Ranveer Singh plays the first half of the title in Bajirao Mastani, but he’s really playing the Sanjay Leela Bhansali leading man. This isn’t a revelatory performance, exactly. After all, Ranveer did play the Sanjay Leela Bhansali leading man in Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela, and here too, his character, that of the great Maratha warrior, is torn between the pull of a great love (the second half of the title, played by Deepika Padukone) and the pull of family, which includes wife Kashi (Priyanka Chopra). But despite this familiarity, the performance is still an exhilarating mix of fireworks and thunder and lightning, if only because Ranveer Singh is the first leading man in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie who knows what it means to play a Sanjay Leela Bhansali leading man. In just two films, this has already become one of the great actor-director collaborations. Finally, Bhansali has an actor big enough, ballsy enough, mad enough to give full shape to the Gothic-nautanki conceits inside his head.
We see this in the big, ballsy, mad scene in which Bajirao is forced to act as midwife when Mastani is thrashing about with labour pains. (No one will attend to her. The Maratha’s love for this Rajput-Muslim has ostracized her in his community.) He instructs her on how to breathe. He admonishes her to not shout. Yodha ko janam de rahi ho. Dard to hoga hi. She’s giving birth to a warrior, after all. It is going to be painful. Ranveer makes sure we see his pain too – not just here, but also in the scene where he realizes how much he’s hurt the loyal, loving Kashi by refusing to renounce Mastani. He attempts a weak justification, that he didn’t ever compare them (and by extension, that Kashi wasn’t lacking in any respect). Ranveer’s reading of this line – Hum ne aap donon ki kabhi tulna nahin ki – is extraordinary. His face contorts with agony, and you half-expect Kashi to forgive him. What punishment can she mete out to a man who’s already in hell?
Elsewhere, when the Brahmin Establishment refuses to recognize Mastani’s son (who’s been named Krishna), Bajirao looks away and says it doesn’t matter. Henceforth, he’ll call the boy Shamsher Bahadur. It’s another signature Bhansali moment – part rage, part stifled sob, part fuck-you – and there isn’t another actor today who can play this pitch so pointedly. And Bhansali, who’s discovered his inner action lover after Ram-Leela, channels all of Bajirao’s anger and frustration into one of the grandest masala moments I’ve seen, involving a lone solider on a horse and an arrow whizzing towards him – I gasped. Even the steps in the mind-bogglingly choreographed Malhari are action moves – hands slice through the air like swords, the extras circle around in battle formations, and even a word as gentle as satrangi (rainbow) is imbued with irrepressible male energy, with the dancers slicing the space above their heads as though disemboweling the sky. After Ram-Leela’s Tattad tattad and Malhari, one part of me wishes that Bhansali makes nothing but music videos. Dance, to him, is not just an excuse for fun but an extension of character. He may be the only filmmaker today who values space, colour, geometry, the human form. Most others keep cutting away to different angles and make us feel that the song sequence is the work of an editor, but Bhansali’s long takes respect the skills of the dancer, the efforts of the choreographer.
Perhaps even a skirt choreographer. I’m only half-joking, for how else are the swirling costumes in Deewani mastani in such sync? This breathtaking song sequence lies at the other end of the spectrum from Malhari, all feminine grace, with much gentler movements. The other departments contribute heavily as well, cinematography, production design, and especially costume – the outfits of the extras are studded with sequins, and even their bindis are shiny, extending the glass motif of their surroundings. They are in a sheesh mahal, and this echo of Mughal-e-Azam is no accident. Bajirao Mastani is ostensibly based on Raau, a Marathi novel by Nagnath S Inamdar, but the film could just as easily be seen as Bhansali’s ode to K Asif’s epic. Like Marvel fans keep looking out for Easter eggs in the superhero films, fans of Mughal-e-Azam may find themselves playing spot-the-reference.
