Disclaimer: I grew up watching Bhansali’s Khamoshi, Black and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and I love him for his opulence, his grandeur, and the visual treat that he offers his audience. There is an excess that should be nauseating, yet it is decadent, and that’s what I love about Bhansali.
Over the years, my politics has taken me further away from his interpretations; however, my senses still thrive when being fed his imagery. I don’t want to get into a whole lot of what has already been said about his new film (or the politics of meaningless protest by the Karni Sena). As a critique of the film, I’d like to offer something that sticks to the merits of the film. I want to focus on Padmaavat (the erstwhile queen Padmavati) as a piece of cinema.
Bhansali does justice to the two major plot lines of the film, as he sets up the Khilji rule, led by the majestic Raza Murad (playing Jalaluddin Khilji) and Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji. Alauddin is flamboyant, perhaps spoilt, and unabashedly ambitious. He stands firm in Jalaluddin’s aura.
On the other side is the Rajput kingdom of Rawal Ratan Singh (actor Shahid Kapoor), who discovers Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) while hunting in the forest. The early romance is sweet, tender and a bit reminiscent of a 1950s period piece. And Bhansali does it purposely, for he will juxtapose the sweet tender romance of Rawal Ratan and Padmavati to the jealous cravings of Alauddin Khilji. This is all for dramatic effect, as he will reveal over the next 150 minutes.
The Khiljis engage in expansion, intrigue, and power at the cost of all else. While the Rajputs do that too, to a certain extent, Bhansali chooses not to explore that. He will only go as far as to give us a taste of the palace intrigue on the Rajput side when Rawal Ratan’s Rajguru (political mentor) is introduced to Padmavati. The short discourse between them was the best set of dialogues in the close to three-hour long saga. But with the Rajguru’s banishment, all intrigue, and political frolic, the story comes to a complete halt. It becomes a predictable dramatic one twist to the other from here on. We know that the Rajguru will go and form an alliance with Khilji, who in turn will train his eyes on Rawal Ratan’s kingdom and Padmavati. This will eventually end in the Rajputs and the Khiljis coming face to face. The end.
Now let’s look at the rest of the film. Visually, this is stunning and we wouldn’t expect anything but from Bhansali. Each and every frame is painstakingly crafted. From the palace of the Khiljis, the spaces that the characters inhabit, the fortress/city of Rawal Ratan and Padmavati, and everywhere the camera even glances, is Mughal-E-Azam all over again. All credit to the cinematographer (Sudeep Chatterjee) and the art directors who help bring Bhansali’s vision to life.
The characters: For all the criticism that Bhansali has received for presenting Alauddin Khilji’s character as barbaric, lustful, and treacherously ferocious, I found Alauddin’s character to be the only one who really gets any attention from Bhansali’s pen. He is crafted with range, substance and yes, he is vile. As an antagonist, in typical Bollywood/drama/fiction style, he has to be vile and eccentric. Does this make Bhansali anti-Muslim? Did I respond to Khilji by thinking all Muslims are like that?
I equally enjoyed his exchanges with his court poet Khusru. And while I will call Bhansali out on his depiction of Malik Kafur (played by Jim Sarbh – the brilliant star of the film) for playing into the Bollywood stereotype of LGBTQ characters on screen, I do give him and Ranveer Singh credit for exploring ‘bisexuality’ in a mainstream Bollywood film. Malik Kafur’s character falters towards the end, but he comes to the audience in spurts and he is just wonderful. And for whatever it’s worth, the Khilji-Kafur interaction was way more interesting than anything Padmavati and Rawal Ratan’s characters had to offer. It was rather hilarious and in a way, Bhansali indulging in self-deprecation when Khilji mocks Rawal Ratan for being oh-so-saintly and good.
Padukone as Padmavati should have been the heart of the film, but she isn’t. Bhansali played with the idea of turning Padmavati into the astute, politically savvy protagonist that she could have been. But instead he chose to leave her out completely in the first half, so that whole thing came to naught. And by the time she is back, you have been blinded and exhausted by the colours and cravings of Bhansali’s canvas.
I want to be more generous to Kapoor for playing Rawal Ratan with some stoic restraint, but unfortunately I can only compliment him for his chiseled torso. I kept hoping that his first wife Nagmati (played by Anupriya Goenka) would come out of the shadows, but again Bhansali decided character development didn’t matter in a magnum opus.
Jauhar was a prevalent practice in the Rajput communities for centuries. I saw the depiction as merely a recreation of a practice that existed in medieval India. I asked people in my entourage and no one seemed inspired to commit Jauhar after watching the film, as was being suggested by commentators and social media folk. From where I sat, Bhansali’s depiction of Jauhur (unlike Sati) was similar to, say, Ridley Scott’s depiction of Maximus as a Gladiator. Archaic and dehumanizing, of course, but not glorified. It’s part of the poem (Padmavat, 1540) that Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote, and the film being inspired from it saw it head towards a dramatic, over the top climax.
My critique of the film is that Bhansali lost an opportunity to really tell an intriguing, layered, and engaging story about a character who is part of contemporary folklore, something that is naturally expected of him. His journey from Padmavati to Padmaavat meant that we were given a visual treat, which besides Ghoomar (a song I absolutely love), was lacklustre musically and absent of a whole narrative. I momentarily pondered over the alleged nexus between the Hindu-right and Bhansali for creating a propaganda piece furthering the Hindu-Rajput identity, but then I remembered that the chest thumping of Rajput pride is just part of how Bollywood films approach religion and the Rajput/Hindu confluence. So, I won’t blame Bhansali for being at the root of the problem – he is merely a symptom.
Padmaavat is currently playing at the Cineplex Forum.