I am a huge fan of Bollywood. Like, huge. It all started when I ran out of western musicals and had to turn my eye to different parts of the world. The very first Bollywood musical I ever watched was Bajirao Mastani. It takes place in the early 18th century in the Maratha Empire. The movie follows the life of real historical figure, Bajirao. I am warning you right now, this blog post is going to contain heavy spoilers.
Bajirao was named Peshwa (think Prime Minister) at the age of twenty, much to the joy of his wife, Kashibai. Over time, Bajirao gains a fearsome reputation as he has never lost a battle. Not only that, but most leaders of rival armies refuse to meet with for fear he will outwit them. Ten years after being named Peshwa, Bajirao is traveling home after another successful campaign. He is intercepted by a rogue soldier who bursts into his tent and attacks his gaurds. In the resulting fight it is revealed that the soldier is actually Princess Mastani. She has come to demand aid for her kingdom, Bundelkhand, which is under attack. A skilled fighter, rider, and strategist, Mastani decided to come ask for Bajirao’s help herself, rather than sending any soldiers who could be used to defend Bundelkhand. Bajirao refuses. Mastani tells him that either he helps or he kills her because she did not intend to return to her people a failure. Finally he is convinced and the two fight together, saving her people and kingdom.
On the battlefield and ensuing days of celebration, Mastani and Bajirao begin to fall in love. But Bajirao knows the two can never be together, and decides to return home to his people, his wife, and his family. Mastani is not deterred, however. She knows that she and Bajirao belong to one another, and so follows Bajirao to the Maratha Empire. There she convinces Bajirao to take her as his second wife. But there is one glaring problem. Mastani is a muslim in a Hindu land. She is constantly under threat due to her religion. Bajirao send assisins after her and her son, lock her away in her own home, and even demand that Bajirao either give up his title of Peshwa or Mastani. The two are never deterred however, and stay strong together. The story sadly ends with Bajirao dying of fever, and Mastani dying of heartbreak not long after.
Now, one question that I had once I finished Bajirao Mastani is whether it is a feminist movie or not. Anyone who knows me can tell you that feminism in our media is extremely important to me. I don’t stand for movies and tv shows that feel the need to bash on women or exclude them all together. After some consideration and time, I decided that yes, Bajirao Mastani is indeed a feminist movie. This might seem odd since the movie is all about a man with two wives and the conflict that arises between said wives. But that’s the truly magical thing about Bajirao Mastani.
Toril Moi discusses feminism and feminist books in her essay “Feminist, Female, and Feminine”. In it she says that “the very fact of being female does not necessarily guarantee a feminist approach” (120). So, we know that simply having women in your movie doesn’t make it a feminist movie. There has to be an intent. I would say that Bajirao Mastani has that intent. Let’s look as Mastani herself, as she is meant to be the focus of this blog post.
Mastani is a dancer.
She a singer.
She a warrior.
She is a woman deeply in love.
At no point in the movie is she pushed to the background or portrayed as some idiot girl chasing an older man. Mastani exudes confidence. She knows exactly who she is and what she wants. She is not afraid to chase Bajirao, because why would she be? She wants him and so will have him. Mastani faces extreme adversity because of this decision, but the movie shows her as fearless, not foolish.
A prime example of this is when she and Bajirao meet for the very first time.
There aren’t subtitles (sorry) but you can still tell what’s happening. Mastani just burst through Bajirao’s tent, attacked his men, beat his men and even drew a sword against the great Peshwa himself. That takes guts and determination. The two face off in a battle of wits, and eventually Bajirao gives in. He agrees to help Mastani’s people. Mastani is not afraid to take. In this way she stands apart from most female characters. Usually they beg and plead, using sex appeal to get what they want. But Mastani goes in and demands it. She is not afraid to show her skill and confidence. She is not afraid to challenge the men in her life, even ones as famous and fearsome as Bajirao.
But what about Kashibai? She is Bajirao’s first wife and his best friend of many years. She and Mastani surely get into at least one cat fight, right? They blame each other for the grief they deal with, right? They are constantly at each other’s throats, right? Well… no. Certainly Kashibai is resentful of Mastani. But for the most part they are very respectful to each other. They even end up singing together about how painful it is to love a man who can never fully belong to either of them. They never become best friends. But neither wants any sort of misfortune to come to the other.
I agree with Moi when she says that “it is just not possible to say that woman-centered writings have any necessary relationship to feminism” (120). In my opinion, Mastani fits the brief of a feminist female character. Yes, a good portion of the movie is dedicated to her chasing a man, but so what? She loves him. And in all other aspects she is a total badass.
Another lense to view Mastani through is the concept of otherness from postcolonialism. This one is interesting, because India eventually becomes a colony itself, but this move takes place pretty much right before that. However, we still see otherness in Bajirao Mastani.
The concept of the “Other” can be found in Peter Barry’s book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. On page 186 he discusses how the colonizing group will often treat the culture of the colonized group as lesser than. The native language and religion are forced out in favor the invading language and religion. Any attachment to the old ways is frowned on, and often attacked with extreme prejudice.
This sort of behavior is easy to find in the way Mastani is treated. She is a Muslim woman in a Hindu land. The scene that best shows this is when Mastani is forced to fight off assassins who have come for her and her son, who is also Muslim.
The scene cuts between Mastami fighting and Bajirao at a Hindu ceremony. This perfectly shows that she is separate from him and his culture. Because she is Muslim she would not attend ceremonies with him. This means that she and her son are alone, vulnerable to attack. She nearly loses her life in the end, overwhelmed by the sheer number of attackers. The only thing that saves her is Kashibai telling Bajirao about the assassins, sending him to save his second wife. Mastami is almost killed for her religious beliefs. If that isn’t an example of other I don’t know what is.
In conclusion, Mastani is a total badass, feminist icon. Even though she is from a time period far in the past, Mastani is still a character that young girls could and should look up to. In a world here women are punished for going after what they want and encouraged to back down when things get hard, Mastani is a breath of fresh air. She looks at all those nay sayers, laughs in their faces and then skips off to fight along side her awesome husband. She is a force to be reckoned with and would never accept being second fiddle. Any man who faces her has an up hill battle as she is more than willing to use her skills with a sword, her wit, and her beauty to take what is hers.