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The Rajputs in Rajasthan — or rather, a fringe group that claims to represent the entire community — has ensured that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati is consigned, at least for the time being, to a limbo. Its release has been indefinitely delayed, different state governments have waded into the muddy debate and banned the film or have asked for legal action against its makers, a senior worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party has put out a bounty on the heads of the director and actors and yet continues to roam around freely. The rule of law has been suspended for the time being to satisfy demands of a violent group, as political parties measure what electoral gains can be squeezed out of the current imbroglio. One of the claims of the belligerent Rajputs is that the 14th-century fictional queen of Chittor, Padmavati, is like their mother. Inherent in this, is a celebration of jauhar. Whether or not Bhansali’s film celebrates this barbaric tradition or is a more feminist retelling will remain unknown for some time to come. For the time being, we have been told by the film’s makers that there is no surreal erotic or romantic scene between Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) and Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh). This sanitisation of the mother figure as asexual is typical of nationalist projects that construct themselves around the presumed honour of women — and the duty of men to protect it. Though such an idea should be immediately consigned to the trash bin of patriarchy, it has been rather popular in Hindi cinema, as we shall see from the three following examples. The original film that collapsed the difference between motherhood and nationalism was Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) — a realisation of the Nehruvian goal of merging the political with the popular. Its central character, Radha (Nargis), is an idealised representation of the rural woman, who triumphs over all hurdles to raise her sons but doesn’t hesitate to kill one of them to protect the honour of the land. Radha is larger than life, goddess-like. Her moral uprightness, accompanied by her latent capacity to be justly violent, makes her the ideal Indian woman representing the new India, emerging from the colonial rule. Mother India became one of the most popular Indian films abroad; in India, it was the “national” film, played every Independence Day (August 15) on the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. The film, with its theme, became so popular that in 1965, the government instituted the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. The film was, probably, a response to American author Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book, also titled Mother India, in which she critiqued Indian society and culture, claiming the nation was unfit for independence, given the uncivilised treatment Indian men mete out to women and the society’s untouchables.
The book created an outrage in India, with even Mahatma Gandhi feeling compelled to criticise it. Mehboob Khan’s film reconstructs the image of the mother.A “national” film like Mother India has the nation at its core, which gets metonymically figured as the central woman figure. The suffering woman, rather the suffering mother, becomes a recurrent and powerful image that was meant to evoke the sense of duty in her sons. Such imagery is deeply problematic. While the mother figure sometimes gets used as a stand-in for the nation, she also gets used to stand for the values of one religion — in this case, Hinduism. The “national” woman is inherently Hindu with her bindi, her sindoor, her mangalsutra and her household gods. A mother, and a widow, the woman is desexualised. The names of the characters are Radha, Shyam, Ram, Birju and there are direct references to the Hindu myths of Krishna, Draupadi, Shakti and Savitri. Towards the end of the film, Radha takes on the roles of two very masculine male gods as well — at once, she becomes Vishnu the preserver when she preserves the honour of her village and Shiva the destroyer when she kills her own son to preserve her land’s honour. The film celebrates the woman’s role as a mother, as the nurturer. This, like any other text that celebrates the fact that a woman’s primary role is that of a mother, is problematic as it reduces the whole being of the woman into that one characteristic ability to reproduce more sons of the soil. In addition to that, there is the obvious reading of the nation as the nourishing, forever giving and fiercely protective mother figure — epitomised by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay who addresses the nation as the mother in “Vande Mataram”. Unfortunately for some of our ultra-nationalists, the lyrics of the National Song are as obscure as the historical veracity of Padmavati. All that the belligerent sons of Mother India want to do is rage and burn as long as they feel satisfied that they have protected their mother’s honour. Everything else can go to hell!