Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jim Sarbh, Raza Murad,
In a scene towards
the latter part of writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new film, Rani
Padmavati has a conversation with the mother of Badal, a loyal soldier in her
royal husband’s army who gave up his life to save his king. The queen informs
the madre that her son is dead. The
aforesaid madre refuses to mourn her
child’s passing, replying instead that a Rajput who loses his life on the
battlefield is not to be deemed dead.
By then, much
speechifying about Rajput valour and usool
(principles) has already flowed under the bridge on screen. But wait…there is
more. “Today I understand why Rajputs are said to be brave,” says Ms Padmavati.
“It is because they are born of brave mothers like you.”
Oh Mummy! I almost
choked on exasperated laughter in that moment as I sat watching in IMAX 3D in a
darkened hall in Delhi, because like so much else in the film, the goings-on in
this passage too contradict what its self-worshipping Rajput characters are
saying. Far from being an example of that much-touted Rajput bravery, Badal’s
end was the result of a foolish and egoistic Rajput king’s foolhardy moves
going against the common-sense advice of his far more intelligent wife Padmavati – the king’s
stupidity leads to his imprisonment by an enemy ruler, at which point Padmavati
displays further intelligence and political acumen in entering the lion’s den
and snatching her husband from the jaws of death with the help of those like
If anyone’s courage should have
been celebrated at that point, it should have been the courage of Padmavati
who, genetically speaking, was not a Rajput herself but a child of the Singhal
kingdom that lies in modern-day Sri Lanka.
Lesson No. 1 from Bhansali’s
guide to populist pandering: do not let facts stand in the way of dialogues
designed to massage the collective ego of the men in a community you wish to
Padmaavat – originally named Padmavati till the Censor Board forced a
title change following extremist reactions from that very community – is
steeped in such unwitting contradictions. The film tells the story of Rani
Padmavati, second wife of Maharawal Ratan Singh, king of Chittor situated in
today’s Rajasthan. H.R.H. Ratan encounters Padmavati in an accident when he
visits Singhal to procure its famed pearls for his first wife. They fall in
love and Padmavati returns with him to Chittor as his bride. Through a series
of events, Alauddin Khilji, sultan of Delhi, hears of the woman’s unparalleled
exquisiteness and – since he wants to possess every “nayaab cheez” (unique thing) in the world – attacks Chittor to get
her for himself. After another chain of events, Padmavati kills herself along
with all the female adults and children of Chittor in the practice of jauhar, an old north Indian custom where
women would commit suicide by jumping into fire instead of risking being raped
by a rival army when faced with certain defeat.
Bhansali’s Padmaavat is based on the 16th century fictionalised
poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad
Jayasi. Most modern historians concur that Rani Padmavati a.k.a. Padmini is a
figment of Jayasi’s imagination although Alauddin Khilji and Ratan Singh a.k.a.
Ratan Sen a.k.a. Ratnasimha are historical 13th-14th
century figures and the siege of Chittor did indeed happen, Alauddin’s purpose
being to expand his kingdom and not to forcibly take a mythical queen.
In the year leading up to the
release this week, fundamentalist Rajput organisations have committed acts of
violence, threatened worse, demanded a ban and in general created a hubbub
based on their inexplicable assumptions that this film insults their people.
Quite the opposite. Padmaavat is an
irritating ode to Rajput bravery which, if you read history books, is as much a
myth as Padmavati a.k.a. Padmini herself.
From the very first scene,
Bhansali’s goal is clear: to pedestalise Rajputs and demonise the Khiljis, to
pander to the larger Hindu Right via Rajputs by slandering a Muslim king.
And so, while H.R.H. Ratan Singh
(played by Shahid Kapoor) looks pristine, as if his pyaara sa, gora sa chehra has been newly cleansed by an
Emami or Vaseline face wash, Alauddin (as played by Ranveer Singh) is a
perennially dirty-faced devil, his chehra
forever smeared with what appears to be blood and mud even when he is not in
battle. Alauddin’s hair is wild, his walk almost bear-like, his eyes at all times
either narrowed to slits or widened to convey his menacing intent, while H.R.H.
Ratan looks angelic. If Alauddin wants a woman for himself, he is portrayed as
lustful, whereas Ratan’s betrayal of his first queen for Padmavati is sweet
romance. Alauddin has sex with another woman minutes before his wedding, rapes
his first wife Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari) and beds a prostitute even while
consumed with desire for Padmavati, but H.R.H. Ratan makes sweet sweet lurve to
Padmavati. Alauddin and his uncle Jalaluddin (Raza Murad) are shown tearing
into massive chunks of meat like savages, while H.R.H. Ratan feeds himself
delicate morsels of food. Bad Alauddin always wears black and other dark
shades, whereas the good Ratan
, dons whites, beiges and cheery colours.
