Padmaavat: Amid Rajput romance and valour, Bhansali gives us a most queer love story

Sandip Roy

Feb,03 2018 15:24:46 IST

The film once known as Padmavati (now Padmaavat) has exposed the strangest fault-lines in India. The progressive liberals, the freedom of expression-wallas, are fighting for a film that is supposed to glorify jauhar where mass suicide is better than dishonour. Meanwhile the Rajputs whose bravery has been made the stuff of legend in the film are protesting it in droves. And now the Karni Sena has withdrawn its protest, admitted it's a valentine to Rajput valour and promised to help the film release everywhere.

But amidst these vitriolic debates about progressive vs regressive, distracted by this dizzying farce, we miss the one thing truly subversive about Padmaavat.

Malik Kafur.

War booty. Eunuch. Slave. Confidante. General. Malik Kafur is the underhand queer storyline of an overblown heterosexual love story.

Jim Sarbh with Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat

Jim Sarbh with Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat

The film is so over-the-top, it veers into camp. While CGI ensures Deepika Padukone remains discreetly covered from head to toe, even while dancing to 'Ghoomar', the men are all heaving bare chests, always happy to soak in a bathtub or take a break from battle to wrestle glossily. No bosom heaves as much in the film as the pectorals of Ranveer Singh and Shahid Kapoor as they go mano-a-mano, seemingly drawn to each other by some inexorable force of animal magnetism. They even go to great lengths to be alone together, their faces inches away from each other. Alone in the desert night, smouldering at each other, a bit of bondage and fetish — this is the stuff of gay fantasies.

If that is fantasy, Malik Kafur as played by Jim Sarbh is very much real. Some might think this is yet another example of Bollywood homophobia. Here we have the heartless, cunning eunuch deviously plotting the downfall of true love.

But that’s missing the point. Malik Kafur is the only character with real agency and brains in the film. He rises from a shrouded slave to become Alauddin’s confidante and right hand man. His character has real trajectory. Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji is unadulterated testosterone. Shahid Kapoor’s Ratan Singh is distilled righteousness, asli desi ghee, so pure and wholesome it almost gives indigestion. And once Deepika Padukone stops hunting in the forests of Sinhala and becomes a princess, she is instantly weighed down by all that parampara and jewellery, Manyavar-Mohey meets Tanishq. All she can do is act noble.

Only Kafur is free to chart his destiny. And he does so with relish.

Unlike Padmini/Padmavati whose historicity is disputed, Kafur definitely existed. He was called hazar-dinari because — the story went — he was purchased for 1,000 dinars. He was presented as a slave to Alauddin and was favoured by him as commander and chamberlain. He led raids into the Deccan, repulsed the Mongols and became the governor of Devagiri . In Alauddin’s paranoid last days he grew even closer, masterminding a great purge. When Khilji died, Kafur installed himself as regent but was soon assassinated.

Was this a great love affair? Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai have maintained it was based on the descriptions from court chronicler Ziauddin Baran who said the sultan was losing his senses and falling madly in love with the “useless, ungrateful, ingratiate sodomite”. Others insist the relationship was not sexual but do not deny the closeness between the two, a closeness described as an inexplicable infatuation.

Whatever the reality was, what’s delicious is Sanjay Leela Bhansali has snuck in a gay love story of sorts in a film that is red-blooded paean to heterosexual love. Kafur gets to sing to Alauddin Khilji. He scrubs the sultan’s feet in the bathtub, causing Alauddin to arch his back in pleasure, strokes his back with peacock feathers, kills for him and then ushers his mistress into the bedchamber and draws the curtains on them. But the mistresses come and go. Kafur is the one with unfettered access to the bedchamber. When the Rajputs rain fire on the camp, it’s Kafur who jumps onto the bed to rouse the sleeping Alauddin. It is fascinating because in a story of love and lust among the blue-blooded, this is the slave — sex-slave if you will — who wields such power. We see little of what he gets from Alauddin though at one point the sultan lovingly pats his cheek, a rare gesture of tenderness in a character filled with rutting violence.

Still from Padmaavat

Still from Padmaavat

But Kafur knows his limits. Like classic old-fashioned gay love stories, he knows he will never get the ultimate respect. At one point he says almost wistfully that he can come very close to Alauddin Khilji but he cannot take the place of Padamvati.

That is the true tragic love story hidden away in all the sturm und drang of the Ratan-Padamvati-Alauddin triangle. Kafur is the queer fourth angle to their triangle. The story goes the real Malik Kafur looted the Koh-i-noor from the Kakatiyas for his sultan. Padmavati is the Koh-i-noor here and Malik Kafur spends the film plotting how to get that for Alauddin Khilji, even though he knows the price he will pay for it.

This too is love, devotion and sacrifice in its own way.

And yet Sanjay Leela Bhansali does not make him either a simpering laughing stock or some woebegone tragic figure. Malik Kafur, sly and conniving, is a go-getter and not unashamed to broadcast his proximity to the sultan. When he arrives at the court of Chittor, a nobleman tells the Rana that he is the sultan’s close companion, “Uski begum hi samajh li jiye” (consider him his wife). They snicker. But Kafur has the last laugh.

Ultimately it’s Malik Kafur who emerges the winner when all the ashes settle. Alauddin Khilji’s dream of obtaining Padmavati dies in a blaze of jauhar. Meanwhile he has imprisoned his own wife, the hapless Mehrunisa who helped Padmavati and the Rana.

When you think about it who does Alauddin Khilji have in the end?

Only Malik Kafur.

As the end credits roll, one can almost imagine Malik Kafur, drawing his sultan another hot bath.

In the guise of a full-throated story about Rajput love and valour, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has given us a most queer love story. For a Bollywood film, that’s something.

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2018 15:24 PM