Photo Courtesy of Bhansali Productions and NowToronto
Film / Bollywood

Padmavaat: Remembering the Ancient Ritual of Sati

In 2018, the $29 million Hindi Bollywood epic, Padmaavat, hit number one on the Bollywood charts in India. Starring Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, Padmavaat was widely praised, but it also received a great deal of criticism. The film was lauded for the visuals, style of acting, and cinematography. Despite its controversy, the box office collected $82 million in total on its opening weekend—it was a total hit and remains one of the most expensive Indian films ever made. Irrespective of its success and popularity, though, the film was heavily criticized for glorifying the now-banned practice of Sati. Similarly, some argued that the film’s misrepresentation of Hindus and Muslims escalated the tension, violence, and bias between Hindus and Muslims. As a result, the release of Padmavaat was delayed for several months due to violent protests over not only religious differences and misrepresentations in the film, but also over the representation of the practice of Sati.

Sati, which literally means “good woman” or “good wife,” is a tradition where, upon the death of her husband, a widow is expected to throw herself upon the funeral fire in order to achieve salvation and join her husband in the next life. It was once viewed as an act of honor and a demonstration of wifely devotion and loyalty, but by 1858, British colonizers had turned the practice of Sati into an issue surrounding women’s rights. Even though the self-sacrificial practice has been banned in India since 1829, according to the Indian Constitution, this ritual was not truly banned until the Sati Prevention Act of 1987. Oddly enough, as the British attempted to redefine Indian culture and impress their laws and traditions into Indian society, the popularity of women practicing Sati began to increase. Why? For some women, practicing Sati enabled their freedom and reinforced their independence—widows could not be enslaved, ostracized, or have to suffer the economic burden of becoming a widow. Sati is a Hindu ritual, and though widows were not forced to commit Sati, it was strongly encouraged and was a choice that some may have even considered heroic. This ‘heroic’ perception of Sati in the film is precisely what the public found fault in, as it seemed to glorify the practice.

Padmavaat, which is based on a 14th-century poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, tells the story of a Muslim ruler, Alauddin Khalji, who captures the neighboring Hindu kingdom in an attempt to enslave the Hindu queen, Padmavati, of the Rajput elite caste. Both in the poem and in the film, Alauddin Khajli kills Padmavati’s husband in a duel. According to the tradition, when a woman’s husband dies in war, she is urged to commit Sati as a demonstration of devotion and also as a rejection of enslavement by her husband’s adversaries. The film takes on this narrative, which seems to glorify the practice of Sati. During the colonial era, when husbands died either in battle or in an accident, widows were taken as prisoners or tokens of reward by the victors, which can be seen in ancient Hindu scriptures and texts, such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana

 Instead of allowing grief to consume her, the Hindu queen, Padmavati, chooses to act with dignity. Along with 10,000 other women of all ages rallying behind her, Padmavati commits what she sees to be a righteous decision and the only act she could do to prevent either a total massacre or enslavement of her people. This “ritual suicide,” as it is oftentimes described, enabled the Hindu queen and 10,000 other women in the film to escape massacre or enslavement by committing this “ritual” suicide. Some feminists view the Hindu queen’s decision to commit Sati to be heroic and even imbue her with divine qualities. It also guaranteed that a man and a woman, husband and wife, could still coexist even after death. Others, however, challenge this theory and instead contend that she is cowardly for falling into the systemic suppression and oppression of women. So, what is she? Given this context, can Padmavaati’s decision to commit Sati be explained and recognized? 

In this instance, the film does not glorify Sati. Instead, Padmavaat sheds a new light on what Sati could mean to widowed women: an escape from confinement and enslavement, an escape from the prisons of society, an escape from the pressures of life. As the Rajput queen walks into the fire with thousands of other widowed women of all ages, there is a sense of female empowerment, of womanhood, that courses through them. Ironically, in the last few moments of their lives, the widowed women taste liberation, they taste freedom, they taste power. In death, widowed women consider themselves to be free. In life, the widows perceive themselves to be confined to the mere shadows of a man, enslaved by the four walls of a kitchen. 

While the film could be ‘glorifying’ this practice of Sati, it at the same time insinuates that ‘ritual suicide,’ or Sati, is no more significant than death. While the West may view this practice of Sati as inhumane, in India, it was—and still is in some rural areas—the ultimate show of freedom and wifely devotion. Many viewers continue to praise Padmavati for her decision and imbue her with divine qualities. Sati, or “ritual suicide,” cannot be endorsed nor condoned in the modern era. However, there was a time when Sati was a demonstration of a woman’s strength, agency, and faith, and the cultural memory of such a practice lives on as a reminder of India’s struggle for womens’ liberation from the ever present constraints of patriarchy.