Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known to paint the screen with his envisaged imagery that’s meticulously opulent and furiously dramatic. He employs this ambitious approach, whilst heavily referencing his ideal Mughal-E-Azam, in recreating the taboo romance between Peshwa warrior Bajirao and his second wife, Mastani.
Bajirao Mastani takes audacious creative liberties but is everything one would expect visually.
My eyes are still giddy from the splendour (camerawork Sudeep Chatterjee) they witnessed – in the lamp-lit incandescence of 18th century Maratha Empire, the barren, blood-embracing landscapes laid out for battle, the aureate reflections of Aaina Mahal, the ethereal quality of a Raja Ravi Verma painting to Kashi’s, Bajirao’s first wife, backyard, it’s all immensely satisfying if not adequate for the soul.
Not for one moment does one fail to see the effort that’s gone into scaling this fancy-schmancy spectacle. But in its 158 minutes running time one seldom gets more than a cosmetic glimpse of these incredibly complex personalities, products of a conservative, suffocating time and conditioning, wanting more from life than they’re permitted to.
Bhansali handles Bajirao’s arrogance, Mastani’s fixation and Kashi’s dignity most sympathetically and relentlessly celebrates their stubbornness and stature in his favourite elements of shringar, song and dance.
What contradicts his idealistic interpretation of Bajirao and Mastani is they’re actually much fragile and flawed. More fascinating yet unexplored is their lifelong resistance to yield into the monopoly of social, religious and political norms as well as Bajirao’s lingering guilt in front of magnanimous Kashi owing to this afore-mentioned association.
Passion — all consuming, indescribable, unstoppable — is the only explanation to a much-married Bajirao’s attraction for Mastani and her zeal to pursue at the expense of her honour. I found it to be rushed, lacklustre. On the other hand, Bajirao and Kashi’s chemistry bears the magic of a snug marriage.
Peripheral to the plot but the rapport between Kashi and her supportive mother-in-law (a superbly restrained Tanvi Azmi), especially a lovely moment when the two women let their guard down and make light of the sad truth about the so-called power they hold, is more compelling than the melodrama ensuing around its titular protagonists.
It’s scenes like these that rescue Bajirao Mastani from stumbling into a gratuitous costume drama. As do its set of fine actors — both leads and supporting.
Ranveer Singh dazzles as the proud Maratha warrior torn between love, duty and guilt. From accent (speaking Marathi in Hindi if you know what I mean) to body language (eyes raging in intensity), he grabs the tone of his character from the word go.
As a decorated Peshwa, he exudes an air of superiority that’s expected of unbeaten valour but it’s his gradual breakdown through Bajirao Mastani’s ambivalent chronology where his true brilliance shines.
I could not picture Salman Khan as Bajirao (originally offered to him) except for the Malhari song. Its absurd, needless existence felt more like an out-of-place tribute to the superstar’s Jalwa moves from Wanted.
One can say volumes about her shimmering beauty as the surreal but sketchy Mastani (Script cant decide if it wants to highlight her as a warrior, lover, courtesan or mother). Sadly, it’s also Deepika Padukone’s most affected performance in a long time. But, praise the lord, she’s so full of this “noor” Bajirao keeps complimenting her for, I almost pretend I didn’t hear her awful Urdu dialogue delivery.
What I do hear and applaud to is this crisp line stated by strategy-savvy Bajirao: Talwar se zyada dhaar chalane wale ki soch mein honi chahiye.
Touché Bhansali, touché.