Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Bajirao-Mastani” – A Feminist Analysis of Mastani’s Religion and Caste: Deepra Dandekar


“Bajirao-Mastani”, a film made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, released in 2015, has been controversial for all the wrong and Brahminical reasons – the Peshwa’s descendants raising their hackles about the veracity of events surrounding Kashibai’s life and conservative concerns over vulgarity and the attack on the the dignity of a pure Brahmin family. My concerns in this essay are however different. This essay is a feminist analysis about Mastani and about how persons of mixed Muslim parentage are culturally constructed.

What Bhansali perhaps never questioned for a minute, while making “Bajirao-Mastani” was the conundrum of Mastani’s caste and religion, when he conveniently made her Muslim, while erasing her Rajput identity in Hindu India. But he did more. While making her Muslim, Bhansali moreover produces a paradigm of “good” Muslim-ness that can be deemed morally “tolerable” by Brahmin Hindus, when it protects Hindu women from “bad” Muslims, who can then be legitimately killed. Bhansali produces this as a historical saga that integrates “good” Muslims as secondary adjuncts (second wives) in status to primary, formal, upper caste and Hindu family relationships in exchange for protection.  

I wonder how a film (if this were to be only a film about “love” and not history at all) would ever have treated the issue of a second wife, if Mastani were as equally Brahmin as Kashibai was, or if she were to belong to a currently important political group in Maharashtra today, like the Marathas. But no. Bhansali is obviously safe in a win-win situation with Bajirao-Mastani, because he can get away by hiding behind Mastani’s mixed parentage and easily make her Muslim instead. In that way he wins solidarity among Hindutva brigands, who take pleasure in at least visually minoritizing “Muslims” either as enemies or as dispensable, foolishly romantic and second-class concubines within the nationalistic discourse of Hindutva; he also wins support among all those who produce the “become-‘good’-Muslims-or-else-model”. Bhansali floats this as a Mughal-Akbar-esque success formula for federally ambitious kingship wherein reversing love-jihaad may become a viable Hindu strategy.

In all this, Mastani’s “religion”, (“religion” being a census-driven enlistment category belonging to administrative structures of Indian colonialism), is unknown, since she, Mastani, was in reality never actually enlisted by colonial census creators as either “Hindu” or “Muslim”, being pre-colonial. So Bhansali’s categorization of her as “Muslim” is a figment of his own imagination, conjured up to titillate or perhaps produce an equally bigoted audience (no, disclaimers are not enough for constructing a visuality that is diabolical).

But let us for a brief moment imagine a confrontation between Mastani and an officer from the British census registration. We know how caste has in the meanwhile, always historically co-existed with religion (including Islam, Buddhism, Christianity) in India, even if religious emancipation has theoretically attempted to end caste oppression (these religious frameworks counter-productively have come to be defined by those subjected to caste oppression itself). Mastani would typically be enlisted as following her father’s “caste” according to the enlistment tradition followed by the British-Indian colonial census, even though her religious or spiritual affiliations could definitely remain more ambivalent and fluid due to her family or cultural background, just as ours do today. Just because we celebrate Christmas today and put up a tree in our drawing room in December hardly makes us Christian according to the census. Neither does our deep understanding and appreciation of Abida Parween’s Sufi music in India make us Muslim, even if her life and music are rooted in Pakistan. So, let’s not impose all this on the pre-colonial Mastani either.

Instead let us accept that she belonged to a religion-mixed, inter-caste parentage, like many of us Indians do today in modern India – a fact that Bhansali needed to understand better, before he constructed Mastani as Muslim. His depiction of Mastani as Muslim is indeed therefore driven by the double agenda of not only defining Bajirao as “purely” Hindu-Brahmin (which Bajirao himself may not have emotionally ascribed to) but more diabolically, of producing Hindu Brahminism as the precursor of modern Hindutva violence rebranded as “secularism”.

It is now and here that Bhansali begins to not-so-subtly chime in with the Sanghis. And it is here that we need to decode the “art” of the “love-story”. There were in reality plenty of powerful Brahmin men in pre-colonial antiquity, who enjoyed the company of two (or more) Brahmin wives living and raising families separately, with neither wives having to suffer the fate of Mastani (V.D. Savarkar’s own ancestry during the Peshwa period being no exception). Bhansali therefore openly produces the masquerade of a love-story to raise the issue of Mastani’s Muslim-ness.

So let us do away with Bhansali’s masquerade and return to the pre-colonial Mastani and the way in which Bhansali uses her feminized body to inscribe symbols of Muslim subalternity. Bhansali uses her depiction as “Sufi Muslim” to demonstrate her “difference” from the image of both intolerant Muslims (the terrorist variety) as well as Hindu Brahmins, while conveniently erasing how Kashibai could have technically had hundreds of “differences” from being an ideal Peshwa wife and mother as well. But since she wasn’t of mixed caste and religious (Muslim) parentage, her “differences” are unimportant for Bhansali and the production of the modern Hindu nation; he depicts Kashibai quite playfully. Even as Bhansali depicts Mastani’s Rajput background (some sort of anachronistic warrior image) and even the style of the Rajput wedding to the dagger, he curiously foregrounds Mastani’s Muslim identity primarily instead, as if the possibility that her Rajput-ness could ever take on primacy in the film, would be an affront to modern Rajputs today (whose “pure” women are not warriors, but are defined as helpless and passive Satis in the film). Bhansali pretends as if caste and religion could just not be simultaneously reconciled as it has always been, among millions of pre-colonial Indians.

How on earth did Bhansali produce Mastani as Muslim, when she was actually a product of mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage and an inter-caste union? What actually constituted Mastani’s Muslim subaltern body and its feminization? This feminization that produced the pathetic and lost valour of the “mixed-caste/ religion” and “impure” person, so constructed as a symbol for Hindu consumption, which could have been equally Rajput and probably was, but was denied its status because it had Muslim heritage? Was it because Mastani’s son Shamsher Badadur was already considered Muslim by a Brahminical political understanding producing all those whose caste identity could not be determined due to their Muslim inheritance, necessarily reducing their religious identity to their “contaminating” genetic aspect?

So did Bhansali’s film about Bajirao-Mastani just make a comment about caste purity and religion by feminizing Mastani’s body and erasing her Rajput heritage, despite her performances of “empty” valour, which would go unrecognized both according to Rajput and Chitpavan paradigms? Was Bhansali conscious about commenting on how Mastani’s Muslim “contamination” erased her Rajput antecedents, producing her as casteless, reducing her and others like her and their children, to a minority religion – a process that brings them further social discrimination? Did he just show us that all those who are of inter-caste or “non-homogeneous” backgrounds are reduced to the “impurity”- creating parts of their “inter-mixtures”? Is this a warning? Should those “hybrids” therefore inscribe this subalternity upon their then feminized bodies and create themselves as open to discrimination by those of “pure” and homogeneous, majorities, who might integrate them within higher circles only after dire warnings of endless pain and discrimination? What is this atavistic “love”? Is it Bhansali’s romanticization of torture that all those of mixed backgrounds should receive at the hands of the “pure”, while dying in the eternal service of their masters? And finally, was Bhansali conscious that his film reflects upper-caste “ritual purity”, is anti-Muslim/ anti-minorities, and promotes Hindutva? That he depicts “love” as involving social discrimination, torture, violence, domestic abuse and communalism, as he does in the case of Mastani?

And finally, what about the audience? Should they watch this as “art”? As the great heritage of India’s history of “love-torturing” its minorities? How should members of an audience with half a Muslim or Christian parentage and with Hindu fathers from an inter-caste background watch this film? As a warning to integrate into Hindutva India as “good” minorities? Or should they constantly be told to take their discrimination meted out by the pure-castes not so seriously”? What is Mr. Bhansali producing? A “fun film” with “great sets”? Hindu masculinity? Hindu femininity? Muslim subalternity?

Finally, we can’t change history. We cannot change that discrimination has perhaps (or not) existed at different levels against those who were of mixed parentage. But since Mastani’s son Shamsher Bahadur also enjoyed political power as well, what Mr. Bhansali could have also done with his artistic license in the film, was to have created an interesting boundary space between polarizing religions and caste-identities for Mastani; this would have served for an understanding to many persons like her, who since historical times have existed in these inter-religious and inter-caste mixture lands. Bhansali had the artistic choice of not creating polarizations between Hindu and Muslim or dividing “bad” Muslims from “good”.

