The worst (and best) thing about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's glorified treatment of the archaic practice of jauhar - mass suicide by fire - is a disconcerting watch.
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After a title change, a sartorial makeover and with two disclaimers - one elaborately long and one too short and ineffective - Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film finally releases. The only shade of grey in this film is Alauddin Khilji's kohl-lined eyes. Padmaavat is essentially a simplistic take on the good versus evil duel, in which the antagonist's crazy antics not only overshadow the righteous protagonists but also expose the flaws of their ethical code.
Padmaavat is not just a tribute to Rajput courage and in hindsight their obsession with principles of war as it is to Bhansali's filmography. Scenes from Bajirao Mastani and Devdas and a song from Saawariya will come to mind while watching the epic. Like Bajirao Mastani, here too is a married king, Rawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), who finds a second wife while away from home. He has gone to the Singhalese kingdom to procure its famed pearls for his miffed wife. If there's any lesson to take from this tragedy, it's to never send your husband shopping for jewels.
Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) comes across as more pitiable than an inspiring figure. She is a spirited Singhalese warrior princess until she runs into Ratan Singh and soon becomes Chittor's queen. The bow and arrow and forest life is discarded for one stuck in a palace adorned with embellished ghaghras and big naths. And so begins a life of domesticity, in which Padmavati endlessly stares into her husband's eyes, exchanges amorous looks, smiles coyly and dresses him up.
This leisurely choreographed and luxurious take on romance is trademark Bhansali and also now too familiar. In this case it even makes you question the Rajput ruler's leadership skills while his kingdom is under threat.
It's all too familiar and jaded for once again Deepika plays another of Bhansali's virtuous heroines with little purpose other than to showcase the purity of her love. But her character isn't the problem here. In fact right until the #NotWithoutMyHusband climax, the queen is questioning her husband's decisions and his lack of action.
But then if history has taught us anything, it's that men rarely listen to women for the male ego is paramount. And so the weakest here is Rawal Ratan Singh who believes in making history by doing the right thing. It's hard to root for a character whose valour is misguided, is easily susceptible and thanks to Bhansali's love for craft preoccupied with his wardrobe. Sadly for him centuries later his persistence with his community's obedience to "usool" and "guroor" makes him seem an imprudent king. "Rajput kabhi peeth peeche nahi jaate." Sadly the words that ring true belong to Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) - "Jug ka ek hi usool hai, jeet"
(There is only one rule in war - victory). After all one remembers the winners, not the losers, and everything is fair in love and war.
But in Padmaavat its greed and not love which gets the plot going.
Raghav Chetan (Aayam Mehta), banished from Chittor for being a sleazy baba (the one rare occasion the film has contemporary significance), tells Khilji that he can be as celebrated a world conqueror as Alexander if he gets hold of Padmavati. Obsessed with making and rewriting history Khilji is enthralled at the prospect. Khilji attacks, struggles and then comes up with a stroke of genius. Chittor retaliates with one of its own courtesy Padmavati. Male chauvinism is at its peak when Padmavati arrives in Delhi only to be reprimanded by her husband for her daredevilry. Gradually Malik Muhammad Jayasi's 1520 poem, Padmavat, plays out.
Ranveer Singh shines as the megalomaniacal, lustful, narcissistic and ruthless Sultan. Compared to the indecisive Rajputs, the Afghan-origin Sultan of Delhi is the life of the proceedings. Women to him are objects to be mistreated and territories to be conquered. Padmavati is his Kiran, a woman to be had at all costs. Singh uses the kohl-lined eyes and muscular body effectively to put on a showy act, one which with a few jarring notes, is full of engaging moments. There is fun in the terror here. In one memorable scene, he makes his irritation of seeing Ratan Singh clear with a well-timed grimace. In another, he swaps his thali with the Rajput in fear of being poisoned. This is an actor savouring each and every moment, fully aware that deranged and debauched characters like this don't come your way every day.
Giving Khilji good company in the crazy department is his devoted aide Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), rewarded with the best entry sequence in the film. Labelled by the enemies as his wife, Kafur's own unconditional love for the king here is juxtaposed well against Khilji's insatiable want for Padmavati. This, and not Ratan Singh, Padmavati and Khilji, is the most fascinating love triangle in the film. The relationship only reiterates the differences between love and desire. Bhansali keeps the homoerotic tension between the two minimal but it's effective in getting the point across. Sarbh's measured performance ensures this character doesn't become a caricature and its sentiments are considered.
Apart from celebrating the Rajput spirit on the battlefield, the film inadvertently also highlights the royalty's ability to change clothes at a swift pace. The creative liberties here come at the cost of continuity. Padmaavat like any another Bhansali film excels in the craft department, with Sudeep Chatterjee's gorgeous lenswork and Rimple and Harpreet Narula's costumes playing big role in adding to the visual splendour. The grand scale is tasteful and impressive, even visible in the battle sequences.
But Padmaavat is also one of Bhansali's weakest musical efforts. Barring the censored ghoomar song, none register. The picturisation of the unreleased songs lacks the Bhansali magic. The Malhari-like track on Khilji is present only to further degrade the character.
Politics is why Padmaavat suffered and it's the film's politics which is hugely problematic. Bhansali's glorified treatment of the archaic practice of jauhar - mass suicide by fire - is a disconcerting watch. All along the Karni Sena, self-appointed custodians of Rajput honour, have been worried about the repercussions the film will have on how their community is perceived and judged.
The vilification here is entirely of Khilji and his Muslim army. Boorish they may be but at least they are not dull, a feature that the power couple does have. And that's the real failure of Padmaavat. It's inability to evoke a sense of loss and empathy for its Romeo and Juliet. Khilji may not have got what he wanted but he ensures that history remembers him. By the end of Padmaavat, it's Khilji that you are thinking about. Because really in this day and age who thinks mass immolation is a victory.