‘Was Shivaji an avatar of Narasimha?’ A political mèlee in Maharashtra over a film

In this free-for-all, the common man is now highly confused not just about history and its distortion but also about who belongs to whom

A still from 'Har Har Mahadev'
A still from 'Har Har Mahadev'

Sujata Anandan

The controversy came simply out of nowhere.

The Marathi film, Har Har Mahadev, released innocuously enough two weeks ago in theatres and multiplexes across Maharashtra. Then began the battle for ownership of the Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

Now, the elements of the controversy have blurred political lines and it is no longer certain who is using Chhatrapati Shivaji for political gains and who is genuinely defending the Maratha warrior king.

The film is about the battle of Pavan Khind wherein a band of Mavalis, Shivaji's foot soldiers, fought a fierce battle against those of the Bijapur Sultanate to ensure a safe passage to Shivaji Maharaj to Vishalgad.

Shivaji was at the Panhala fort in Kolhapur and, sandwiched between the Adilshahi and Moghul forces, knew his army could overcome neither. So, they decided to block a narrow mountain pass called Ghod Khind (horse pass) and 300 of Shivaji’s soldiers died defending it.

They were eventually defeated by the Adilshahi army but not before Shivaji had escaped in disguise to Vishalgad and sounded five canons to announce his safe arrival.

The pass was later renamed Pavan Khind (holy pass) to

commemorate the sacrifice of the Mavalis, including their general Baji Prabhu Deshpande, who had fought on despite being badly wounded and laid down his arms and life only after hearing the cannons.

The episode in history eventually ended with Adilshahi General Afzal Khan’s attempt to assassinate Shivaji and Shivaji’s retaliatory tearing apart of Khan’s entrails with his tiger claws.

Shivaji, however, later respectfully buried Khan in Pratapgarh where, last week, on the orders of the Bombay High Court the police razed and removed encroachments all around his tomb.

As if on cue, soon after, Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje, one of the direct descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji from the Kolhapur seat (the other seat is Satara), held a press conference to complain bitterly about the distortion of history by the makers of Har Har Mahadev.

Shivaji is referred to in the film as Marathi rather than Maratha, he is shown as asking a British official to speak Marathi which he never did. His descendants now believe that that depiction limits him to being just a Maharashtra king whereas his kingdom extended as far as Peshawar, now in Pakistan, down to large swathes of southern, western and eastern India and, of course, almost whole of central India.

However, the controversy has now also acquired a casteist twist with the depiction of Baji Prabhu Deshpande drawing a sword on Shivaji at the site where Afzal Khan was killed when, in fact, he had laid down his life at the Ghod Khind.

Shivaji attacked Khan even as the latter drew a sword on him at what was supposed to be a meet for a cease fire. The film, however, depicts Shivaji drawing Khan onto his lap and tearing his stomach with the tiger claws—straight out of the Vishnu avatar of Narasimha.

Who’s where? Nobody knows

Now, Chhatrapati Sambhaji was a BJP Rajya Sabha MP for one term. The film is endorsed and supported by MNS president Raj Thackeray. Jitendra Awhad, former minister in the Maha Vikas Aghadi from the Nationalist Congress Party, stormed a multiplex in Thane to stop the

screening of the film. He was arrested and sent to judicial custody.

Deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Aaditya Thackeray are side-stepping the controversy saying they have not yet seen the film but no facts should be distorted or law and order be disturbed.

Even as theatres across Maharashtra have now pulled out the film and its director Abhijit Deshpande has defended it saying it has a Censor Board certification, the NCP has said that is not enough and demanded historical documents to prove the depictions in the film.

Both NCP Maharashtra president Jayant Patil and party MP Supriya Sule have defended Awhad’s actions and said no one will be allowed to distort history and facts about Shivaji Maharaj.

The controversy has blurred the lines of both Hindutva and ownership of the Maratha warrior king. Awhad has accused Raj Thackeray of deliberately endorsing the distortions and accused the BJP of allowing the distortion of not just Shivaji but insulting Lord Narasimha by insinuating the former was an avatar of the latter.

BJP state president Chandrakant Bawankule has muddled the waters further by defending the film and accusing Awhad of insulting Lord Narasimha and Shivaji for asking the question, “Was Shivaji an avatar of Lord Narasimha?”

NCP MLA Rohit Pawar, a great-nephew of Sharad Pawar, has also stepped into the controversy saying they will not allow screening of any film that distorts Shivaji’s history.

The Sambhaji Brigade, a militant organisation set up in the defence of Shivaji’s son and heir Chhatrapati Sambhaji, that had ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune for its support to American author James Laine for his book Shivaji, a Hindu King in

Muslim India, has threatened theatres screening the film while the MNS has announced free screenings across the state in retaliation.

In this free-for-all, the common man is now highly confused not just about history and its distortion but also about who belongs to whom. Both the Shiv Senas, a party originally named after the Chhatrapati, are silent and watching from the side-lines. The BJP, the most ardent defender of Hindu gods and goddesses, is defending the distortion of Narasimha.

The NCP which admittedly has been trying to seize regional space from the Shiv Sena is not only doing just that but also complaining bitterly about the distortion of a Vishnuavatar. The MNS, which can never stop talking about Shivaji, is defending a film which allegedly distorts facts about him and is further alienating itself from the people.

And the filmmakers who had wanted to cash in on the craze for stories about Shivaji may or just may not get what they desired, depending on whether the film is now banned or becomes a hit.

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