“Padmaavat”… Lots to like for Bhansali fans, but predictable, and the passions are disappointingly muted

Posted on January 25, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poem, gets going after a depressing series of disclaimers, including one that says this film is not intended to encourage the practice of sati. Given the opening stretch (and our general culture of outrage), I wondered if there shouldn’t be another one. “Not all Muslims dream of toppling kingdoms, and not all of them are compulsive womanisers.” We are in Afghanistan. Raza Murad (an actor who really gets the Bhansali mood, tone and pitch) plays a king who dreams of becoming the Sultan of Delhi, and we meet his nephew, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), who asks to marry his daughter, Mehrunnisa (Aditi Rao Hydari). On the eve of the wedding, Mehrunnisa hears that Alauddin was fooling around with another woman, and we get the first Bhansali-ism. “Sensing his lust to own everything,” a voiceover says, “fear struck Mehrunnisa on earth and the moon in the sky.”

Along with the people whose names we see in the credits, Bhansali’s films are populated with an uncredited supporting cast, often drawn from Nature, and functioning as commentary (or commentators), the way they did in our myths. The moon, for one. The sun. Rain. Fire. Night. Clouds. And wind — which gets conflated with Alauddin in a superbly imagined war sequence. It’s not about great action choreography (though the film has that too, especially in a mano-a-mano swordfight near the end). This is about the conceit. Alauddin’s army clashes with the enemy, and instead of the usual spectacle of battling men and falling horses, we see the cloud of dust that rises from the desert sand. Alauddin charges in and comes out with the enemy king’s head on his spear. Later, when he devises a devious plot to capture Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the ruler of Mewar, there’s another sandstorm. And why not? The man, as played by Ranveer, is a force of nature.

A gentler side of nature leads us to Padmavati (Deepika Padukone, whose stills could be used by Merriam-Webster to define “genetic jackpot”). She is in a forest, aiming an arrow at a deer. The lush, sylvan images hark back to Stree, V Shantaram’s take on the legend of Shakuntala and Dushyant. In these scenes, Padmavati wears bark-coloured clothes, earrings made of flowers. When asked her name, she refers, again, to nature: “Yahaan ka patta patta hamara naam jaanta hai. Pooch lena.” The question comes from Ratan Singh, who’s been pierced by the arrow meant for the deer, just above the heart. A typically Bhansali-esque, S&M-flavoured scene follows. Padmavati tries to pull the arrow out. Ratan Singh clasps his hands around hers and pulls some more. The arrow slips out and he collapses in her arms. She tends to him in a Bhansali-esque cave, flanked on either side by a Bhansali-esque waterfall and a Bhansali-esque statue of the Buddha. An increasingly smitten Ratan Singh tosses Padmavati a Bhansali-esque bit of alliteration: “Pehle teer se ghayal kar diya, ab tevar se.” She returns the favour with more Bhansali-esque S&M: when he says his wound has healed and he should leave, she slashes at it with a knife. Now he needs to rest some more.

All of which is to say that people who don’t care for this filmmaker should stay far, far away — but even for fans, Padmaavat is an underwhelming oddity. The flourishes we expect from Bhansali are all there: anklets whose sounds are heard over the sounds of war, the glassy eyes with unshed tears, the long lines rattled off breathlessly, the symbolism, the scene with the chandelier, the lines that speak of “guroor”… But unlike Bajirao Mastani, where the narrative and the characters were strong enough to support these touches (Kashibai was fire, Mastani was water, and so on), Padmaavat is so generic that these touches seem to be all that there is. Consider this: There are sparks over opening credits. A cannonball is dipped in oil and lit up before it is launched. Dancers carry flames on pots placed on their heads. A villainous priest even swallows fire, while swearing an oath. All this is a lead-up to the final scene, of course, where Padmavati commits sati/jauhar by jumping into the flames with all the women of the city — but Bhansali forgets to ignite the story, the characters, the relationships.

Bhansali’s best films are driven by ache and longing, by an unrequited love on the part of one of the protagonists. Our emotions are with them, because we are conditioned to root for the protagonist. In Padmaavat, for the first time in the Bhansali oeuvre, the longing belongs to the antagonist. Alauddin hears of Padmavati’s legendary beauty, and he covets her. There are no complications. It’s as archetypal as the Ramayana. The villain wants the hero’s wife. (The fire-swallowing priest acts as the Surpanakha figure, filling the villain with lust for the heroine.)  The thin storyline is probably great for an opera, where narrative, however predictable, is simply a structure on which to mount a series of spectacular arias (and Bhansali did take a stab at Albert Roussel’s opera, Padmavati, in 2008, in Paris) — but a nearly three-hour film on this scale needs constant drama. It isn’t a good sign when there’s more of that off-screen.