Deewani mastani doesn’t just stop with the sheesh mahal quote. Just like Akbar saw Anarkali reflected in the mirrors over him – a symbolic depiction of how she will come to surround him, engulf him – Kashi sees reflections of Mastani all around her. If Anarkali’s erotic thrall to Salim was set to the strains of Prem jogan ban ke, by Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, in the raag Sohini, Bajirao makes love to Kashi as a similar piece (from the small snatch I caught, I think it’s even the same raag) plays in the background, and the lyrics are similarly suggestive of the plight of the characters. Kaahe tum ab aaye mere dware sauten sang… The picturisation is classic Bhansali. The toned, muscled Bajirao is shirtless – he looks ready to pose for the cover of Manoos World. He’s bathing, and he pours a mug of water over Kashi’s head – she looks back unblinkingly. But even earlier, we’ve had a nod to Mohe panghat pe – here, it’s a Holi song that goes Mohe rang do laal, and Mastani’s palms are not painted with henna patterns but smeared with gulaal. Again, classic Bhansali. Like him or not, he is an auteur – every frame in his films has something that screams his name.
More nods to Mughal-e-Azam (a scene from which was also seen in Saawariya): the pearls that drop from a necklace, the chains that bind Mastani in the final portions, and even the plot itself, which replaces Mughals with Peshwas and Akbar with an equally disapproving Radha Maa (a superb Tanvi Azmi). Like Mughal-e-Azam, this is less a historical than a… romantical. There are clouds of war, but the biggest battles are those of the heart. (Bhansali is unapologetic about this aspect. The title comes with this clarification: “Love story of a warrior.”) Bajirao Mastani, too, is essentially a mundane domestic drama, where brothers and mothers and sons are as much foes as invading armies. And if Asif made the mundane magical through dialogue, Bhansali achieves the transformation through the poetry in his visual conceits. Even when he refers to a concept as modern and Western as cinema, even when he alludes to the nuts and bolts of projection, the physics of light and lenses and reflection, he manages to convince us that it’s something that must have existed in Indra’s court.
The word that many people reach for when they think of Bhansali’s cinema is “beauty” or “grandeur,” but what he packs into his frames goes far beyond cosmetics and ornamentation. It’s not just the chandeliers, the fountains, the calligraphy on the curtains, the murals, the classical Indian colours (like the shade of blue Kashi wears one night, as her husband confirms her suspicions), or the sets costing roughly the GDP of Eritrea. It’s also the image of Bajirao setting out on a boat to meet Mastani on a stormy night – waves lash around him, the boat bobs dangerously, the boatman sways in his seat, but Bajirao stands upright, as though on firm ground. The image says as much about his past as a steadfast warrior as his future as a steadfast lover. Whatever the upheavals, he will not flinch.
The scene also hints that Mastani is water to Kashi’s fire. (We now look at that earlier erotic moment, where Bajirao poured water over Kashi, in a new light.) Bajirao marries Mastani in the rain (each of his objections, she accepts with a “qubool hai,” the words she would have used in a more traditional nikaah), and at the end, when he unites with her, he is borne away by water. In contrast, the scene that defines Kashi is the one where she extinguishes the lamps in her home – and by extension, her relationship with her husband. Early in the film, we see her celebrating his return after a successful military campaign by lighting the lamps in her house – the song is the exquisite semi-classical piece, Albela sajan aayo re; Bhansali also composed the music – and now she’s doing the opposite. Bhansali fills his films with such contrasts. Mastani is likened to a peacock, while Kashi is the swan from a Ravi Varma painting. Mastani is green; Kashi is saffron. Mastani is the moon; Kashi is the sun (even her childhood friend bears the name Bhanu).
These motifs keep recurring in Bhansali’s work, as do the unresolvable love triangles – someone (Hrithik Roshan in Guzaarish, Salman Khan in Saawariya, Aishwarya Rai in Devdas and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) is always unavailable. They’re either married or missing or afflicted with something, and this unavailability makes the lovers suffer, pine, smoulder like amorous agarbattis. They exist in a passionate limbo, somewhere between weeping openly and remaining dry-eyed – their eyes are always filled with unshed tears. Many words (gharoor, chand) keep reappearing in Bhansali’s films, but the most significant one is tadap. In an early scene, Kashi is cursed by Bhanu, who has been widowed due to a misjudgment on Bajirao’s part. Bhanu says, “Main apne pati ke liye tadap rahi hoon Kashi. Ek din tum bhi apne pati ke liye tadpogi.” Even the minor characters writhe in romantic agony. Bhanu is doomed to pine for a husband who is unavailable in the most permanent sense.
