Our guest reviewer, Medusa (kyunki sab saanp hai) analyzes Padmaavat through a queer lens for our fortnightly movie review column.
So you’ve watched Padmavat and read Megha’s excellent review of the movie on Quirk. You found the movie mildly interesting and the songs hummable (Thank the classical Raagas that the songs are based on). You also found the entire Karni Sena nuisance pointless and noticed the blatant communalisation of history that the movie partakes in. But did you read the movie from a queer eye? Didn’t think so. You probably wondered why Shahid Kapoor walks around like he’s got a stick up his behind throughout the movie. Well, let’s get some things clear first hand. Pure Straight is boring, I mean, really sucky, and slow-dying boring. Look at Shahid Kapoor’s poor face through the movie anyway, all his stuck up ass can do is stare blankly and make stupid comments about how great his caste lineage is. He, of course, being a specimen of such royal blood, is not bound by monogamy, and of course everything in the movie is started by his immature Raani-Sa, churlishly asking for pearls from Sri Lanka (very conveniently Sita-like asking for the golden deer), but blaming women is not new at all, and this post is not about that. However, you can see without much insight that Raja-Sa’s love life or sex life wouldn’t be quite the stuff of dreams, at best one ten minute affair once the moon has waxed to Ekadashi in a month types. Lol. Deepika Padukone aka Raani Padmini-Sa is sexy and over the top, yes, as you would expect a Sanjay Leela Bhansali heroine to be, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why she would ever fall for our Raja-Sa and eternal Rajput glory dialogues when you have the beaches of Sri Lanka at your disposal forever.
Enter Khilji into the picture and the man is a philandering monster. Unabashedly so. Getting married? No problem, you can still get a quickie literally ten feet away from the wedding party. He’s maniacal, apparently, someone you can never expect things like respect, consistency, or basic fidelity from. You’d be a fool to expect it in any case, and it seems his newly wed wife knows better than to do that. And the acting is over the top as well. There is nothing left to the imagination. You’ve better chances of finding subtlety in your caramel popcorn than in this movie. Khilji is clearly crack, he doesn’t give a shit and he’ll be raping women and conspiring murder at the same time. All this is given to us, we are to take it and marvel at it and maybe feel repulsed and intrigued at the same time. He’s a car crash in slow motion and no you can’t look away. And girl, is he going to take everyone down with him or what!
In this rather drab and pre-set game, we are given some colour (and talent, cough) by the dreamboat that is Jim Saarbh. I have seen the scene of his entry into the movie multiple times for obvious, and not so noble reasons (and you should too). But Sarbh remains on the fringes of the story in this megalomaniac contestation represented as the fight between two civilisations. Not to mention that historically, Malik Kafur (played by Sarbh), was a capable military general, administrator, and badass royal court manipulator, he doesn’t get too much screen time here. But here is the point that I’m trying to get to, sorry Pamela Samuelson, but this ain’t no legal writing. Sarbh in the movie is the slave whore, albeit a really expensive one, and fit only for Khilji. Khilji himself is ecstatic to have him, he surveys him with interest, and tests his assassination capabilities immediately. Along with Khilji’s general sexual behaviour given to be less than faithful, what we are also given is the absolute faithfulness of Kafur. He takes to his master like fish to water and becomes “his” from the word go. The Emperor’s wish is his code of conduct, and the last rule in the book of Kafur’s morality is what would help Khilji’s philandering butt.
A large part of growing up gay is to realise that you don’t fit in many things you seem to be surrounded by. Your desires are not represented in mainstream art or culture. Heterosexuality is shoved down your throat every step of the way, and if I see another loser-Chomu Manyavar or LIC Jeevan Beema happy-responsible-boring family ad when I should be given interesting trailers instead, I am going to throttle the person next to me. So we look for hints and make up our stories, we read between the lines and try to imagine an alternative story to the one we’re being shown, and sometimes that becomes an entire act of creativity and beauty. All it needs is a flick of an eye between two male leads, a double-meaning sentence, or, well you get the drift. And yes, we would like to see more stories celebrating queer love, (not you, Dostana) and this is where Padmavat gives you that potential.
But I watched the movie with dismay to see this potential of what could have been being squandered away on the splendid sets. What is happening between Kafur and Khilji is multifaceted, maybe even in a way desirable, but we don’t really get to see that. We see an androgynous Sarbh, clearly the “female” to the straight eye, at the service of the masculine and I-actually-like-women Khilji. There is little nuance to the relationship they enjoyed, though historically, this may have been inaccurate as well. Kafur is meant for khidmat, and that is what he does. He does it with devotion and fidelity, bordering on what is expected of a wife in a traditional Indian setting.
