Is there anything common between Padmini, the 14th century Rajput princess and the 3.5 billion women who live on Earth today? Yes! We all continue to live in fear. Fear of being violated. Fear that we may have to perform Jauhar ourselves to avoid the ignominy that comes with surviving a rape. The fear that rejecting a marriage proposal of a lovesick man could leave us disfigured by a revenge acid attack. The fear that we will be forced to marry the person who violated us. Padmini had performed Jauhar, a custom of self immolation, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by the enemy, on anticipation of her husband’s defeat in a battle against the Muslim ruler Ala-ud-din Khilji.
Perpetuating the stereotype
The story of Padmini teaches us that being a ‘pativrata’ is the highest duty of a woman. Padmini is a paragon of virtue because she lives for her husband and is ready to give her life for him. She is brave because she makes the ultimate sacrifice of death for her defeated husband.
Portraying Padmini as the symbol of victory of Rajput honor against Muslim conquest reinforces the traditional view that sees women as the property of men with their value measured by their sexual purity.
Characterization of Khilji as a lustful Muslim tyrant based on a story the veracity of which is doubted engenders hatred in an already polarized world of today.
Reflection of reality
The supposed romantic dream sequence between Ala-ud-din Khilji and Padmini is construed as being a disgraceful and humiliating rite for the Rajputs who cannot “protect” their women. Padmini’s body becomes a medium of men’s expression, the means through which one group of men say what they want to say to another. The assault on the movie set is a stark revelation of the prevalent mindset of our society that views a woman’s body as embodying the community as a whole. Any act (be it in somebody else’s unconscious mind that manifests as a dream in an art film) that defiles or desecrates the sexual ‘purity’ of a ‘virtuous’ woman is thought to bring shame to the entire family and community. A woman is then killed in an act of honor killing or is forced to take her own life to protect the honor of her kinfolk.
Need for change
Cinema constructs and represents the image of women. There is a dire need for feminist movies which represent women as subjects of their own desires and not as mere objects who comply with the prevalent patriarchal norms. Little girls and boys should not be given the message that women are a part of their husbands with no independent existence or goals of their own.
The Mako Mori test asks whether a film has “at least one female character who gets her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story.” For those of us who desire to see the representation of women improve, choosing which films to watch and support can be a political act.
Spend your movie-going budget in ways that support tales of women empowerment.