Defending Our Icons: From Padmavati to Wonder Woman

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In 1303, in Rajasthan, India, an emperor laid siege to a fort. Two hundred years later, a Sufi poet retold the story, adding a dramatic twist; he made up the story that emperor Alauddin Khilji attacked in order to capture the beautiful queen Padmavati. According to this tale, by the time he reached her, this fictional heroine had sacrificed herself to protect her honor. This poem was written as a parable for a strong woman. She became a local symbol for the justness of the cause, representing the honorable and true local people against the emperor (who now represented the British) and the siege stood for the occupation. The last verse of the poem even said as much, calling itself an allegory, admitting the fictionalization.

People seemed to like the new version, taking ownership of the Padmavati myth, allowing it to represent and inspire them. Yet over time, they managed to forget that the character is not real, but part of a shared mythology. Much like, say, Superman and Wonder Woman, characters who never existed and yet who represent the ideals of humanity we strive to achieve. Indeed, the story of Padmavati has been retold a number of times over the years.

Which brings us to last week, when yet another remake was being filmed. According to this article, rumors were circulating that the new version of the story would include a scene where the emperor and the beloved, pure, and honorable Padmavati would share a kiss. The movie was planned to be, I suppose, a modern reimagining of the motivation of the siege, turning it into a, let’s say, retelling of the Trojan War with an Indian twist (where Padmavati is Helen and emperor Khilji is Paris–or something like that). A romantic tale, perhaps, I don’t know for sure (as I mentioned earlier, I’m not completely sure of the details).

Not that the truth matters. People did not appreciate the bastardization of the story, or the suggested dishonoring of the memory of the chaste and honorable Padmavati. So they let their displeasure be known, in pure mob frenzy fashion. And the article points out that they got two important things wrong: 1) Padmavati was never a real person, and 2) there was no kissing scene planned.

So focusing on fact number 1, I don’t know if people really didn’t realize that Padmavati is the fictional creation of a 16th-century Sufi poet, or if they honestly believed they were truly trying to defend the honor of an ancient Indian woman. Does it really matter? Consider Superman and Wonder Woman, the parallels between the Indian outrage over tinkering with Padmavati’s story, and the similar outcry against the recent DC Comic movies directed by Zack Snyder.

In his blog, Superman scholar Michael Critzer discusses how there are two types of heroes:

In my research, I divide superheroes into two archetypes from a mythological perspective. Some are aspirational, and some are cathartic/motivational. The aspirational heroes, the pure ones (think Captain America or the traditional Superman and Wonder Woman), exhibit an unrealistic standard of purity and goodness. They always do the right thing, and in their stories, there always exists a way to do that right thing, no matter what. The example they set is unrealistic, but that’s not the importance of their role in cultures. The aspirational heroes are essential. They cause us to believe in better versions of ourselves and in a better world, so that even if we can never achieve those versions, we’ll still come closer to that standard than if we didn’t have it at all or had only a lower standard to strive for.

Critzer argues that it is the demotion from aspirational to cathartic that people find quite troubling. (You can, and should, read the full article here.)

Indeed. If the world needs heroes, then so too must they defend heroes that are being taken from them. If an icon represents core beliefs of goodness in humanity, then surely it is not only the right but the responsibility of man to defend it.

And this is what the author of the original post fails to understand. While I in no way mean to condone the violence inflicted upon the Padmavati movie’s director, even in the name of preserving a cultural icon, it is important to understand the motivation behind the protest. The author completely misses the point by arguing the fact that Padmavati is not real. Indeed, it is because she is not real that they felt she needed defending. My greater issue is the fact that it is the very image of womanhood that they are so violently defending that hits upon the actual problem.

Padmavati represents the ideal Indian woman. According to mythology set forth by a 16th-century Sufi poet, Padmavati, the queen, is pure and virtuous. She proudly represents her people, and they are proud to have her represent them; her honor is their honor. The idea of someone capturing her, defiling her, threatening her virtue? Well, that insults the community as a whole. Which may seem noble—that they would defend her honor—except that then her purity suddenly becomes a burden that she must bear. If she does anything to shatter that myth, then, by association, everyone suffers. There is simply no room for female sexuality in such a model. And lest you accuse me of exaggeration, this is a cultural truth that is prevalent not only in India but around the world. Padmavati has been set up as an aspirational hero, one who is inherently good. And the violence around the fictional easing of that burdensome image shows just how unwilling society is to let that image go.

What about the fact that the original queen (presumably there was one) would have committed Jauhar (the practice of self-immolation to defend one’s honor). Or that the people of the time were so obsessed with preserving the woman’s chastity that they wouldn’t have even recorded her name in any records? It matters. Immensely. These facts—the practice of focusing on purity over humanity, of denying her right to an existence beyond remaining chaste—demonstrate the long-standing tradition of degradation of women. And by degradation I mean the treatment of women as property, as symbols of wealth and status, and not as people in and of themselves. Nobody knows the name of the original queen of Chittor. We don’t know her parentage, her background, what kind of queen she was. All we know is that, because she lived in a time when self-immolation was the norm, she likely gave her own life for the honor of her people; that would have been her only choice. Her name was not recorded anywhere, despite the fact that she was a queen.

Yet, this is not whose honor rioters in India are defending. No, nobody is decrying her wrongful death back in the 1300s or a culture that would deny her a chance at protecting her subjects by perhaps compromising with the attacking forces. Whether she was beautiful or not, whether she was the motivation of the attack or not doesn’t matter.

No, people attacked the director of a movie that presumably would have given power to this fictional queen. The rumor of a dream sequence, where Padmavati might have shared a kiss with a man not her husband (a fictional character in a dream kiss, quite possibly dreamed by the conquering man and not even Padmavati), was threatening enough a concept to incite violence. The truth of the rumor didn’t matter. Who dreamed of the kiss in the movie about the fictional queen didn’t matter. What mattered was the kiss. The not-real kiss of a not-real queen. This symbol of female sexuality is what the rioters fought. The hypocrisy inherent in defending a fictional woman’s honor while real women are routinely openly harassed on the streets is ridiculous.

So what is it about legends that make us defenders of the truth? Wonder Woman and Padmavati are figments of the imagination, from different times and different worlds. But while defenders of aspirational heroes argue against lowering the moral bar in society, in the case of Padmavati, the question must be raised whether the bar is actually set to imprison society. Where are these same rioters when it comes to all the eve teasing so prevalent throughout India? Are they stepping forth to defend women against unwanted harassment on the streets, or do they reserve their voice only for crimes against mythology?