'Samrat Prithviraj', Like 'Padmaavat', Has a Misplaced Glorification of 'Jauhar'

'Samrat Prithviraj' paints the act of 'jauhar' with coats of valour and sacrifice – as is the popular notion.

4 min read

It is well-established that contemporary mainstream Bollywood medieval dramas have little to do with nuanced history – and more with run-of-the-mill tropes.

The recipe includes simplistic binaries of good Hindu kings and bad Muslim kings, a heightened sense of patriotism, and in at least two recent movies, strong flavouring of jauhar or self-immolation towards the end whereby women characters opt to die by suicide to safeguard themselves from Islamic invaders, thereby protecting the honour of the kingdom.

Akshay Kumar-starrer Samrat Prithviraj is one such film. In fact, if you close your eyes, you might not even notice where Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2017 mega-scale film Padmaavat ends and Samrat Prithviraj begins.

The factual inaccuracies of Samrat Prithviraj can be read and watched here.

What causes unease is the painting of the act of jauhar with coats of valour, honour, and sacrifice, almost keeping in with the popular perspective.

What is the historical context of the act jauhar – and where do we draw the line between depicting jauhar the way it has been and glamourising it?


Popular Representation of Jauhar

Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s film shows the story of the 12th-century Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan and the Second Battle of Tarain, where he was defeated by Mohammad Ghori of the Ghurid Empire.

As per the orders of the Central Board of Film Certification, the film carries a disclaimer saying that it doesn’t promote sati or jauhar.

But the movie leaves quite an opposite message as the king’s royal consort, Maharani Sanyogita, played by Manushi Chhillar, is seen literally dancing towards her death dressed like a warrior with her retinue of women, as news arrives of the Rajput side being ambushed.

At this point, fire engulfs the whole screen giving a sense of grandeur to the act of jauhar.

What especially seems strange is that one minute the princess is shown to be assertive and arguing for her rights, sitting next to the king in the court, and the next minute the film romanticises Sanyogita's act of suicide with a song and dance sequence.

Sanjay Leela Bhanshali's Padmaavat based on a fictional work of Awadhi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, too, gave in to such a misplaced sense of glamorisation of jauhar. In the movie, as Alauddin Khilji's army defeats Rajput king Maharawal Ratan Singh, Rani Padmavati voluntarily immolates herself to chants of 'Jai Bhawani' in a dramatic sequence.

Again, it is not the act that is concerning, but the matter of its representation.

"There is a clear choice as to how you want to depict it," says Ruchika Sharma, a history teacher and doctoral scholar of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Jauhar Was a Rare Practice, Not Limited to Islamic Invasions

Unlike the prosaic binaries of good and bad kings, the trope of jauhar has some basis in history since unarguably women have been spoils of war over ages.

Said to be a popular practice among Rajput women, it was performed by royal women of the court in the face of imminent capture or abduction following a military defeat. What is seen attached to the idea of this act is purity of lineage and purity of races.

"The earliest mentions of jauhar come from the period between 10th and 12th centuries when the several kingdoms that ruled over North India were constantly engaged in wars with each other," says Sharma.

"Chauhan is one of the tribes, then in Gujarat there are Chalukya-Solankis. In the Malwas, there are Paramaras, and in Kannauj there are Gahadavalas. All these different tribes would fought a lot between each other and one of the main casualties in these raids were women."
Ruchika Sharma

However, the idea of Muslims being the sole reason behind jauhar got popularised during the colonial rule, Sharma points out. It is that very perspective of blaming Islamic rulers squarely for jauhar that mainstream movies keep repeating.

But unlike how women are shown dancing to their death in Bollywood movies, it was a very tragic choice – between taking one's life and facing abduction or abuse.

And yet, it was not as common a practice as it believed to be.

"In history, there are rare instances of women practising jauhar and their valourisation is even rarer. It only happens in these fictional accounts like Padmaavat."
Ruchika Sharma

Perhaps, the rarity of it also indicates how difficult it was to go through with this act unlike its exalted representation in these period dramas. While any depiction of Rajput in mainstream films seem amiss without showing jauhar in the light of Rajput pride, the act itself is believed to be older than the 'Rajput' identity.

In his book Sati, the Blessing and the Curse, John S Hawley notes jauhar is a practice that preceded sati. Although the act itself is ancient, Sharma says the valourised depiction of the act came only around the 16th-17th century when the Rajput identity started consolidating.


How Films Deviate from Original Stories to Dramatise 'Jauhar'

While both movies are technically works of fiction which comes with a creative licence, it's pertinent to note that these movies stray from the very works they are referencing.

The purpose of this deviation specifically seems to be aimed at dramatising jauhar as much as possible.

To start with, Samrat Prithviraj derives its plot from Chand Bardai’s epic poem Prithviraj Raso – one of the primary references around Prithviraj Chauhan.

"Bardai's epic is also the only work where the character of Sanyogita finds a mention. But a detail that the film twists is the fact that the Rajput queen is not described to having done jauhar anywhere in Prithviraj Raso," Sharma says.

Similarly, in Padmaavat, we get to see Khilji running like a madman perhaps hoping to capture the queen while she is preparing to immolate herself.

But in Jayasi's work, the jauhar happens when Ratan Sen and the ruler of Kumbhalner, Devpal, die fighting each other.

"I think there is a trivialisation of what women actually went through making this massive decision of killing oneself or being abducted. There could only be one way of depicting jauhar as it was – a very difficult choice to make for women."
Ruchika Sharma

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