Does Sanjay Leela Bhansali Have the Guts to tell the Full Story of Ala-ud-din Khilji?

And so it begins again.

As the release date for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest opium-addled celluloid perversity approaches, all manner of politicisation has erupted once again. If Karni Sena’s preemptory antics are on the one side, its wealthy, celebrity Sepoy cousin, Devdutt Pattnaik is on the other.

Going by the Left-Liberal-Sepoy cult’s own definitions, Karni Sena is a fringe group, backward, regressive and the rest.

In which case, is Devdutt Pattnaik a modern and progressive rape apologist? Why doesn’t he try and spout the same anti-patriarchal nonsense to Nirbhaya’s parents? Here’s a better idea: why doesn’t Devdutt Pattnaik try playing the role of a modern-day Malik Kafur to a modern-day Ala-ud-din Khalji? Plenty of Khaljis and aspiring Khaljis can be found in the ranks of the ISIS, LeT, & co. He’ll perhaps revise his definition of rape. Or perhaps “settle down” like Malik Kafur.

MF Hussainification of Bollywood

As I had remarked in my Firstpost column earlier this year, Bhansali’s Padmavati is the latest product of the MF Hussainification of Bollywood.

The late perverse painter M.F. Hussain seemed to have a special penchant for painting perverted images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, and then claiming victimhood when his “creative work” evoked outrage from Hindus. Guess who came to his defence each time? Hindus, not Muslims. I mean, the Army of the Faithful from the aforementioned toxic cult. This piece by Arun Shourie analysing the Hussain phenomenon is still the gold standard on the issue.

This secular, barefooted excuse for a painter, secure in the strength of said Army made the movie Meenaxi in 2005. Some lyric in one of its songs apparently offended the members of the delicate Religion of Peace. In turn, they expressed their sadness by threatening to cause serious trouble. Some names issuing the threat: Raza Academy (remember the Azad Maidan?), Milli Council, All-India Muslim Council, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind and Jamat-e-Islami. Poor Painter. This time around neither Hussain nor the Army of the Cult, the valiant supporters of his “artistic freedom” claimed that he was a victim. In fact, they claimed nothing. Tongues had been dispatched for scheduled maintenance.

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The operating principle in both Hussain and Bhansali’s case is the same.

Notice first that in the lexicon of those who are shouting for Hussein the point about not hurting religious sentiments manifestly does not apply to the Hindus: in their case the alternate principle of the right of the artist to paint as he pleases takes precedence. The Hindus notice this duality more and more… depicting women completely naked has for centuries been very much a part of European painting and sculpture tradition; but do the artists not stop at using this tradition for portraying Virgin Mary naked? It is not the freedom of expression these worthies are committed to. They are committed to their having freedom alone.

This was written in 1996 and as we notice, the situation has progressively worsened in these twenty years. If anything, over the past decade or so, the said MF Hussainification has simply escalated most notably in that abyss of depravity called Bollywood.

Neither is it restricted only to MF Hussain nor to the choice of themes. The other celebrity purveyor of MF Hussainification is Girish Karnad who calculatedly glorified the bigoted and insanely cruel despot Muhammad Bin Tughlaq and later, Tipu Sultan. Of course, it has paid rich dividends: Karnad occupies the high table in Sultan Siddaramaiah’s kitchen cabinet.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has merely joined their ranks.

It’s nobody’s case that Bhansali shouldn’t make Padmavati as a love story or whatever his premise is but not at the expense of distorting and/or suppressing historical facts, which we shall briefly examine.

The Record of Lover Boy Ala-ud-din Khalji

The first historical fact is that Ala-ud-din Khalji stands at the forefront of being one of the most savage Muslim tyrants who wreaked boundless atrocities upon Hindus in his military campaigns, and his social and economic policies.

It was under Ala-ud-din Khalji’s rule that South India for the first time got the full taste of the true horrors of an Islamic invasion — the flourishing and wealthy Hindu cultural centres of Devagiri (today’s Daulatabad), Dwarasamudra (Halebidu), Srirangam, Chidambaram, Madurai, and Rameshwaram were reduced to flaming wastelands in its wake.

Another historical fact is that he captured a handsome Hindu teenager from Gujarat, rechristened him Malik Kafur and used him as a personal sex slave. It is telling that this Hindu boy was also known as “Hazaar Dinari,” meaning “(a slave) purchased for 1000 dinars.” Ala-ud-din’s contemporary chroniclers and other later Muslim historians describe in some detail his degenerate sexual habits and unbridled lust for women. Ala-ud-din was responsible for reducing the Vaghela queen Kamala Devi to the status of a concubine in his vast harem — Devdutt Pattnaik’s favourite way of fighting oppressive patriarchy.

Ala-ud-din also joins the lengthy list of Muslim invaders who destroyed the Somanatha temple and sent its Murti to Delhi “where it was laid down for the faithful to tread upon.” (History and Culture of the Indian People: Volume 5, Page 19).

These historical facts are truly the proverbial tip of the iceberg of the savage career of this bigoted despot.

Artistic Freedom or Artistic Sadism?

And so, a movie based on this historical figure must necessarily include some or all these documented historical facts from primary sources.

Does Sanjay Leela Bhansali have the courage to tell the story of Malik Kafur’s expeditions to the South? Does he have the guts to show the story of how a courtesan saved the Moola Murti of Sri Ranganatha in Srirangam from certain destruction at the hands of Malik Kafur’s barbaric army by sacrificing her own life? This episode if done well, has all the makings of a commercially successful blockbuster. Does Bhansali have the nerve to narrate the tale of the circumstances under which this Hazaar Dinari was purchased? Actually, Devdutt Pattnaik would love this one: a riveting, true historical tale of the pure love between an unconquerable Alpha Male and Handsome Boy.

But Sanjay Leela Bhansali has drunk deep from the fount of the past masters of deception: Girish Karnad et al. Therefore, he’s taken refuge under the claim that his movie is based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s imaginary literary saga titled, Padmavat written 200 years after Khalji’s death. In which case — if Padmavati is indeed an imaginary character, why bring the real, historical king Ala-ud-din Khalji into the picture?

Sanjay Leela Bhansali can’t have his cake and eat it too: he knows full well the kind of associations and painful memories that Ala-ud-din Khilji evokes among Hindus, and specifically Rajputs notwithstanding Jayasi’s imaginary saga. Despite the moral and ethical hellhole that Hollywood has become, will it dare even today, to make an imaginary love story between a beautiful Jewish woman and Hitler?

I won’t dwell in detail upon the justified outrage and hurt that the Rajputs in particular and the larger Hindu society have expressed at Bhansali’s perverse distortion but will touch upon a few key points that have led us to this pass.

The first concerns artistic freedom. We can examine this with a quote from Padmashri Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s preface to his bestselling historical novel, Aavarana:

Anybody who embarks upon writing a historical work essentially needs to do concrete research to support even the tiniest detail. The author’s responsibility is towards the historical truth of the subject on which his/her work is based. When truth and beauty are put on a scale, the writer’s fidelity must invariably be in favour of truth. A writer doesn’t have the moral right to violate truth and take refuge in the claim that he/she is only a creative artist.

The question therefore, is not whether one community is shown in good or poor light but one of basic integrity and fidelity to facts. In Bhansali’s case, it is apparent that his so-called “historical” love story is being filmed at the expense of Rajputs. There’s a term for this: artistic sadism.

Indeed, Padmavati is in the same league of the other distortionist 2008 movie Jodhaa Akbar, which took an imaginary character named Jodhaa while whitewashing Akbar’s massacre of about 30000 Hindus in his barbaric sack of Chittorgarh. In Salman Rushdie’s words,

Even the Emperor succumbed to fantasy. Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, Rajput and Turkish sultanas…One of these royal personages did not really exist. She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the Emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real. He gave her a name, Jodha, and no man dared gainsay him.

And so the second point, tied to artistic and creative freedom is the contemporary reality that in the name of democratisation of arts, any semblance of any standard has been abandoned, and well-informed critics are silenced with — we’re seeing this unfold as I’m writing this — shouts of “creative freedom,” “regressive,” “intolerance,” “fascism,” “right wing fringe,” etc.

Third: the history of Bollywood itself. In its fledgling days, the industry was significantly populated by the victims of Partition and barring very few, the flavour of movies mostly included tragic love stories, dark melancholies like Pyaasa, socials, rare comedies, and over-dramatised patriotism.

The 1970s decade witnessed an explosion in the ranks of the pimps of Nehruvian socialism on a gigantic canvas apart from giving us those mindless masala movies. The post 2000 era’s takeover of Bollywood by the Karan Johars of the world gave us movies that were far removed from reality, characterised by a slavish aping of Western lifestyles, normalisation of liquor consumption, and hedonism.

Or to put it bluntly, these movies and their makers are culturally as far removed from the millions of culturally-rooted Indians as say, Kim Kardashian is from Rama Navami.

But the marked factor underlying this entire history of Bollywood is a near-complete absence of a good number of movies with mythological and classical themes.

When we contrast this with South Indian cinema’s history for the same period, we see how (mostly) the Telugu, Kannada and Tamil mythologicals (Pauranika) and historicals (Aitihasika) have continued to remain classics witnessing re-releases even today. And how, even today, there are talented filmmakers who make stellar movies using these themes. If a regional movie with limited markets can make a super-expensive and hugely successful movie like Bahubali, what prevents Bollywood from doing something similar with its seemingly endless budgets? A partial answer can be found in this “review” which sees only the “rape of Avantika” in Bahubali, and concludes that a movie rich in (Hindu) mythological references is “dangerous.”

Which brings us to the fourth point. If movies are art and are a form of creative expression, what explains the recent slew of agenda-based films like say, Mumbai Meri Jaan, which shows the Bhagavad Gita as being responsible for the Hindu character named Suresh (played by Kay Kay Menon) for developing hatred towards Muslims.

One can add Haidar, PK, Black Friday and Parzania to this list. On the other side of this coin, why hasn’t there been a single Bollywood movie on say Chandragupta Maurya, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap or even the Gupta Empire? Even if one cynically reduces this to a Hindu — Muslim argument, the fact still remains that these are truly fantastic themes to make compelling movies.

From this flows the fifth point, which is fundamentally about the absence of a level-playing field in Bollywood regarding specific themes — be they historicals or mythologicals. And the total lack of a general sense of openness.

Could we for instance, imagine Bollywood making a movie like Agora, which heart-wrenchingly and artistically narrates the tragic fate that Hypatia met at the hands of Christian imperialism in moving detail? Or the brilliant Spotlight,which is an expose of pervasive pedophilia inside the walls of the Holy Catholic Church? One can go on listing many more such excellent films.

But the fact that such films don’t ever get made in Bollywood is because of the selfsame lack of openness: creative freedom must essentially be accompanied by courage especially when dealing with sensitive subjects, both historical and contemporary.

So the easier way out is to do what Sanjay Leela Bhansali seems to have done: make an imaginary love story between a predatory bigot and a proven plunderer of women and his potential victim who preferred to die than submit.

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Sandeep Balakrishna
Writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. Author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore," "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History," and "Seventy Years of Secularism." He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.
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