Padmaavat, 2018

Over the past year, even as we’ve watched the news and read reports online and in the newspapers of death threats to the director and the actors, and of school buses being pelted with stones in protest, and even village women from the town of Chittorgarh, that the movie is said to have been set in, protesting the movie’s debut just two days ago by threatening to self-immolate themselves, one couldn’t help but wonder what the hoopla was all about.

Well, it took the better part of almost three long hours on a Sunday afternoon to find out.  And the verdict?  It’s a long stretch of time to admire the beauty of Padmavati, the legendary queen who according to lore set herself on fire rather than be enslaved by a Muslim sultan. Equally awe-inspiring are the beautiful clothes and jewelry – of both the queen and her consort – and of course, the palace décor in both muted and vibrant colors set off by lamps and lanterns floating in lovely ponds with lotus blooms all around.

There’s plenty of beauty everywhere.  There’s no doubt about that, and there’s even no doubt about the convincing performances of all three protagonists – the queen, her king, and the sultan named Alauddin Khilji.  And while there’s a disclaimer at the outset about how the movie does not support jauhar and sati, the ancient barbaric customs of women willingly self-immolating themselves on burning pyres, there’s somehow no satisfaction in the fact that this barbaric act is glorified to the point of making it the pièce de résistance of Mr. Bhansali’s magnum opus.

And it is on this point that I wonder as to the reactions of the audience in India, especially those already heavily influenced by the extremist right-wing groups – many of whom have drawn conclusions about the film and have already protested and pledged to take lives and give up their own life – in their mission to preserve the honor and dignity of the Rajputs, the community that claims Padmavati as belonging to their community.

The fact of the matter is that the Rajputs need not worry about being portrayed in a poor light.  They’ve been shown in the most flattering of lights, and their character and values seem to be highly civilized and superior to that of Khilji and his armies.  But are they really?  Are they truly the paragons of high culture and civilization that places such a high degree of importance on the woman’s body that preserving her dignity and honor is indeed valued more than her life itself?  And while this may not be the place to enter into an existential debate on the pros and cons of medieval practices, it is certainly worthy of some debate in light of current events that have taken up a large swath of people in India by storm and have caused them to do harm to others and to themselves.

And so, while there may be many among us who may have the luxury of engaging in such philosophical debate and may even agree that India ought to thank the British who colonized the country for two hundred years and abolished the barbaric practice of sati and jauhar, I fear that there may be many who watch this film and become so influenced by its overarching theme, that they may actually place more value on such an irrational, horrific, barbaric, and selfish act than on life itself.

There is no amount of beauty in this world more beautiful than life itself.

And so, while the film might have been true to the legend of the queen, it left me more than a little nonplussed.  It’s a whole lot of beauty that was quite useless in the end.