Tag Archives: padmaavat

Two Sitas, Two Deepikas, and One Cross-Dresser

“Is it true there was cross-dressing in early Indian cinema?”

The question came from a young Texan undergrad, and there was some muffled laughter in the audience. I paused for the room to be quiet.

Raja Harishchandra (1913), India’s first feature film.

It was up to me to provide some cultural context. I had received some photocopied pages for the reading on Indian cinema, and I glanced at them for specific details. 

“Yes, it’s true that Dadasaheb Phalke’s earliest films had men dressed as women. In 1913, Annasaheb Saluke played the role of the queen, Rani Chandramani, in India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra.”

Annasaheb Salunke played female roles in Dadasahab Phalke’s films

I elaborated on how Dadasaheb Phalke had been unable to find female actors in the traditional Pune society of 1913. How acting was a morally suspect profession, and chaste Indian women could have nothing to do with it. How Annasaheb Saluke, a Mumbai restaurant worker, played the role not only of Ram but also Sita in Lanka Dahan in 1917.

It was a small footnote of cinema history, but it made me think. Women had been entirely missing in the first Indian film, and when they were allowed in, there were specific roles that they were afforded: of mothers, maidens and mistresses, each with strictly enforced codes.

Perhaps early Indian cinema did continue to exert an influence on the films being made today. Take devotionals and the two Deepikas, for instance.


The story of how the father of Indian films, Dadasaheb Phalke, was inspired to make devotional films about Hindu religious mythologies such as Raja Harishchandra (1913), Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), and Lanka Dahan (1917) is an interesting one.

In April 1911, Phalke visited the America India Picture Palace, in Girgaon, Mumbai with his family to see a film. As it was Easter, the theatre screened a film about Jesus, The Life of Christ (1906) by the French director Alice Guy-Blaché. While watching Jesus on the screen, Phalke envisioned Hindu deities Rama and Krishna instead and decided to start in the business of “moving pictures.” (Watwe)

The devotional genre was continued by films such as Sant Tukaram (1936) and Jai Santoshi Ma (1975), Shirdi Ke Sai Baba (1977) and then, on a smaller TV screen, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1986) where actress Deepika Chikhalia woodenly played a pious Sita. Devotional films have been immensely popular and more importantly, revered. “People would keep their shoes outside the cinemas before going in to watch Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai (1969) recalled veteran trade analyst Vinod Mirani. 

Film historian Sumita Chakravarty (1993) has suggested that women in Indian cinema have been cast as good wives, good mothers, or conversely, as bad women: vamps and courtesans. In Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1986), actress Deepika Chikhalia played the role of Mother Sita, and was subsequently criticized for any roles thereafter where she had to wear revealing clothes or where she was not an ideal wife or mother.


Source: IMDb

Seven decades separated Annasaheb Saluk playing Mother Sita to Deepika Chikhalia playing Mother Sita, but how much had really changed?

Fast forward to contemporary events. For Deepika Padukone, the role of Padmavati came under a similar category of an ideal woman. (In present day India, Hindu Rajput women continue to worship sati mata, the goddess to whom the sacrifice of one’s body is made by widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.)

Taking the role of a mother created an expectation that high standards of morality would be displayed by the Deepikas.

To fully appreciate the Padma(a)vat(i) controversy in 2017, one needs to understand history certainly, but more specifically, South Asian cinema history. The history of devotionals, of audiences throwing coins at the stage as good vanquished evil on-screen. We are to understand the consternation caused at the unseemly sight of Mother Padmavati dancing the ghoomar with her midriff exposed. It was the government, and its censor board, that was tasked with the job of gently covering Mother’s midriff. Bhansali’s film was delayed, and then released, after a name change to Padmaavat, and the Censor Board required edits where Deepika’s offending midriff was covered.


But for the government to cover a woman’s midriff digitally! That will be in the film history books. Students in the year 2099 might ask — is it true?

And someone, I hope, will provide some cultural context.


Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D., is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

Photo credits (unless otherwise noted): Wikipedia

120 Padmavatis in the SF Bay Area

We had purchased our tickets as a group with the express purpose of making it a dress-up event. I chose to be the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khaljī, who is the villain of the piece in the movie Padmaavat. A sea of red, pink, yellow, green ranis dazzled the entrance of the theatre. They spun in waves of ghoomar dance around a yellow turbaned dhol player. As I looked around at the resplendent ranis I felt I had let the Sultan down. My black tunic with silver salwar-pants and silver stole was not a match to the hot milky sweet chai tea latte sipping queens who jangled their bangles and flashed their jewels. The ladies of the Bay Area had Cinderellaed their way to having a ball. But what of Alauddin Khaljī?

The film opened and in strode Alauddin. His hair fanned out over his striking muscular body. He led an ostrich into the Sultan’s court. The Princess had requested an ostrich feather from her father the Sultan. What she got was a whole live and kicking ostrich. In return Alauddin boldly asked the Sultan for his daughter’s hand in marriage. A bird for a bird.

A few scenes later Alauddin had killed the Sultan and throttled his wife’s brother, the Sultan’s son. Nothing seemed to stand in his way now as he strode across the land as the new King, conquering all. Rippling beneath the wolf hide flung across his shoulders was a heart with endless desire. A maniac light emanated from his blue grey eyes that were underlined by two black lines. A jagged scar shone beneath. I sheepishly looked at my tame clothes. So woefully inadequate was my Sultan attire that I quietly drew in a unibrow and stained my lips red thereby transforming myself from the villain of the piece to its tragic heroine. No one, I thought, could impersonate the Alauddin Khaljī that Ranveer Singh had created.

Ranveer Singh, the actor who had made his mark as Bollywood’s romantic hero, had risen from the grave of Khaljī with all the drama of a power-hungry super-villain who grabbed the audience’s fascination with the gnashing of his teeth. Riveted, the audience cowered under the unwavering will of the Sultan who tore at their mindshare as easily as he devoured raw meat in large chunky mouthfuls. The fate of the audience was a bit like the soft Rajput Raja, the husband of the beautiful queen. All were mincemeat in his hands. Led in horrified fascination the raja, the queen, the court and the audience were all terrorized, their attention seized by this monstrous performance.

By the time he broke down the walls of the fort with persuasion, guile, perseverance and treachery in order to capture the queen and the land the audience rushed behind the women towards the funeral pyre ready to jump in alongside them in order to escape the beast bounding down the hallways of the palace.

Ranveer Singh’s Khilji remains unmatched. He is Emperor Palpatine A.K.A. Darth Sidious of Star Wars, Joker of Batman and Scar of Lion King all rolled into one.

A student of Indiana University Bloomington, Ranveer had neither good looks nor the physique of a typical Bollywood hero. A copywriter in an advertising firm Ranveer’s B to B (Bloomington to Bollywood) journey displays a strength of will that he shares with the character he plays. Khaljī and Ranveer have a lot in common.

“My natural predisposition is to be an extremist. Risks excite me. I know that when I choose to endorse a condom brand in a country like India, it could go either way. When I choose to be a part of the first ever comedy roast in India, I know it could go either way,” said Ranveer to GQ. Choosing to play the villain of all villains in a nation where the line between real and screen life is blurred and onscreen personas are worshiped as gods or vilified for life, Ranveer says he took a risk yet again.

As we single filed out of theatre all 120 Padmavatis stretched out their stress curled bodies and reached out for sweet sesame-seed-crusted Rajasthani gajak being handed out by Sarini Kakkar and Nina Daruwalla. Someone broke into the ghoomar song from the movie and the ranis on cue started swaying to the number. The spell was broken. Alauddin was left clawing in the ashes.

Bay Area Padmavatis raised about $2400 for the India Literacy Project, a volunteer based non-profit organization dedicated to the cause of literacy in India. By empowering every individual they strive to be a catalyst for 100% literacy in India. The fundraiser for India Literacy Project that took about 120 women to watch Padmavat together was bravely organized by Dr. Sheetal Gokhale and Kavita Agrawal.