Wicked Alauddin stomps his feet in laughably animalistic dance moves to the
song Khalibali whereas Ratan, dahling
Ratan, carries himself with dignity. And get this, in what seems to be
Bhansali’s ultimate signifier of debauchery, the nasty Muslim king’s male lover
is trivialised – oh no! bisexuality! how terrible, no? – whereas the good Hindu
man’s eye wanders with poise and only in the direction of women. Heterosexual
promiscuity and infidelity are allowed, no?
There is no pretence at
objectivity or nuance in the contrasting portrayals of the two monarchs. This
is a literal echo of the average Hindu right-winger’s view of Muslims as horny,
carnivorous beasts. Padmaavat is a
perfect example of a Hindi film couching its extreme prejudices in grandiloquence
and tacky clichés, with those clichés embedded in resplendent frames.
Meanwhile, the gorgeous Ms
Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) wears gorgeous lehngas while her gorgeous hair
flows in just the right gorgeous wave and her perfect gorgeous makeup remains
unsoiled even when she hunts in a Singhal forest or flees Alauddin’s fort. As
with all Bhansali’s post-Khamoshi
films, this one too is operatic in tone and visually stunning. After a point
though, all that flawless beauty – architectural, sartorial and human – becomes
exhausting (as it did in his worst film so far, Guzaarish), especially because his biases, his penchant for
overstatement and his regressive worldview overshadow all else.
Among the many contradictions in Padmaavat is the fact that it chooses to
lionise Rajputs when, by its own admission, Chittor fell because of Rajput
disunity and cowardice. H.R.H. Ratan seeks help from all his fellow Rajput
rulers but they turn him down for fear of antagonising Alauddin.
The biggest – and most frightening
– contradiction though comes in the horribly romanticised depiction of jauhar, although the opening disclaimer
states that the film does not intend to glorify the custom. Really? Why then
does a closing voiceover, right after the act is shown on screen, seek to deify
Padmavati’s ‘sacrifice’? She walks towards the flames, her hair blowing in the
breeze, her voluminous skirt swirling about her ankles, her eyes burning with
determination, full-bodied music playing in the background, joined by a sea of
women clad in bridal red (including – I wanted to vomit when I saw this – a
pregnant woman and a little girl) all voluntarily approaching their death.
That anonymous child is the only
one in the crowd looking fearful rather than purposeful. I wonder if Bhansali
let that shot of her frightened face slip in by mistake, because the rest of
that elongated passage is clearly intended to valourise Rajput women. Jauhar was a horrendous practice
underlining the belief that a woman’s life is worth nothing if her vagina, the
sole property of her husband or future husband, is invaded by another man.
Considering that conservatives even in today’s India place greater value on
what they see as a woman’s ‘honour’ over her life, it is scary that Bhansali
has chosen to glamorise jauhar in his
film in a bid to play to the Rajput gallery.
I am only portraying a reality
from our past – I can almost hear him say the words. There is a difference
though, Mr Bhansali, between portraying a shameful reality and venerating it.
So yeah, everything in Padmaavat looks pretty, but the film has
little else to offer beyond that, not even the striking performances that
marked out Bhansali’s last directorial venture, Bajirao Mastani, in 2015.
Ranveer Singh appears to have bowed completely to Bhansali’s vision of an evil
Muslim king. While one cannot argue with an actor seeing a director as his
captain, what is certainly worth questioning is his decision to accept this
role with the full awareness of what that vision entailed in this case.
Others who have submitted
entirely to Bhansali’s line of thinking in their performances are Raza Murad
playing the ravenous Muslim, Jalaluddin Khilji, and Jim Sarbh (who was so
interesting in Konkona Sensharma’s A
Death In The Gunj just last year) here playing a scheming homosexual,
Alauddin’s slave Malik Kafur who one of the virtuously heterosexual H.R.H.
Ratan’s courtiers describes as Alauddin’s “begum”.
Shahid Kapoor as Ratan Singh has
precisely one expression on his face from start to finish, which is such a
disappointment considering how amazing he was in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014).
Deepika Padukone and Aditi Rao
Hydari look great, of course. They are the only ones among the lead cast who
manage to eke something out of the stereotype-ridden writing by Prakash R.
Kapadia and Bhansali. Although their roles do not give them much space for
depth, they remain convincing as epitomes of grace and elegance throughout.
Neither their presence nor the
overkill of extravagant spectacle can save this film though. Apart from the
tuneful Binte dil and brief snatches
of the background score, even the music does not match up to what Bhansali’s
films have delivered in the past.
Padmaavat’s disturbing ideology –
misogynistic, communal and homophobic – is bad enough. The final nail in the
coffin is the lack of chemistry between Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor,
which made me long for the Aishwarya Rai-Hrithik Roshan pairing in the equally
lavishly produced, vastly superior Jodhaa
Akbar (2008). Remember Queen Jodhaa peeping out from behind curtains at the
topless emperor? It was a scene crackling with electricity and longing.
Watching Padmaavat’s lead couple
together though, I could not for the life of me understand why Padmavati gave a
fig – or her life – for H.R.H. Ratan.
(out of five stars): *
This review was also published on Firstpost: