Sanjay Leela Bhansali doesn’t direct films as much as he designs them. His characters consumed by desire and adamancy, packaged in opulence and pretension both wreak and worship drama, where even a simple sandstorm looks like a million Tinker Bells were commissioned to fill pixie dust into the frame.
Except now the most distinctive traits of his filmmaking feel like the conscious efforts of a man trying to live up to his own imagery, his mastery is stuck inside a glorious template whose elements change but essence does not.
Somewhere along the line, spectacle has superseded sentiment and while his creations may gain in shine, they’re wanting in soul.
For his latest showpiece, Padmaavat, Bhansali condenses Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 16th century epic poem about covetous Sultans and courageous Rajputs to construct a resplendent royal opera that retains its source’s hyperbolic tone and provides sufficient moments of escapade and wonder. But is, ultimately, too cosmetic, perhaps even compromised, in its ambition to truly impress (or incite all those ridiculous episodes of dissent and delay.)
For the longest time (read till the very end) Padmaavat intensely focuses on the boorish, beastly Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), a dishevelled, scar-faced Dothraki-Thorin Oakenshield cross and serial usurper whose appetite for all things nayaab and flesh prompts his decision to lay a siege on Mewar capital, Chittor. Obviously that doesn’t go down well with its ruler Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) or his Sinhalese second wife and renowned beauty Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone). And so teers and talwars are drawn out, verbose volleys of valour and victory are exchanged and nobody lives happily-ever-after.
Padmaavat offers excellent opportunity to explore the volatility of human emotions, a warrior’s extraordinary conditioning in and commitment to gallantry, the burdens and boundaries of being a woman of a bygone era as well as the impulsions of a dark, insatiable mind.
Alas, what would have flourished under nuance is depicted as one-dimensional embodiments of Padmavati’s pigeonholed splendour, Khilji’s barbaric shenanigans and Ratan Singh’s heroism-at-all-costs. These skin-deep characterisations are all the more conspicuous in the face of fascinating possibilities and sparks of curious suggestions.
Like how Khilji’s abusive demeanour makes a mild exception for his loyal aide Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh). The homoerotic texture of their interactions is tokenism at its frustrating most yet beguiling by its very existence. Sarbh looks suitably sneaky until he speaks and deposes himself to the ranks of Khilji’s many pets. Kafur calls for someone with strategic shrewdness and guile to justify his influential position. It’s interesting to note how the people serving him do not always share Khilji’s lust for power. This leads to a near revolt from his displeased army. How he wins back their favour is indicative of his charisma and clout.
Ratan Singh’s interiors may be done far more tastefully but he too is a man of indulgences. An imminent attack from the enemy and depleting ration doesn’t stop him from enjoying the wonders of classical music in his lavish court or polishing off scrumptious looking platters. Both he and Padmavati drape themselves in the finest of apparels, the details of which Sudeep Chaterjee’s camera captures with microscopic precision.
Their marriage is not a political alliance, as one would think is the case between him and the cantankerous first wife (a bland Anupriya Goenka), but a consequence of Padmavati doing her bit as cupid’s arrow. Bhansali’s love for symbolism is evident early on as the duo jointly pulls out the weapon and lays the foundation for their future relationship.
Shahid and Deepika sink their teeth into whatever few morsels the Khilji-centred Padmaavat leaves behind but fail to sizzle as a couple. Despite those meaningful glances and grand gestures, their passion has the authenticity of a photo shoot.
Deepika exudes a Vyjayanthimalaesque grace and delivers her boldest move with a purposefulness that disturbed me.
In some ways, Padmaavat is about two foreigners. Padmavati is an immigrant from Sri Lanka. Khilji is an invader from Afghanistan. She happily embraces the Rajputana culture and picks Team Ram over Team Ravan like the ‘outsider’ trying too hard to fit in whereas Khilji is every bit the bad apple who gives the basket a bad name by doing everything to make himself the problem citizen.
Padmaavat does seem like its leaning over backwards to appease Rajput supremacy yet offers a nondescript profile of two of its greatest heroes – Ghora and Badal. If to the politically sensitive, its depiction seems anti-Muslim, it may well seem anti-Brahmin as well. The turncoat priest Raghav Chetan and the proverbial ghee in Khilji’s fire doesn’t hold back in treachery.
What I appreciated about Shyam Benegal’s abbreviated interpretation of the said tale in an episode of Bharat Ek Khoj, on which Bhansali worked as assistant, is how these figures of history, fictionalised or otherwise, are treated like people capable of flaws even if they’re heroes and intelligence even if they’re villains. Bhansali’s need to paint the men as self-aware poster boys of virtue and malice and women as ready-to-sacrifice devis treads on sanctimonious overkill and robs the fun of an otherwise action-packed period masala.
Some of the CGI effects, severed heads and fake sky do not impress one bit and the songs, like Jim Sarbh breaking into an exotic melody or Ranveer’s Afghani version of Malhaari come across as unintentionally hilarious. Ranveer repeats a lot of Bajirao sans the accent here but his unabashed glee in playing a ruthless conqueror is on par with Amrish Puri at the peak of his villainy.
It’s tempting to confuse the stillness of his character for his performance but there are moments when a seething Shahid burns the screen, one those dark 3D glasses cannot recognise, compensating for powerlessness with pride.
The scenes between him and Ranveer are the best. My favourite involves a playful swapping of thaalis. Slyness becomes Padmaavat but Bhansali prefers sacrifice a whole lot more.
The big question is does he glorify jauhar –the act of self-immolation wherein the Rajput women led by Padmavati jump into a pyre to protect their honour from Khilji and his army?
It’s shot in a striking manner and involves the deepest hues of flaming red and fire but the need to beautify and prolong the tragedy in the tradition of Paro running down the stairs while Devdas dies outside her door made me queasy. There’s a thin line between glorifying and being reverential but uncomfortable you’ll feel either way. What’s disappointing though Bhansali fails to bring out the trauma and anxiety leading to such mass suicide, something Gulzar did rather delicately to explain Vidya Sinha’s Rajput-style harakiri in Meera. Pride, defying the most rudimentary of human responses –fear, never felt this foolish.
The sequence, evoking memories of Mirch Masala (minus the fury) and Tamas (minus the desperation), made me angry, sad, glad and still angrier. I am angry because this ever happened. I am sad because it’s painful to think what they must be going through. I am glad we’ve fought hard to break through such cruel tradition. But it burns my blood to think we’re still holding on to regressive culture that’s stemmed from preserving this so-called honour.