Period filmmakers are allowed to take artistic liberties by dramatising events and personalities, provided they do not fall to the temptation of altering history.
A Bollywood film released last weekend has sparked violent riots in parts of India and a bitter debate on history.
Reviewers said the film, Padmaavat, depicting a warrior Hindu Rajput queen Padmaavati fighting advances of a Muslim sultan, was “visually spectacular” and a “fabulous tale”.
Hidden behind the grandeur of sandstone palaces, gorgeous costumes and hypnotic music is a deeply disturbing narrative that director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has deliberately built by disregarding history, handing over another stick to right-wing supporters to flog Muslims.
The film is based on a 16th century verse by Sufi poet Malek Mohammad Jayasi who eulogised the sacrifice of Padmaavati, pursued by sultan Alauddin Khilji, who had ransacked the Hindu kingdom of Chittor and killed Padmaavati’s husband.
Most historians say Jayasi’s Padmaavati was a fictional character, about whom he had written 200 years after Khilji’s death in 1540.
Bhansali’s direction and screenplay brilliantly captured the poet’s fantasy on a scale that some compared with Hollywood epic Troy.
However, the director broke a basic rule by turning a fictional character into a flesh-and-bone symbol of beauty and valour and projected a real king as a barbarian with a ravenous libido — a depiction neither found in Jayasi’s poem nor in history books.
Who was Khilji?
Was Khilji really a savage beast?
To answer this question, one has to read books and stay away from the ‘Bhansalification’ of history.
Khilji was a powerful king who had ruled Delhi from 1296 to 1316.
He was an astute administrator whose tax and revenue collection system was followed by the Mughals and the British till the 19th century.
He personally looked at prices of essential goods on a daily basis and built food grain warehouses to fight inflation. But his most important contribution to India was as a military general.
Historians say Khilji saved India from marauding Mongolian armies by defeating them six times during his 20-year rule.
Led by Changez Khan and later by his sons, the Mongolian tribesmen had ravaged eastern Europe, Russia, China, Central Asia, Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Kashmir in their global conquest.
Even cats and dogs, were killed
According to American historian Jeremiah Curtin, the Mongols left a trail of destruction and “every living thing, even cats and dogs, were killed”.
“The Mongols did not just invade and conquer, they exterminated civilisations,” wrote author Seshadri Kumar in an article.
“During Changez’s invasion of the Persian Empire, the Mongols killed six million people, in other words, they eliminated 1.5 per cent of the world population in a single campaign,” added Kumar with a reminder that a Mongolian conquest of India would have been devastating for the country.
Coming back to Padmaavat, Bhansali showed Khilji relentlessly going after Hindu women and devouring food like a beast.
“Khilji was not the kind to be running after women and then conquering kingdoms. He was only interested in expansions and conquests. The Delhi Sultanate followed Persian court etiquette and there was no way he would tear into meat with bare hands.
"During his reign, men of art and letters came to Delhi, making it a city that could rival Baghdad, Cairo and Constantinople,” historian Rana Safvi told me in a conversation.
“Khilji had illusions of being Sikander-e-Sani or the second Alexander. He set in motion a series of reforms to bring down inflation, control prices and banned alcohol.
"He implemented a far-reaching land revenue system for regular taxation. All these were aimed at creating an army strong enough to face the Mongol armies,” added Safvi.
It would not be unfair to say that exaggerated notions of Rajput honour were behind the street violence that took place in the backdrop of Padmaavat’s release.
The riots ended as protesters realised that the film is in fact Bhansali’s glowing tribute to Rajput bravery and honour.
However, Bhansali’s brazen depiction of Khilji as a barbarian Muslim king is more profound and to an extent helped subdue the misplaced anger of the Rajput protesters.
I am an Indian Muslim and am proud of the legacy of Muslim kings and sultans who, for more than a thousand years, ruled over a vast region — today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan — and left a lasting impression on the sub-continent’s landscape, culture and institutions.
For Indian Muslims like me, the film has the worst possible timing — when they are sought to be held accountable for actions of Muslim dynasties centuries ago.
The moot point here is whether Bhansali’s depiction is simply a case of artistic liberty or something more sinister.
Despite my liberal upbringing and my strong support for free speech, I refuse to give benefit of doubt to the director.
Cinema is a powerful medium and those behind the camera must act responsibly.
By extension, Padmaavat is demonisation of an entire community that is increasingly coming under attack from various quarters.