From the beginning the basic purpose of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the maker of the movie Padmaavat, was to promote the agenda of the right-wing Hindus. That agenda is to show that most Muslim rulers in their 800 + year rule were tyrants who suppressed Hindus and their culture. This has been a favorite publicity theme of BJP in the last 25 years. The other agenda is to glorify ancient Hindu customs including the bad ones like Jauhar and Sati - women immolating themselves in fire at the demise of their husbands - as the most sublime act of a Hindu woman. It should be noted that women committing Sati existed as late as 1860 when the Indian government banned it.
As today's Hindu women are increasingly acquiring higher education and pursuing careers in male-dominated industries and technologies, and are successful in determining the course of their lives, a few old fashioned Hindu men think that their culture and world, which has always been male-dominated, is under threat.
Today, BJP is ruling the federal government and nine states in India. In addition to enforcing Hindu supremacy in a secular nation, they are aggressively promoting the ancient Hindu culture that glorifies several customs and traditions from Hindu mythology. One of them is the supremacy of males over females and the right of men to tell women what to do with their lives. And to a small extent, this return to the ancient mythology-based culture is gaining popularity.
To some extent, the Bollywood movies and television too are taking part in this back- to- archaic traditions and culture. Many a movies and television serials are now being based on the India of before the 10th century. A couple of years ago Bhansali himself made another movie to glorify the Hindu culture of that era by the name ‘Bajirao Mastani’ . And now he has taken one more step in making Padmaavat which paints another successful 13th century Muslim ruler, Alauddin Khilji, as a monster and glorifies the Hindu custom of women committing Sati and Jauhar – self-immolation in glorified terms.
Well documented history including books by credible Hindu and Muslim historians of the medieval India tell us that though Alauddin Khilji was an aggressive and ambitious king, he also carried out many reforms throughout his kingdom. Some examples are reform in the revenue and tax system that reduced taxation on the farmers; banned prostitution and liquor from his army; made it easier for ordinary citizens to access the royal court, built a huge reservoir (Hauz Khas) in Delhi to conserve water as precaution against possible droughts.
Bhansali has a twin agenda in stroking this theme in his last two movies, Bajirao Mastani and Padmavat; one is to make money by cashing on the popularity of resurgence of Hindu culture and simultaneous demonization of Muslim kings from medieval India. And the second agenda is to curry favour with the ruling BJP by supporting their theme in elections in various states in 2018 and at the center in 2019.
But for the Hindu women, it is a huge step backward, as Bhansali’s movies decry the right of Hindu women to determine the course of their lives and not to be at the beck and call of men. In the last 70 years, step by step young Hindu women have broken many barriers. Instead of accepting marriage at below age 20 and from thereon becoming a child bearing factory, they are now completing post-graduate higher and technical education; they are becoming successful scientists, doctors, engineers, executives in corporations etc
More and more Hindu women are today emphasizing that women’s’ lives means much more than their bodies being treated as sexual objects, or men having a say on how women use their bodies, and that their lives are not totally dependent on the lives of their male spouses. They consider Sati and Jauhar as horrible, barbaric customs that forced women to die when their spouses died.
[Kaleem Kawaja is a social activist in Washington DC.]
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