampant. The previous way was the best way to provide a mixed diet, a constant harvest (as some produce was always in season), and to keep the soil healthy. The Europeans saw what was happening, but never bothered to think that there might be reason behind it, just went in and forced a change.)
Said is arguing for a kind of radical humanism. Reject all of these studies, all of these “this language promotes a lack of emotion through the use of pronouns” kind of theories. Bring it down to a basic level. What do all humans want? Home, food, family, love. That’s all there is. And when you find yourself making an argument that does not fit within that premise, it is a flawed argument.
And we see this today, a simple one that is continually disproved is that African-American men “don’t want to be” “don’t know how to be” fathers. And there are all kinds of lofty historical arguments about this and so on and so on. But if you are a father, or know a father, do you think all those lofty historical arguments make sense? When you hold your child in your arms, are you thinking “because of the system of slavery and repression, I feel nothing right now”. NO! Of course not! And objective studies have shown this, African-American fathers on average spend MORE time with their children than ANY OTHER GROUP in America. However, they do not get to spend as much time as they want because they are so overly incarcerated and otherwise abused. The system is taking the argument that they contribute nothing to the social/family fabric, and using that as a reason for “well, his family will be better off, or at least not notice a difference, if he is in jail. Unlike a white man, who we must consider the effect on his children if he is incarcerated”.
“Orientalism”, the general idea of categorizing people, started with colonialism but has morphed and changed in the years since. It’s not a simple thing that you can pin point and say “the British did this and now it is over”. It is never over, it has been adopted by the new people who are in power and changed in different ways. In the same way that the American argument of “the slaves don’t really love their children so it is okay to separate families” has now been updated to “because of the historical effects of slavery, the present day African-American man doesn’t really love his children”.
Which brings me to this film! The British were very big on defining and standardizing religion in India. They liked the idea of Hindu versus Muslim, not the messy stuff like “well, what about a Muslim community within a particular region that also follows certain festivals and traditions of their Hindu neighbors and vice versa?” And that clear line, obviously, is still present in Indian society top to bottom in a lot of odd ways. As is the fact that the line can disappear when you get into things like vegetarian Muslims or Hindus who eat beef.
(Rishi Kapoor, out and proud beef eating Hindu)
The line of “this” versus “that” quickly turns into “us” versus “them”, and then into “good” versus “bad”. And the “good” versus the “bad”, that is not okay for either side of things. The “bad” people are then abused, punished, distrusted by default. And the “good” people are told exactly what it means to be “good” and that if they do not follow those definitions, they run the risk of being thrown out of the “good” crowd.
Which brings me to this trailer!!!! FINALLY!!!!! Like Devdas or Bajirao, this trailer is an orgy of Hindu fantasy. The woman is beautiful, perfect, and devoted to her husband. The “good” people, the ones like “us”, they are the woman dancing and running to greet her husband, giving him his helmet to wear into battle, following the pattern of “woman who worships her husband and whose power and identity and value is all tied up in her devotion to him”. Even in Bajirao, Priyanka’s character struggled with how to handle her marriage issues, but there was never an argument that marriage didn’t have to be the most important thing in her life, that maybe her reaction to her husband getting a second wife was “great! I’m sick of having sex with him, and now I can focus on my needlepoint”. Or even “shoot, less political power which is the main purpose of this marriage”. No, in this orgy of “appreciate REAL Indian history!”, we are taught “ah, look at the beautiful culture in which men are noble and fight the Muslims, and women worship and obsess over them”.
(This is a beautiful song sequence, but it is also about two women brought to ecstasy by literally worshiping the man they love as a God. And that is all they want in life, as all good women should, to worship one single man and remain faithful to him for all time)
And so if you are one of “us” watching this trailer, well, there is damage there. You are taught that this is the heroic martyr of Indian history, a woman so devoted to her husband that she would die for him, that her whole life is wrapped up in him. Not, for instance, Jhansi Ki Rani who moved right on and kept fighting after her husband’s death, who is remembered for herself, not for her husband or her father or any other man around her. No, your fantasy becomes being that beautiful woman with the jewels and the handmaidens, who waits with bated breath for her “man” to appear, and whose life is over once he leaves her. Whose virtue and devotion to her husband belong not just to her, but the entire nation.
And if you are one of “them” watching this trailer, well, that’s a whole other kind of damage! Ranveer Singh is essentially wearing, I don’t know, “Muslim-face”? Is that a thing? I am thinking of the equivalent of Black Face in America. He is not human, he eats meat by gnawing at the bones, his hair is long and unkempt, his sexual desires are not Holy and confined within elaborate social norms, but wild and untamed. He is the “other” force that is coming to destroy the pure virtuous beauty of “us”. Truly, if you are American, watch this trailer and pretend that Ranveer is a white man playing an African-American and Dips and Shahid are playing pure white people surrounded by other pure white people. It’s uncomfortable, right? It’s Birth of a Nation, it’s Gone With the Wind. Brilliant beautiful powerful films. But with a message that poisons all their beauty.
And now you are going to say “but it’s historical fact” or “but it’s just a movie”. It’s not historical fact. We got into this a little when the film was first announced. The common version of the Rani Padmavati story is taken from an epic poem written 200 years after she lived and died. A poem, NOT a history text. The Rani Padmavati poem was written as a poem, a pretty story around a real historical event. The poem involves, for instance, a talking parrot. The siege of Chittor by Alauddin Khaulji, that was a historic event. Nothing else in this story necessarily is.