The characters are either inconsistent or downright dull, like Ratan Singh. The impossibly virtuous Rama is always a difficult character to put up on screen, and poor Shahid comes off like the fourteenth century’s most earnest boy scout. The actor looks lost (as does Aditi Rao Hydari) in the gargantuan world Bhansali creates around him — even his headdresses seem too large for his face. Alauddin tears rotis into pieces and bites into meat like a carnivore. Ratan Singh, in contrast, sits in front of a plate where everything is contained in little katoris, and with two bowls of fruit decorating the ends of the table. I laughed. As did Alauddin, when Ratan Singh keeps harping on rules and principles and honour and Rajput valour. But is that enough? Where’s the military strategy, the desire to protect his kingdom at any cost? Or was Ratan Singh really like this, in which case why would anyone be interested in a movie built around him?

Bhansali, of course, would argue that his film is really about Padmavati and Alauddin — and they do have fascinating moments. Padmavati, at times, comes across like a Smita Patil character — and not just because Bhansali pays homage to the ending of Mirch Masala (which, come to think of it, was a very similar story). She is introduced as a strong woman, a hunter, and she strikes a fine blow for feminism when Ratan Singh’s first wife says her beauty is the cause for all the misfortune that’s befallen them. “And not the sick eyes of the beholder?” Padmavati fires back. It’s an argument that continues in the present day: to cover up fearing assault or flaunt your style with confidence. Padmavati even saves Ratan Singh, though not with the martial flamboyance of Mastani. And yet, we get the scene where she asks permission from Ratan Singh for jauhar: “Aap ke ijaazat ke bina hum mar bhi nahin sakte.” Is this line meant as a rebuke from a woman-warrior chafing under patriarchy, or is this just a docile wife who does everything her husband wants her to? Deepika’s performance gives us no clues, because the character seems clueless.

Alauddin, too, is a man of baffling inconsistencies. He gets a wonderful early scene where he cruelly taunts Mehrunnisa with the weight of his crown, and there’s a very funny stretch where he enters Ratan Singh’s palace and keeps swapping their dinner plates. Around this point, Bhansali seems to have sensed that Alauddin is a gallery-pleasing but totally empty character, so he tries to squeeze in emotional dimensions where none exist. In a dreadfully misconceived scene, Alauddin begins to mourn, “Hamari hatheli mein mohabbat ki lakeer nahin hai.” When did he turn into such a softie?

Ranveer’s performance is the most exciting of the lot — but only at the most superficial level. And as good as he is in Bhansali’s hands, maybe it’s time they took a break from each other. While it’s certainly true that there’s no other actor today who can portray the Bhansali Hero, Ranveer’s performance is too heavily reminiscent of his earlier work with this director — never more so than in the Khalibali song sequence, which is too heavily reminiscent of Malhari, from Bajirao Mastani. It isn’t the same, of course. The latter was shot in browns and yellows, befitting the celebrations around a good man, while the palette in Khalibali — and in general, in Alauddin’s vicinity — is a sooty grey, hinting at his evilness. Colours are half the screenplay in a Bhansali movie, and yet, there is a diminishment here, owing to the 3D glasses. It’s like watching a one-armed man conduct a symphony.

Even so, Padmaavat gives enough cause to mount a defence of Bhansali’s methods. (It’s the material that fails him here.) Many people I know say his films feel the same, but look beyond the opulent production design and you’ll see how his sets reflect his setting. Ratan Singh’s palace is constructed with the steps and tanks we see in Rajasthani architecture, which is very different from Mastani’s palace (Shaniwar Wada) in Bajirao Mastani. No other Indian filmmaker treats his work like handicraft, in such a bespoke sense of the word. You could turn off the sound and just keep watching.

But then, you’d miss the music. Bhansali is, once again, the composer, and yes, there is an aesthetic to his songs that isn’t very diverse. But it’s still a beautiful soundtrack. One of the best numbers, Nainonwale, is absent from the screen, but the melancholic Ek dil is used beautifully. Bhansali’s favourite raag, Yaman (think Jhonka hawa ka , or Hamesha tumko chaaha, or Yun shabnami), is played on the flute, outside the prison cell where Ratan Singh is in chains, and you think this will segue into the song, over a series of shots that show husband and wife pining. But the song comes much later, while Padmavati prepares Ratan Singh for the final battle — and the emotion of the song, now, colours their impending separation. Even the Holi number is stripped of exuberance, filled with the plaintiveness of a Manganiar/Langha rendition. Bhansali drenches the frames in shringar ras, with Ratan Singh and Padmavati applying colour on each other, an act that manages to be simultaneously ceremonial and erotic.

Arijit Singh is astounding in Bint-e-dil, and the Middle Eastern-sounding number is shot on Malik Kafur. (Jim Sarbh locates just the right touch of camp as Alauddin’s slave and lover; the latter’s bisexuality is suggested in a hilariously sly scene, where his hair is being braided by Mehrunnisa on one side and Malik Kafur on the other). This is probably the first instance of a royal’s same-sex love since Razia Sultan, and this relationship is the film’s most interesting. Malik Kafur gets the best introduction scene, hinting at his androgyny — he’s presented like a slave girl, in a veil, and the next minute, he turns into a cold-blooded killer. He’s the film’s only truly Bhansali-esque character, filled with unrequited love, his smile fading every time his master speaks of Padmavati. Bhansali should have made that movie, and the Karni Sena wouldn’t have bothered at all.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi