A disservice to history?
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known as a great filmmaker, however, after watching his recent film “Padmaavat”, I was disappointed because either he is intellectually dishonest or an “illiterate” in history. I am not a film critic and my primary interest was to see his treatment of the character of Sultan Alauddin Khalji. As it is a commercial film and not a documentary, Bhansali was within his right to exaggerate but not distort the character of Alauddin. No matter how much he insists on the fictional aspect of “his Alauddin,” the viewer will always judge this character through the lens of history. He may have spent crores of rupees on making this film, it seems he spent no money on a decent research to dig out the wealth of historical knowledge to develop the character of Alauddin.
Bhansali’s biggest distortion is the presentation of Alauddin as a lovelorn heart-broken “majnoo” in the desert of Rajputana possessed by the passion to seize a woman (Padmini) while totally oblivious of his responsibilities towards the state and subjects. The objective of Bhansali is to depict Alauddin as nothing more than a “ladies man” with the singular passion for women. Across the east and west, history is full of rulers who were given to licentiousness but Alauddin was not one of those. I do not intend to say that he was an ascetic or a saint but keeping in view the practices of medieval times when women, wine and song were the order of the day “Alauddin led a life free from unbridled debauchery.”
Incidentally, there are quite a few primary historical sources available to judge the Sultan’s character such as the histories written by classical historians such as Ziauddin Barani, Amir Arsalan, Kabiruddin and Amir Khusro. Some of the readers may think that the Muslim historians could have written fovourable accounts of their coreligionist Sultan therefore I searched for histories written by non-Muslim historians particularly the Hindus. The search led me to the “History of Khaljis,” which is the doctoral dissertation of Professor Kishori Saran Lal, who utilised all available contemporary sources in Persian, Hindi and Sanskrit and learnt the art of history writing from some of the illustrious Hindu masters of the craft such as Tara Chand, RP Tripathy and BP Saxena, also known as the “Allahabad School” or the “Nationalist School” of history writing. The verdict of Kishori Lal on the character of Alauddin is quite enlightening and in sharp contrast to the villainous portrayal by Bhansali.
The image of Alauddin as a “romantic” Sultan who attacked Ranthambore, Chittor and Devagiri to gratify his lust is historically untrue. It is true that he had several wives and consorts at different times yet “he does not seem to have been at any time under feminine influence as such.” Had Bhansali done some worthwhile research, he would have come across another epic entitled “Chhitai-varta” in which Alauddin actually delivers a Hindu princess Chhitai to her Hindu lover purely out of compassion unlike the “Padmaavat” epic in which he is shown hell-bent to deprive a Rajput Raja of his beloved queen. In addition, the Sultan is reported to have prevailed upon a Rajput prince to marry a girl of his harem. All this shows that the Sultan was a liberal and not a person possessed by the “passion for women” as Bhansali has tried to show.
At several instances in the “Padmaavat,” Bhansali uses the traditional Islamic symbol of crescent and star to portray Alauddin as a bigoted Muslim Sultan, who oppressed the Hindus
Another distortion of Alauddin’s character by Bhansali is to paint the Sultan as a drunkard, who is shown in “Padmaavat” to be under such a heavy influence of liquor that he was unable to do anything about the Rajput attack on his camp outside the fort of Chittor. Kishori Lal informs that the Sultan did indulge in spirits in the early years of his reign; later on, not only did he personally renounce it but also imposed prohibition. The historian has an interesting story in this regard. Once when the Sultan was merrymaking with his boon companions, one of them pointed that while the Sultan was having fun, the masses were suffering from famine. Allauddin was so moved that from that day not only did he give up drinking but also prohibited its public consumption. Another Hindu historian Ishwari Prasad attests in his “History of Medieval India” that once the Sultan renounced drinking, all the vessels and china of the royal banqueting room were broken and “jars and casks of wine were brought out of the royal cellars and emptied at the Badayoun gate in such abundance that mud and mire was produced as in the rainy season.” Not only this, Kishori Lal adds that the Sultan also banned incest, adultery and prostitution and directed all prostitutes to marry within a prescribed period.
In a yet another distortion, Bhansali has tried to show that Alauddin being given to a licentious life, was a poor general and the military victories that went to his credit were actually the achievements of his generals. Kishori Lal rejects this view as “wholly incorrect” and contends that though the Sultan did have able commanders in the person of Alap Khan, Ulugh Khan, Nusrat Khan and Malik Kafoor to name a few, nonetheless, the most formidable battles whether against the Mongols or the Rajputs were won by the Sultan himself through his superior military and diplomatic skills which were acknowledged by his friends and foes alike. Kishori Lal has quoted two sources from the Proceedings of the 1954 Indian History Congress in which the first source is a Sanskrit inscription at Jodhpur of the time of Alauddin in which a Hindu writer admits that it was due to Sultan’s “god-like valour, the earth was rid of all tyranny” and the other source is Kakka Suri, the Jain author of “Nabhinandana-jinodhara-prabandha,” who states, “Resembling Indra in prowess, Alauddin covered the earth on all sides like an ocean. Who can count the strong forts which he captured?”
At several instances in the “Padmaavat,” Bhansali uses the traditional Islamic symbol of crescent and star to portray Alauddin as a bigoted Muslim Sultan, who oppressed the Hindus, a charge quite commonly levelled against most Muslim rulers of the subcontinent by the Hindus. Kishori Lal rejects this charge as well by stating that “a thorough study of the Sultan’s character clearly shows that religious consideration did not prompt him to oppress the Hindus in any way.” Alauddin was just a strong ruler who governed with an iron hand. Irrespective of any religious consideration, the Sultan punished only the intriguing nobles, the profiteering merchants and the contumacious landholders.
These were the observations of a notable Hindu historian and not a Muslim chronicler saving his co-religionist Sultan Alauddin from the ire of history. Bhansali has not done any good service to the cause of those people who have been struggling hard to bury the burdens of history to live in peace and amity across the border in the subcontinent. Indeed, the “Padmaavat” shows that the dust of history has not settled down as yet.