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Panipat: A Sincere Yet Half-Hearted Attempt To Portray Women In A More Positive Light?

Posted: December 15, 2019

Movies based on historical wars are usually heavily male centric – Panipat tries to make a break from that mould but does not succeed as much as we would have wanted it to.

Even though it was historically not-so-accurate and at times way over-the-top, but Panipat: The Great Betrayal was at least sensitive enough to treat its female characters with a certain amount of respect and dignity that is missing in most other movies, although giving them greater screen time and making their role in the movie more meaningful would have been the icing on the cake.

This movie is loosely based on historical event of the Third battle of Panipat (about 95 kilometres north of Delhi) that took place on the 14th of January 1761. This battle was fought between the Maratha Empire (led by Sadashiv Rao Bhau) and the invading Afghan army that was led by Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Durrani Empire, and supported by allies like the Rohilla Afghans of the Doab region and the Nawab of Awadh Shuja-ud-Daula.

The dignity and intelligence of Parvatibai, Sadashiv Rao’s wife

Consider the lead character of Parvati Bai (played by Kriti Sanon) who was also the narrator in the movie. A strong-willed woman who dearly loves Sadashiv Rao (Arjun Kapoor) but is not prepared to be some decked-up prop by his side and is more involved in the war of their lives.

She has the self-respect to not submit meekly to Sadashiv when he yells at her or was condescending towards her and exhibited immense character and dignity by letting him know his mistake and storming off with her dignity firmly intact. She was a Vaidya (practitioner of ayurvedic medicine) by profession but was also a very good strategist. Her inputs were vital in the Maratha campaign against Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt). She was also quite adept at using a sword which was particularly helpful when the enemy forces were trying to attack and kill the Maratha women and pilgrims during the war.

Another character that left an impact was Sakina Begum (Zeenat Aman) who was surprisingly given very little screen time. She was managing the affairs of her kingdom after the death of her husband, and she had a very pertinent statement to make about the futility of warring kings and their egos which always leads to unimaginable amounts of devastation.

But so many missed opportunities…

Not that everything was perfect for women in the movie. It might seem like nit-picking for some people but I found one scene particularly disturbing. While the Marathas were preparing for war with Abdali, there was a moment where the men were having lunch and the women were serving them while not having the food themselves and everyone was okay with it.

There is a big difference between portraying reality and glorifying a regressive practice. I have seen it happen so many times in such historical war based movies (in fact almost every other movie has a scene like this) right from Jodha Akbar to Padmaavat, with the subtle message that this is a part of our Indianness and that we should not only accept it but be proud of the whole thing. And the movie was doing exactly that with women smiling all around while serving their ‘Pati Parmeshwar’ and the supposedly rousing background music in a sense approving of the whole scene.

Okay, you may be kings and warriors and you may have had a tough life but what right does that give you to ask your wives to serve you first and then think about themselves. If you are tough and manly enough to lift a sword then you are tough enough to lift up your own plate as well. Why can’t you have lunch together with the female members? In many of our Indian households, this practice is still followed where women are supposed to stay in the kitchen, making food for the men, serving them, waiting for them to have a hearty meal and then clean up after them as well.

Having seen this so many times in my village and sometimes at my home as well, I find it absolutely sickening and moreover this is a very suggestive way of trying to show women their place in our households. Someone please tell Bollywood to stop making this horrendous blunder again and again. Or at least have a warning at the bottom of the screen saying that ‘we do not approve of this practice’ every time they exhibit some regressive nonsense like this. When you can have a warning for alcohol and tobacco you can have a warning for this as well.

There were other important characters as well like the ones played by Padmini Kolhapure (who was playing a negative sort of role till she realizes her mistake at the very end) and Suhasini Mulay but there is not much to write about in terms of female roles because there were not many. And this is where I feel the director missed a trick. It was also a reflection on how movies based on historical wars almost always are an all-male affair with women not getting enough airtime.

A large part of these movies focus on showing the actual battles or the preparations and strategy making and because the role of women in combat is still very restricted in these areas compared to men (which means it gets even more limited as we go back in time) they do not get the space they need. Even if they had a significant role to play in these wars, more often than not their contributions tend to be ignored both by our historians and film-makers, deliberately or otherwise, which is a grave disservice to their cause.

Thankfully Sati was nipped in the bud

Anyone who has seen Padmaavat would recall the cringeworthy moment of watching scores of women subjecting themselves to the indescribably saddening and heart-breaking rituals of Jauhar. The abject glorification by the movie makers was also extremely insensitive and despicable to say the least.

Maybe the makers of Panipat realized this. That is probably why we don’t get to see any of that in this movie. It was refreshing to see Sadashiv Rao make Parvati promise him not to commit Sati if he dies on the battlefield. Such kind of forward-thinking was clearly non-existent during those times. I am not sure if this particular scene was not just a figment of the director’s imagination or the actual truth, but at least it sends a statement that Sati was truly reprehensible and that we are much better off as a society after having discarded it.

In the end, I would like to say that although this movie has had many issues whether it be stereotyping, distorting the truth or even being unfair in its treatment of certain historical figures, for once the movie was kinder to the womenfolk than many of its contemporaries although they could have done much more.

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