This curse made me think of Macbeth, and the Shakespearean elements that have been cropping up in Bhansali’s films since Ram-Leela, which was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. There’s madness here. Hallucinations. Even a crazy-sounding Birnam Wood-like prophecy towards the end, involving a setting sun, a rising moon, and the elements – winds, unseasonal rains, and, yes, more fire and water (arrows of fire fall from the sky around a madman thrashing about in water). There’s a touch of Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations too, especially in the battle scenes. I don’t want to make too much of this, though, for Bhansali’s sensibilities are most certainly Indian – or more specifically, Bengali (Devdas), Goan (Khamoshi, Guzaarish), Gujarati (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Ram-Leela), and now, Maharashtrian. He resuscitates not only images from our past – the woman arching backwards while blowing the crescent-shaped Indian trumpet (this was the Prabhat Studios logo) – but also characters, like the sakhi. When Bajirao turns up at Mastani’s abode during Id, Mastani rushes out, delighted – but the camera, instead of following her right away, pauses to linger on the smile on her loyal attendant’s face.
Bhansali’s males, apart from the leading man, aren’t always the most memorable. Aditya Pancholi’s senior courtier threatens to become a genuine villain, but he disappears quickly. And others – the advisor (Milind Soman) who wants the best for Bajirao, the brother (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) who resents the hold Mastani has over Bajirao– are nailed to the generic scaffolding propping them up. But even the most minor female roles – Bhanu, the sakhi – are coloured with a shade or two that makes them memorable. The bigger female roles, of course, are spectacular. They’re not much in terms of “characters,” in the sense that they don’t hold many surprises in store, their trajectories seem preordained. But then, Bhansali works best with archetypes (whose fates we already know), and he makes “characters” out of them through his embellishments – the number of roses in Kashi’s hair (three), the number of wounds on Bajirao (twenty-seven). He’s a weaver who transforms cotton saris with zardozi embroidery.
In other words, with a different filmmaker, we might demand more fleshed-out answers to these questions: Why does Bajirao fall for Mastani (and vice versa)? More importantly, how do we know they are in love? But these questions are irrelevant here because we see her sword causing blood to trickle down his neck, and we see him cauterizing a bloody gash on her back. These aren’t war wounds – they’re soul wounds. This, I suppose, is one of the things that keeps some viewers away from Bhansali. The traditional emotions that we expect and receive from “characters” (that we “care” about them, for instance) are not always available with archetypes, and our decision to involve ourselves further with the film becomes a leap of faith – we have to choose to accept the things these people do, the fates that befall them. I couldn’t make this leap of faith in Ram-Leela. I found it difficult, especially in the second half, to see why Ram and Leela were doing the things they did. But Bajirao, Kashi and Mastani do not pose these problems.
Consider Mastani. She’s embellished by the fact that she is a warrior – this aspect informs her character throughout. She makes her entry in military uniform (and only later reveals that she is a woman). She gets the kind of masala dialogues an action-film hero would get. Sample this: Thokar paththar se bhi laga to haath talwar pakadta hai. Even if someone throws a pebble, her hand reaches for the sword. The line proves prophetic, for she keeps fighting till the end. Sometimes, these are active, literal fights – at first, she fights beside Bajirao, and later, she fights off the men who come to kill her. In the former scene, she rides alongside Bajirao and while he looks at her (and who wouldn’t want to keep looking at Deepika Padukone, who’s surely one of the reasons eyes were invented?), she looks straight ahead, focused on the mission – this focus never wavers, especially in the passive fights she puts up after taking up residence in Pune, the home of the Peshwas. She fights with her mother-in-law – it’s a war of words. She fights against expectations of her by going to the naming ceremony of Kashi’s son. She even fights the king (Mahesh Manjrekar), in a manner of speaking, when she refuses to dance.