Shall we see what Kafur gets in return? We see zero emotion from Khilji towards Kafur in the movie. We see little physical intimacy as well, but that is not difficult to imagine, hat-tip to the Censor Board for stealing whatever little joy we could have otherwise got for a nanosecond. Khilji does not invest emotionally at all into Kafur. We see him pushing Kafur away in Binte Dil, that erotic song where everyone is feeling horny. Kafur takes all of this in his stride and keeps singing and drawing the curtains over the bed, does not complain, how can he (!), and remains devoted, and clearly in servitude despite being discarded. This toxic relationship is not of his choosing, but one he gets into it, there is no looking back. Kafur here is clearly the gay one. Khilji is ambiguous. Can he be called bisexual? Is he only MSM? How do we categorise him? Khilji is also married, whereas that’s nowhere on the spectrum for Kafur. Khilji clearly desires a particular female in marriage, whereas the only one Kafur desires is him. He is the meant to be taken for granted by Khilji, somebody he can return to when he’s not feeling well or generally has nowhere else to go.
To the gay eye, this evokes a painful truism of our lives. We’ve negotiated this space with heartbreak and psychological damage. We’ve fallen for that “straight” guy who loved being with us and the sex, but would always remain straight on the outside, always in love with a person of the opposite sex, always planning to get eventually married and settle down (puke). The trope is familiar, the gay one falls in love with the straight one, they have discreet and hot sex whenever the straight one feels like it. Anything else is rebuffed and the relationship is never publicly acknowledged. That’s part of the deal. Basic decency is not given to the gay guy and often the straight one feels disgusted after sex and they never talk about it. He also treats the gay one as a valid target for homophobic jokes in front of his other straight friends. To watch this treatment in Padmavat is painful. It is painful also because the director had the option of portraying a complex and nuanced relationship between Khilji and Kafur but chose instead into making Khilji a dick and Kafur a self flagellating slave. There would be no damage to the plot of the movie had this relationship been more than just a fuck and forget, but still we don’t see that. In fact, history itself suggests otherwise, it shows that Kafur was Khilji’s general, administrator and nobleman, and not just a sex toy pastime. Nothing would be lost if Kafur was shown to be in an emotionally complex relationship, in the circumstances, but who cares about his happiness at all? Not this director and not this movie. We’ll just have to wait for a queer historical, ladies.
There’s a thing to be said about you straight people as well. What Kafur is going through is being imposed on Padmini a thousand times worse. She is Kafur’s mirror, tied by bonds of devotion, fidelity and tradition, she suffers as well, although, stoically and with that final scene opium-induced beatific smile on her face. What Kafur suffers emotionally, Padmini suffers materially and physically. Along with heterosexual love come the facts that she will be confined to the Zenanaof the palaces forever doing her Ghoomar. She won’t command armies even though she’s clearly more competent than the rest of the Hukum-saas combined, and and, she will burn herself alive after her fuckall husband finally kicks the bucket. Both Kafur and Padmini are better than their partners at everything they do, but they remain the seconds in command forever.
I remember shutting my laptop and lighting a cigarette after the movie ended, several thoughts spinning in my head. I wanted to know what Kafur thought, what he did in the Khilji camp all day, how he felt about the fact that Khilji was waging this disastrous battle over a woman who he didn’t love either. (Speaking of which, we don’t know whether Khilji lusts after Padmini, wants her because she’s going to bring glory in accordance with what the treacherous Swamiji said, or whatever). The only same-sex relationship in the movie is woefully inadequate, its just incomplete and unsatisfying. As a gay man, you remember falling in love with that straight one when you were young, if you’re currently in love with a straight one, you feel fucked. I, for one, am sick and tired of seeing gay people leading emotionally dead lives and hopelessly pursuing unrequited love in most movies I watch, self respect be damned. So what does one do? One turns to imagination, of course, and in this case, a little historical detail.
For me, as I took a drag of the cigarette, I remembered that Kafur finally overthrew Khilji, installed Khilji’s small kid as puppet monarch, and himself became Regent. I chuckle, served that emotionally bullying and fuck-all Khilji right. I smile as I remember dumping that first love ‘straight’ boy and deciding that I wanted to be with someone who wasn’t afraid of holding my hand and wanting me. My smile widens, Kafur was the Queen after all, all this time being servile and trapped with this emotionally horrible partner for life, he was playing his own game all along, just look at the light in his eyes for confirmation. Move over the in-love timid boy who takes what he gets and cries silently at night, and enter the badass Queen who deserves to rule our hearts and Empire, and takes them in turns with a smile and a knife. Now if they only had the guts to make a movie about that!
P.S.- I think Kafur and Padmini would have made total badass BFFs. She looked like she needed better company anyway. I can see them sipping piña coladas on a gorgeous coconut tree-lined beach in Sri Lanka, far away from all the straight men in the world. Dream away, ladies. :*