Mastani was not just an exciting and perhaps beautiful person; the theme of Mastani is an exciting topic that has a scope that is larger than Bajirao in the history of Maharashtra because of the “borderland” her personage represents between religion and caste. This border is an age-old and an interesting subject in Marathi culture that right-wing Hindutva discourses have tried to squash and that Bhansali also squashes by making Mastani Muslim. He would have done so equally by making her Hindu. The interesting point about Mastani is that she was both and neither Hindu and Muslim and since there was no colonial census, we will never know what her religion was, though she was definitely Rajput. Through the “category” of Mastani, Bhansali could have created space for many in modern India, who exist in this very empowered and interesting negotiating space that is non-hegemonic, non-boring, non-upper caste, mixed and heterogeneous, who provide vision on the right-wing today. Bhansali could have played with this “mixture” category artistically, sympathetically and creatively.

Don’t ban the film for Brahminical reasons because the film is not about the Peshwai, Bajirao and his descendants at all. The film is about Mastani. Watch this film for its learning experience – it’s extremely painful for each one of us, who has experienced the “mixed-ness” of Mastani inscribed in their own lives and has needed the dignity to be understood and to stay mixed without experiencing shame or being reduced to what is socially discriminated by the Hindu majority as that part of our “contaminating” mixture. Bajirao-Mastani is a violent film about Mastani because it constructs her “contamination” and “impurity” and the endless indignity she faced as a result of it, atavistically as her identity, loyalty and “love”. It’s a film about Mastani’s loss of dignity, which each of us, otherwise baying for the end of violators outside on the road, should understand and counter first, because true violence starts inside, at home.

Deepra Dandekar is at Heidelberg University, Germany

5 thoughts on “Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Bajirao-Mastani” – A Feminist Analysis of Mastani’s Religion and Caste: Deepra Dandekar”

  1. There is so much wrong with this article at so many levels and for so many reasons that I cannot even begin to put it all in a comment here. Suffice it to say that it is doubtful that this essay would even do well enough to earn a “D” at any reputable college or university (including any all-female college) anywhere in the world. I’d be happy to take it apart, one point at a time, if Kafila agreed to print my response as another guest article. However, I am not famous, as Ms. Menon is and, in any case, I would like to remain known only as Anpadh.


  2. ‘Historical’ films in India mostly are anything except ‘Historical. These films – be it ‘jodha akbar’or ‘mughal-e-azam’ – serve only as visual arts of pompous settings and high-profile star cast. The problem with Indian film industry is that the producers as well as the directors are profit-minded and not people-minded. They are afraid of true depiction of socio-political conditions. They make films for praise of queens and kings and theur love affairs. We do not find the mesogynic nature of Akbar who orders burial of Anarkali and Chanakya’s brahminical indoctrination of Chandragupta. The fact that films pervert history and historical content (strikingly evident in the film ‘Gandhi’) is a matter of grave concern. Censor board pays scant attention on film contents. But it quickly rejects films containing reality and well-reasearched subjects ( ‘objectionable’ according to its parlance) and as such noteworthy films are becoming rarer and rarer.


  3. Very well written- during the school days, we were told that eventhough Mastani was Muslim, she was loyal to Bajirao and her son (more loyal than her mother) scarified his life for Maratha by refusing `offer’ from Abdali. So Smasher Bahadur was a `good Muslim’. this kind of schooling was since 1950s, but the results are seen today.


  4. Thank you, Deepra Dandekar.
    Bhansali’s sources (however diluted), and Mastani’s subjection narratives might have been good to include when reviewing a film of such ambition. Hopefully, more people would access archives, and tune into prosaic history rather than to the deliberate mystifications/obfuscations portrayed by Bhansali. That fancy could become more real than reality itself, is the line B’wood has consistently taken (always more work to discern reality, right (?), rather than the ‘short cut’ shayeris it espouses).


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