Now consider Kashi. In a sense, she’s the anti-warrior – that’s her zardozi motif. As we see in an early scene, she can only pretend to go to war – on a pretend horse, waving a pretend sword. Otherwise, she’s very much a “housewife,” a “normal person,” and Bhansali’s boldest move is to focus on her as much as the titular couple. This is very rare in our cinema. You can count on one hand (one of the fingers would belong to Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna) the films that not only deal with adultery but dwell on the after-effects on the utterly blameless person who’s cheated upon. As a result, Kashi walks away with the movie. Priyanka Chopra gets the most sympathetic situations, the most sympathetic lines – it’s a moving performance, covering the gamut from childlike happiness (she sits on her mother-in-law’s lap and sobs when she hears her husband is safe) to spurned-woman bitterness (when she paints herself as the forgotten Rukmani amidst Krishna and Radha). Deepika Padukone, despite her innate luminosity, pales in comparison. Mastani is harder to get into. Apne hi dhun mein mast rehne wali, says Bajirao, and we agree – she’s a little opaque. And Padukone isn’t old-style enough (the way Madhubala or Madhuri Dixit were, say) to elevate an archetype with stylistic flourishes that can constitute a “performance.” Her I’m-the-face-of-Garnier looks (that long neck, that long waist, those long legs) complicate things, especially when she delivers carefully chiseled old-world lines like, “Tujhe yaad kar liya aayat ki tarah / ab tera zikra hoga ibaadat ki tarah.” It was easier accepting her as the gun-toting Leela.
Then again, Leela was the focus of that film – at least, her romance with Ram was. Bajirao Mastani, on the other hand, is less about Bajirao and Mastani than the people who come between them, and the most fascinating scenes focus on these others. At first, we think Radha Maa is your average eye-rolling mother-in-law from a television soap, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Peshwa Thi – but look at her reaction when her son tells her Mastani is pregnant. We expect rage, given her feelings about “polluting” the Peshwa bloodline, but her thoughts, upon receiving this news, aren’t political but personal. She tells him not to tell Kashi, who she loves like a daughter. Even with Mastani, Radha Maa approves of the fact that her son treats her with respect. Her problem is just that Peshwas cannot wear their hearts on their sleeves and keep running off behind half-Muslim women. This is a film with a war backdrop, and its women are the real warriors. Radha Maa fights for her beliefs the way Mastani fights for her place beside Bajirao. And Kashi? In a stunningly staged scene (and that’s saying something in a film filled with stunningly staged scenes), she fights, among other things, the impulse to let Mastani die at the hands of assassins. Back and forth the editing goes, between Mastani’s attempts to save herself and Kashi’s long, troubled walk as she struggles to come to a decision. The film might have been titled Kashi Mastani, even if that does suggest a rather enjoyable pilgrimage site.
Hence, Pinga. On one level, the placement of the song makes little sense, given that it follows a bristling face-off between Kashi and Mastani. It’s Dola re all over again. One minute, Paro (the chand of that film) and Chandramukhi are exchanging sharp words over the man who can never belong fully to either of them. The next, they are dancing in a celebration of that very man. (The choreography, ideally, should have included the L-sign on the forehead.) But looked at another way, these dances do make sense, marking solidarity and sisterhood in stories where the women are far more intriguing than the men. Bajirao Mastani owes as much to Devdas as Mughal-e-Azam, right down to the sighs that sail across space. If Paro, deep in her mansion, felt Devdas’s dying breaths as he lay outside, Mastani, in her prison, knows that Bajirao has fallen. Bhansali is operating at the peak of his powers now, but it may be time he threw himself into something different. I sat up when I heard reports that he’s considering remaking something as rough and rowdy as Khalnayak, and then I thought: Oh wait! At heart, that’s a love triangle too.
- Mughal-e-Azam = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.