Why are we so afraid for our women? – Questioning the Public Outrage Against Sanjay Leela Bhansali

A furious mob attacked noted film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali on the sets of his new film Padmavati. The protesters were seen damaging cameras and other equipment, while raising slogans and spewing abuses. They claimed that the award winning director had tarnished the image of the state by allegedly portraying the Queen of Chittorgarh Rani Padmini singing with the Sultan of Delhi Allauddin Khilji – in a dream sequence.

Three days later, the Bhansali denied that his film Padmavati had the dream sequence and assured detractors that his version of the Rajasthani legend will “not hurt any sentiments” and said that Mewar would be proud of the film made on their revered queen.



Rani Padmini is a fictional character first mentioned in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem “Padmavathy”, on the fall of Chittorgarh. Written in 1540, a good 237 years after Allauddin Khilji’s attack on Chittorgarh in 1303.

In the tradition of all epic poems, it is a larger than life saga. It tells the tale of Ratan Singh, the ruler of Chittorgarh, who is deceitfully captured by Allauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi.  In exchange for his release, he demands his wife, the legendary beauty – Rani Padmavathy. She on the other hand hatches an elaborate plot to rescue her husband. The plot fails, and the victorious conqueror marches into the fort to claim his prize. On reaching the inner quarters of the palace a distraught Khilji discovers that the brave queen, along with several other women in the palace, has committed suicide by jumping into the sacred fire.

‘Padmavathy’, the first piece of literary work in the Awadhi language, is a hugely popular tale. But, there is no historical evidence of any Rani Padmavathy, either in annals of Rajput lore or the chronicles of Sultanate of Delhi.

Women are mothers, sisters, wives and daughters – Check.
Women need to be respected, protected and cherished – Check.
Women are the vanguard of dignity and moral rectitude – Check.

The honor of our communities rests with them.

Every woman, irrespective of where she has grown up or when, would have come across these statements – at least once in her life time. Our religions, our mythologies, even our fairytales are rife with references to the ‘chaste woman’ and her role in maintaining the social and moral balance in our society. Take away ‘chastity’ from a woman – and the society disintegrates into anarchy and chaos. And it wouldn’t be long before such a society falls prey to assaults and conquests from outside forces. It is as if the whole delicate balance of our lives rests on the moral uprightness of our women. And, questioning that position is like opening a can of worms. To begin with, no one wants to do it. But, if someone is brave enough to do it, then he or she does so at their own peril.

It is something like this that happened on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film. A filmmaker from Bombay, dared to question the ‘percieved chastity’ of a Rajasthani queen.  To the ‘proponents’ of that narrative, he was the quintessential outsider who was out to malign the character of the virtuous queen who ‘chose death over a life of promiscuity’. It did not matter that Bhansali was telling a fictional tale. It was of no consequence that the fictional tale was from the 15th century, which depicted 15th century values governing love, passion, chastity and desire.  What mattered was that there couldn’t be even the hint of change in the existing narrative of the tragic tale. The protagonist could not be portrayed as anything but ‘’righteous, unblemished and tragic”. Any deviation from that storyline had to be crushed, quickly, brutally, violently.

However, if one puts fiction and its associated drama aside, and takes a cold and rational look at the issue of “dishonouring women”, it becomes absolutely clear that this topic doesn’t carry too much meaning in a state like Rajasthan. A cursory glance at the state of women in the western Indian state shows that Rajasthan accounts for one of highest rates of female infanticide – 883 girls for every 1000 boys. More than half of the girls in the state are married off before they turn 18, the legal age for marriage in India. 47% of the women are illiterate, and around 50% of them become mothers before they complete their teens. So, who exactly are we fooling when we say that this is about the respect for women? The statistics clearly show that the women are not just disrespected, but ignored, abused and even subjected to social, sexual and psychological atrocities in the name of marriage, family and honour.

Then, what exactly is our objection to Sanjay Leela Bansali’s yet-to-be-made film? There are many theories doing the rounds. Is it just another extortion drama? Or, is it an attempt to grab cheap publicity by a fringe organization, piggybacking on a well-known director? Or a means to settle old scores with the filmmaker? In all this hallaballoo the real question is getting lost. “So what if Rani Padmini sang a romantic Hindi film song with the Sultan of Delhi?” Even if the tale was set in the 15th century, this tale is being retold in the 21st century. Isn’t it time that the stories of women are rewritten keeping in mind the strides that women have made over the last 500 years?

Women no longer are mere objects of beauty. It is no longer acceptable for wars to be fought over women. In the new narrative, it is entirely possible for the fictional queen to be attracted to the conqueror who vanquishes her husband, and “wants to ravish her”.  But no, the keepers of our moral equilibrium decide that the fictional queen from the 15th century has to choose death even in her 21st century version. Is this not the same as saying that it is better to die than to be raped?

According to the hooligans, it is fine for Rani Padmini to burn herself alive. But it is not alright for her to get raped. That way, no man other than her husband would have had sex with her. Which, incidentally is the whole point of the story. Which, incidentally, is the stated and unstated position of Indian culture.

This now, brings us to the latest comment by the filmmaker who has denied that the film has a dream sequence and has further gone to add that “We are confident that Mewar will be proud of the film made on their revered queen.” In which case the question begs to be asked: What is the stated position of the film?

Does this film celebrate a woman having to burn herself alive in the name of protecting the honour of her society? Is the film advocating suicide for victims of rape? In which case, are the people making the film better than the goons who disrupted the shoot? Suicide is not the answer to rape. It wasn’t in the 15th century when the story was first written, it isn’t now when the conscience keepers of our morality would have you believe that the honour of a woman lies in killing herself rather than being raped.The woman’s right to life is inviolable. The honor of the society should not – and does not – reside in her vagina.

– Asma

Asma is a sometimes writer, a constant fighter, and a disobedient dreamer


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