And even the poem itself and the version it tells has been massaged here. In the poem, Shahid’s character is killed by another Hindu Rajput king. Padmavati is desired by 3 men, her husband (who hears about her by way of magic parrot), Alauddin, and the king of Kumbhalner. While Alauddin is laying siege to their city, Padmavati’s husband has to go out and fight on a second front against the other ruler who is attacking. He dies in that battle, and Padmavati kills herself on hearing of his death. It’s supposed to be a story about a woman who was desired by three men and how that affected a series of battles. It is not supposed to be about Hindu versus Muslim.
(Look at that nice big tilak on his forehead screaming “HINDU” at us)
What is most likely historical fact is that there was a great siege of Chittor. And coincidentally a second attack that killed the king during that same period. A memorable event that no doubt had ramifications through out the region and many people were aware of it. And therefore, 200 years later, a poet decided to use this as a basis for a story.
And now you are going to say “but oral tradition!” The thing about oral history is that you can’t mix and match it. You can’t have oral history that lives together with written history. If your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother (that may still not be enough) was a friend of Rani Padmavati and passed on this story through your family of exactly what happened, that is oral tradition. If your grandmother told you this story because she read it in a book, that is not oral tradition, that is just written tradition second hand. Perhaps the original was based on an oral tradition. But 200 years, considering the average life-span at the time, would be a pretty stretchy oral tradition. Plus, the poet was a Sufi who lived in present day Utter Pradash. Pretty far removed from access to the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the people who could have actually lived this story and passed it on to him.
Now, let’s look at actual history that is available for this time. Ruins of buildings, codes of laws that were written in stone, old coins, that kind of thing. Aluaddin was a great military leader, and also instituted various tax reforms. Primarily his focus was on creating a direct system of taxation between the State and the farmers, bypassing the traditional rulers. This weakened the power of the traditional landowners and nobles. Which could be good or bad, depending on how you feel about traditional landowners and nobles.
In terms of military, on the one hand he initially went to war against the Mongols. And successfully held off their invading force from going into India for his entire rule, one of the greatest military achievements in Indian history. On the other hand, in order to finance this, he attacked into the south to gather riches. Again, this could be good or bad. From the perspective of the people living in Delhi facing the Mongol threat head on, he was a hero and a savior. From the perspective of the people living to the south, he was their invader.
And in terms of his personal life, he had at least two wives. His first wife was a political marriage, to the daughter of the Sultan of Delhi before him. He had constant stress with her father and family, which indicated stress between himself and his first wife as well. His second wife was related to one of his military leaders and seems to have been a happier marriage. And finally, his closest relationship was with his top general, Malik Kafur. There were rumors that this was a romantic relationship, but that might have merely been propaganda. So not a perfect saintly man devoted to one woman, but also not a crazed sexual deviant.
In terms of religion, Aluaddin was a Sunni Muslim and persecuted Hindus and Shia Muslims alike. They paid a higher tax rate, and there was a certain pride in conquering their territories and destroying their temples. However, he was also criticized at the time for “compromising” with people of other faiths, letting the Hindus maintain their religion after being conquered.
Generally, what I am saying is, Aluaddin was not insane or inhuman. He was ambitious, and good at warfare, but it was warfare with a purpose. To raise money to fight the Mongol threat, and to try to centralize government under one authority, to lower the powers of local kings and nobles in order to increase his own. Not a good man, but a man. Someone with reasoning power and purpose behind his actions.
And now we bring you back to this trailer. This is not a man, what we are seeing here. This is an out of control crazed person. And not an “Indian” person either. Aluaddin, the historic person that we can trace through almost contemporary accounts and things like old coins and stone artifacts, was born in Delhi. He is at least the second, if not the third or fourth, generation in his family to have been born in Delhi. Their background was a hodgepodge of Turkish and Afghani and North Indian. And if we are talking about “exotic” and “Indian” and so on, the original talking parrot version of the story has Padmavati herself as Sri Lankan. So we should be seeing Deepika’s character as “other” and “different” and so on just as much, or more than Aluaddin. Aluaddin’s family background was from Afghanistan, Padmavati’s made up background was actually born and raised in Sri Lanka.
(Ah yes, clearly a 3rd generation Indian. NOT!)
Oh but wait, Padmavati is HINDU!!! So she is “Indian”. But Aluaddin is Muslim, so even though HISTORIC FACT says that he is “Indian”, was born in Delhi, lived in Delhi, defended the greater Indian territory against outside invaders, then we must show him with ridiculous Turkish garb and so on and so on.
(She looks so Sri Lankan! NOT!)
Now, in America, no biggie, right? It’s all just pretty colors and drama, let’s enjoy this as escapism. But, in America, if someone said to you “violent Hindu fundamentalism” or “oppressed abused Hindu wives”, would this film cause you to have that moment of “oh no, but they are so pretty and noble!”? And if someone said to you “oppressed Muslim Indian minority”, would this cause you to have a moment of “really? Or are they dangerous attackers who need to be removed? Are they even Indian really?”
So no, it is not just a movie. It is a reinforcement of dangerous cultural assumptions that have actual violent day to day results. I can’t speak to the Indian part of things, because I am not Indian, but obviously it can have a more dangerous effect in the country that it is actually portraying than it will overseas.
But yes, it is also very pretty. So is Gone With the Wind.