If Sanjay Leela Bhansali, frustrated by the failure of his realistic venture Khamoshi, can make a joke out of Salman Khan’s flatulence in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, portray the mother of Paro in Devdas as a nautch girl while also making the female lead character dance with Chandramukhi, and make a caricature of Helen Keller in Black, why can’t he make a Rajputani Padmini alias Padmavati dance? He makes every woman dance; he did it with both the women in Bajirao Mastani, too, didn’t he? It is tragic that some frivolous characters from the Hindi film industry — never mind the profundity or lack thereof in their art — are allowed to set the political, social, religious and cultural discourse in this country. The best treatment the audience can give to the superficial brigade is junk their work at the box office. The problem is that some of these ventures turn out to be huge commercial hits, thus spreading the myths they propagate in the name of history. Nevertheless, the acts of violence unleashed by a self-styled Karni Sena and their ilk cannot be condoned.

Film critic Bhavana Somaya said on national television in the night of 16 November that the controversy surrounding Bhansali’s film Padmavati would not have arisen if, in 2008, the issue with Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar had been dealt with firmly by the then government. For the few minutes that she could speak in the programme known for its nuisance value of noise, she made a point that would mislead rather than inform the people. Jodha Akbar was never banned. The film featuring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai succeeded in spreading the idea among the gullible masses, who still swear by K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, that Mohammed Jalaluddin Akbar indeed had a Rajput wife called Jodha — notwithstanding the protests by Rajputs that year, where they insisted their records showed no such marriage between the Mugal Emperor and a member of their clan. Jahangir’s mother Mariam uz Zamani was once Harkhan Champavati. A daughter of Raja Bihari Mal, she was not a Rajput. There is no historical evidence she was Jodhabai, the mother of Salim aka Jahangir — as Asif portrayed her through the actress Durga Khote. But who cares as long as the people are getting ‘entertained’?

Unfortunately for the Rajputs protesting the Bhansali film, which has allegedly concocted the story of an affair between Padmavati and invader Alauddin Khalji, history does not stand up wholly in their support either. When Malik Muhammad Jayasi penned the epic in 1540, Khalji’s reign was already two centuries behind him. Based somewhat on shruti — the ancient Indian way of acquiring knowledge of history from listening to tales from the previous generations — and a lot on imagination, he plotted the siege of Chittor. While the siege was real, there is no evidence of a Rajput queen in it — let alone her being the reason for the clash between the invader and a local ruler. The extent to which Jayasi imagined can be fathomed from the description of Ratan Sen’s travel to the kingdom of Gandharv Sen, Padmini’s father. Ratan Sen, Jayasi says, traversed seven seas to reach Padmini! Within the territories held by the Rajputs, there isn’t one sea, let alone seven. Kishori Saran Lal says, for example, that Sen (or Ratnasimha) had become a king in 1301. Within two years, the historian says, Khalji defeated and dethroned him. However, Jayasi’s Sen spent 12 years in quest of Padmini, and then eight years in the battle with Khalji!

The Gora Badal Padmini Chaupai by Hemratan came out in 1589, and several Persian and Urdu versions followed for the next 200 years or so. The latter-day versions were all found to be adaptations of Jayasi’s romantic epic. James Tod tried his own account, based on sessions of interaction with Rajput chieftains and their books, in 1829-32. The book travelled to Bengal and got translated into Bengali, thereafter giving birth to a barrage of tales of love in the then capital of British India, Calcutta, and the villages under the presidency.

That is not to say that the assertion that Padmini is wholly imaginative is conclusive. Hemratan was the first to point out that his version, and not Jayasi’s, was truthful. Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan had little or no resemblance with Jayasi’s narrative, as his version relied on the ballads of Rajputs. Had no queen by the name of Padmini alias Padmavati existed, had she not been a reason for the Sen-Khalji battle, why would Hemratan, in the very century when Jayasi lived, challenge the existing work in literature? While Jayasi attributes the flight of a talking parrot to the union of Padmavati with Ratan Sen, Hemratan says Ratan Sen found Padmavati while looking for a new wife who could cook better than his older wife Prabhavati.

Tod had perhaps not heard of Jayasi in the first place. He does not speak of Ratan Sen at all. It’s the siege where the trio meet. All the three authors and others say it was about a war between the Delhi Sultan and Rajputs, with the pride of the latter hurt due to the lust of the Muslim king for their queen. The challenge thrown at Jayasi in the 16th century and the similarity in the conclusions of all the stories make it unlikely that Padmini was wholly unreal.

To resolve the issue, let’s go back to the era of Khalji. Much before Jayasi, the genius Amir Khusrau, who had accompanied the Delhi Sultan during the assault on Chittor, had written of no Rajput queen in 1303 in his Khaza’in ul-Futuh. But it mentions a certain Bilkis. Ram Vallabh Somani cites some historians in his History of Mewar from Earliest Times to 1751 AD to question whether that was Padmini. Queen Bilkis of Sheba, though carrying a Muslim-sounding name, worshipped the Sun rather than Allah in the story of King Solomon in the Qur’an. Khusrau’s story also has a singing bird hudhud (hoopoe) as an important player in the Solomon-Bilkis affair. Was that a veiled reference to Padmini? In 1540, did Jayasi not change the hudhud into a talking parrot?

However, 12 years later in his Diwal Rani Khizr Khan appears a princess from Gujarat. Given the fused culture of neighbouring provinces in India, could that princess have been a Rajput?

If Tod wasn’t trustworthy, what about Sister Nivedita, Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India?

This is clearly not a freedom-of-expression-versus-censorship debate. Even in countries where the said freedom is absolute, there are provisions against libel in law. Showing immense tolerance, Hindus might allow different traditions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata — since academic history does not authenticate the stories in those epics. But can the story of a character who lived in flesh and blood be altered at will? Say, can a real person who is honest be shown as corrupt? If not, can a historical figure known as an honest wife, who is believed to have immolated herself in fear of getting molested or raped by an invader, be depicted as adulterous?

Since Bhansali Productions has been iffy in its clarification, saying that there is no dream sequence involving Deepika Padukone (playing Padmavati) and Ranvir Singh (essaying Khalji), does that mean that the Rajput queen and the invading Sultan were otherwise attracted to each other? The prevaricating answer suggests that the filmmaker wishes that the controversy lives until the release of his film for gains at the box office.

Finally, before India turns the freedom of expression absolute — which it must some day in the future — more educated people must be seated in positions of authority. They must know that traditions can have versions, history cannot. If the tinsel town thrives on fashionable idiots, the Central Board of Film Certification has not been quite discerning either.