The film ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ ends with a note that the death of Prithviraj Chauhan marked the end of Hindu rule in northern India and that India would remain under foreign rule for the next 755 until independence in 1947. This note makes the film’s political objective of rewriting history very clear, but it also highlights certain enduring but ahistorical assumptions that enable such politics.
One major assumption has been the association of the ‘Muslim’ rule with a foreign and culturally inimical matrix, barely different from its British colonial successor. The other equally ahistorical assumption has been the identification of Rajputs as a timeless warrior caste heroically resisting ‘Muslim’ invaders from the north. So pervasive is this assumption – and as is evident from the filmmaker’s note – that the term Rajput unproblematically fuses into the historically neutered category of ‘Hindu’.
Thus, when films like ‘Samrat Prithiviraj’ and ‘Padmaavat’ place Rajputs as heroic protagonists of the 12th and the 14th centuries respectively, they miss out on one important point: the term 'Rajput' as a marker of status, identity and power did not emerge before the 15th century.
Who Were the 'Rajputs'?
We begin to find the term ‘Rajput’ in 15th-century texts like the Prithviraj-Raso, Kanhadade-Prabandha and Hammira-Mahakavya. Any mention of this term in the texts of the prior centuries is either absent or sporadic. The term ‘Rajput’ here should not be confused with the Sanskrit term ‘Rajputra’, which was found in the many inscriptions referring to the local chieftains of the previous centuries.
The emergence of Rajput as an elite regional identity happens within the larger historical context of the 15th century. This period at the interstice of a weakened Delhi Sultanate and a yet-to-manifest Mughal empire has for long been considered politically unstable, conducive to the ambitions of regional claimants.
Local chieftains taking advantage of fissures in the administrative and military capabilities of empires, however, were not historically atypical. What distinguished the 15th century was the emergence of several regional languages and vernacular literary genres, which, for the first time, had protagonists approximating the attributes of a Rajput.
Texts like Prithviraj-Raso and Padmaavat represent a creative reimagining of the past based on their specific historical contexts of composition. A crucial element in these texts was the establishment of genealogical connections between their patron dynasties of 15th and early-16th century northern India and their protagonists of an earlier period. These protagonists had historically resisted, albeit unsuccessfully, the Delhi Sultans’ various attempts at imperial expansion in northern India.
By reimagining these military encounters as episodes of ‘heroic’ resistance against the ‘foreign’ Delhi Sultanate and by establishing genealogical connections between these historical actors and their current patrons, these texts emphasised the continuation of these heroic traits and thereby their patrons’ claims to rule. These heroic traits, often personified by historical figures like Prithviraj Chauhan, communicated the ambitions of these patron chieftains within the highly competitive political context of 15th-century northern India.
Despite the ambitious nature of these claims, these chieftains often came from humble and socially diverse backgrounds. The figure of Prithviraj and his coterie of Kshatriya warriors became a means to imagine an aristocratic ideal as the author of the Raso attempted to make sense of the immense social flux inflecting this incipient Rajput identity.
Thus, when films like ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ and ‘Padmaavat’ imagine their protagonists as Rajputs, they not only make ahistorical claims but also superimpose the image of a 17th- or 18th-century Rajput, more mature in its attributes and bereft of its earlier internal tensions, on historical actors who never called themselves ‘Rajputs’.
The Politics of ‘Creative Liberties’
Pointing out factual inaccuracies, however, has its limitations in fully understanding the politics of such films, particularly when filmmakers like Chandra Prakash Dwivedi openly acknowledge their source material, the Prithviraj-Raso, as a poem and not history. The deviation from the source in the film ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ is then not merely factual. Rather, it’s an ingenious interpretation of certain literary tropes and concepts that are central to the Raso. These interpretations in the name of ‘creative liberties’ are critical to understanding the filmmaker’s politics of reinterpreting history.
Two significant tropes in the film define Prithviraj and his Kshatriya retinue as a collective – adherence to ‘Hindu’ dharma and equality for women. The Raso originally refers to kshatriya-dharma as a set of martial and refined conduct characterising a Rajput. As these aspirants to Rajput status often came from humble and disparate social backgrounds, a discourse on kshatriya-dharma was not just an articulation of their ambitions but also a means of disciplining them. For these aspiring Rajputs, it was necessary to know how to behave as a Rajput, and kshatriya-dharma instructed them in that. The film instead uses the historically neutered and artificial term ‘Hindu’-dharma to project Prithviraj as a champion of ‘Hindu’ interests. This misappropriation of a literary concept like kshatriya-dharma, encapsulating a complex historical process, effectively transforms the territorial struggles between the different political competitors in the Raso into an anachronistic ‘Hindu-Muslim’ conflict.
Prithviraj Chauhan as a 'Feminist'
Equally problematic is Prithviraj’s projection as an advocate of equal women’s rights in the film. The episode involving the elopement and marriage between Prithviraj and Sanyogita becomes a narrative point in the film to highlight Prithviraj’s efforts to fight for equal rights for women in pre-(Muslim!) colonial India. Women certainly had a role and place in the Raso, but it was very different from what Dwivedi would have us believe. The Raso is dominated by the literary aesthetics of the veer and shringaar ras. While the former communicates the stirring effect of valour in battle, the latter encapsulates the sensuous and romantic encounters of Prithviraj with women.
What makes Prithviraj the greatest kshatriya king of his age is his ability to win wars and make love with women. The Raso plays a disciplining role for these aspirants as it instructs them on the appropriate conduct not only on the battlefield but also in their private spaces, often involving women.
Within this context, women in the Raso only play a limited role: one of enhancing the heroic virtues of their male protagonists. The politics of projecting Prithviraj as a proponent of women’s rights in this film, however, is not dangerous due to its historical inaccuracy but because of its selectiveness. The ‘Muslim’ Muhammad Ghori is not associated with these traits, and unlike his namesake in the Raso, is bereft of any virtue. By associating modern values of gender equality to the purportedly ‘Hindu’ protagonist of the Raso in opposition to the obvious ‘barbarity’ of its ‘Muslim’ antagonist, this film reinforces its politics of synthetic communal acrimony reflective of the dominant public discourse.
Why History Can't be 'Rewritten'
These attempts to portray Rajputs as timeless warriors resisting ‘Muslim’ invaders go back to British efforts of rewriting history to strengthen colonial rule in India.
Like their colonial counterparts, a few filmmakers, when they are not deliberately misinterpreting their source materials, read them quite literally without understanding the politics behind their writing. Of course, filmmaking is not history writing, but that’s not the only point they miss – you can only write history, not rewrite it.
(The author is a PhD student at the University of Chicago working at the Department of the South Asian Languages and Civilizations (SALC). This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)