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Deconstructing Saif's Adipurush Look: Popular Cinema and The 'Khilji Archetype'

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

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Adipurush, the mega-starrer mythological film, based on the epic Ramayana came out with its teaser a few days ago. While its disappointing VFX stood out immediately, Saif Ali Khan’s look as Lanka’s king Ravana was slammed as well. 

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Malavika Avinash denounced the look as that of a “Turkish tyrant” and Hindu Mahasabha chief Chakrapani Maharaj said that the look resembled that of “Atanki (terrorist) Khilji, Chengez Khan and Aurangzeb”.

Neither of the two clarified what about Saif’s look made it akin to that of a “Turkish tyrant” or a Khilji/Aurangzeb, and yet everybody seems to have understood what they meant. 

Clearly, the visual representation of the “villainous Muslim king” is so ingrained in the popular Indian imagination that the “Khilji archetype” in Indian cinema needs no further elaboration. 
The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.
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The 'Khilji Archetype'

The “Khilji archetype”, based on the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji, should ideally connote a powerful sultan who was an able statesman and an excellent military general. Khalji, who innovated a taxation system retained by many rulers of India till the 20th century, was also the sultan who single-handedly maintained the present course of the Indian subcontinent’s history by thwarting a total of five Mongol invasions from 1298 AD to 1306 AD. 

The “Khilji archetype,” however, in the Indian imagination today is that of a villainous, murderous and lecherous “Muslim sultan” – the visual representation of which is epitomised in the heavily-bearded man with kohl-lined eyes and a menacing gaze with an overly muscular body. This archetype is not borne in any of the sultanate or Mughal paintings of yore.

In fact, what stands out in these paintings is an absolute lack of kohl in the rulers’ eyes and a beard which only rarely makes an appearance. Most depictions of rulers such as Ghiyas Khalji of Malwa or Mughal emperors Akbar and Jahangir conform to the Indian male aesthetic of the handlebar moustache and a podgy body. Similar aesthetic is also followed in sculptures of the Bodhisattava Maitreya sculpted long before the Delhi sultans and the Mughals. 
The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Ghiyas Khalji of Malwa (in red)

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

The creation of the “marauding Muslim ruler” who is necessarily villainous and barbarous can mostly be blamed on shoddy, communal British historiography, which has since then been fanned by many Hindutva ideologues. But putting a face to the marauding Muslim was not Britain’s doing. That achievement lies with India’s graphic novels, especially Anant Pai’s Amar Chitra Katha. Before this graphic novel became popular, depictions of rulers in what Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen (2009) call Muslim historicals stuck to the paintings. 

In films such as Pukar (1939), Humayun (1945), and Mughal-e-Azam (1960), the rulers are shown with the no beard, handlebar aesthetic. These movies typify a significant part of the subcontinent’s cinematic history where sultanate and Mughal periods have been presented as a unifying force that was pluralist and not divisive in nature. 

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Dara Shukoh And Aurangazeb by Amar Chitra Katha. 

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Akbar by Govardhan.

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

A Modern-Day Representation

It is in the more recent depictions of the sultans and the Mughals, especially from 2017 onwards that the “Khilji archetype” is repeatedly used in Bollywood. Pai’s Amar Chitra Katha has a direct role to play here.

Started in 1967, the Amar Chitra Katha is a graphic novel that covers an immense range of topics from mythology to history to biography. Even as the comic aims to share with a young audience the wonders of the subcontinent’s past with a view to build the nation, it has always done so with a heavy communal twist.

Scholars such as Nandini Chandra (2008), Karline McLain (2009) and Frances Pritchett (1995) have elaborated how the Amar Chitra Katha creates a Muslim “other”. For instance, the Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘Makers of Modern India’ series makes no mention of a single Muslim leader. In its issue on Bankim Chandra’s Ananda Matha (which is a dangerously communal text), Muslim kings have been described as “puppets in British hands.” And in its issue on Rana Sanga, Babur is repeatedly referred to as an “invader.” 

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh as Khilji in the film, Padmaavat.

(Photo: SLB Productions / accessed by the author)

This othering in text is also matched with the othering in visuals. All Hindu rulers such as the Mauryan king Ashoka (3rd century BCE) and King Harshavardhana (7th century CE), are exclusively depicted as fair and clean-shaven except for the handlebar moustache, while Muslim rulers are depicted with dark kohl lidded eyes, long and heavy beards accentuating their sharp jawlines. 

In its issue on Padmini, the Amar Chitra Katha depicts Delhi Sultan Allauddin Khalji as a lecherous king who often gives in to his lust and hatches evil plans against the Hindu rulers. Each time he does so, his heavily bearded and collyrium-eyed face sports a menacing grin.

This is the only representation of Khilji in the Amar Chitra Katha, and it has a stark resemblance to the Khilji of Padmaavat (2018) where Ranveer Singh wears an oversized qubbah (hat) and sports an evil grin. (see images for reference). This stereotype visual of the villainous Muslim ruler finds expression in Amar Chitra Katha’s depictions of Mughal rulers such as Babur, Humayun, and Aurangzeb. 

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Ashoka: The Warrior Who Spoke Of Peace by Amar Chitra Katha. 

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

The appearance of Amar Chitra Katha’s Alauddin Khilji typifies the Khilji archetype that has recently become so popular. Mohammad Ghori in Samrat Prithviraj (2022), Aurangzeb in Tanhaji (2020), and Ahmed Shah Abdali in Panipat (2019) all follow Alauddin Khalji’s look in Padmaavat which in turn takes its inspiration from Amar Chitra Katha. The popularity of the battle cry ‘Har Har Mahadev” for the protagonist’s armies in movies such as Samrat Prithviraj and Tanhaji is also courtesy the Amar Chitra Katha where this is the designated battle cry for Hindu armies while Muslim soldiers all shout “Allah Ho Akbar”. 

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Babur: The Founder of Mughal Dynasty by Amar Chitra Katha.

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

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The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Jehangir on timepiece.

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

Images Ingrained in Public Memory

Therefore, having featured regularly in popular graphic novels and now popular cinema, the Khilji archetype is well recognised by now. Given how widespread and powerful cinema’s impact is, that beards, kohl and an evil grin typify a Muslim ruler is a dangerous recall value that Bollywood has manufactured in cohorts with a popular graphic novel and furthers India’s divisive communal politics. Needless to say that such a visual representation is ahistorical and is not borne out in the paintings of many of these rulers. Even within the history of Indian cinema, the popularity of the Khilji archetype is a fairly new phenomenon and belies epic cinematic depictions of Akbar et al. 

Lastly, it is perhaps in this vein that Ravana, the villainous king of Ramayana is depicted with the Khilji archetype in Adipurush. The idea is to capitalise on the popular cinematic representation of the villainous king which in recent times has become synonymous with the Muslim king.

The BJP and right-wing ecosystem has denounced Saif Ali Khan's look in Adipurush as that of a 'Turkish tyrant'.

Humayun: The Second Mughal Emperor by Amar Chitra Katha.

(Photo: Accessed by the author)

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(Ruchika Sharma is a doctoral scholar of history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She also runs a YouTube channel on history called Eyeshadow & Etihaas.)

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