Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali Production: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures Cast: Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Jim Sarbh, Aditi Rao Hydari Cinematography: Sudeep Chatterjee Sound Design: Biswadeep Chattejee ; Music: Sanchit Balhara Editing: Rajesh G. Pandey
Hindi | Action, Drama, History | 163 mins | India| 2018
Sanjay Leela Bhansali could well have named his latest film Khilji and not Padmaavat. Perhaps then, it would not have seen such uproar. Indeed Padmaavat is more about Alauddin Khilji and his all consuming desire to ‘see and subsequently own’ Rani Padmavati than about the Rani and Maharawal Ratan Singh. At the outset and seen in isolation - though that is a near impossibility with all the noise around it, Padmaavat in its current form does not violate Rajput pride. In fact, the film takes Rajput’s word of honour, principles, valour, courage and refusal to cow down in the face of adversity, to another level! A level, which by standards of artistic merit, definitely appears to be a bowing down of the film’s makers to the threats by fringe elements and disapproving looks of the royal family of Mewar.
Padmaavat claims to be work of fiction and deserves to be seen in that light alone. History texts see multiple accounts revolve around Rani Padmini and Khilji’s overarching obsession to own her. While most accounts differ from each other a few facts remain undisputed across board – that Khilji was informed of her by a former courtier of Ratan Singh called Raghav Chetan, Chittor’s head priest in the film; that Khilji had laid siege to the fort of Chittor and his first few attempts to conquer Chittor remained unfruitful; that he captured Raja Ratan Singh through guile and took him to Delhi to force Rani Padmini to come to Delhi if she wanted her husband back alive; that Ratan Singh was ‘rescued’ and returned safely to Chittor thus prompting Khilji to follow and attack Chittor once more; that Ratan Singh was defeated finally and Padmavati committed Jauhar along with other women in the fort. That Khilji despite his victory over Chittor was defeated in spirit. And to all of the above Padmaavat remains true to the core.
How it was originally conceived by Bhansali may remain a mystery but this version is definitely not worth the time and effort spent on it so far by legal experts, historians, CBFC and its special review committee, officials and voters with an eye on elections, Supreme Court, and certainly not that Karni Sena – courtesy whom everyone else has been dragged in. Not for the reasons cited in any case.
Like most of Bhansali’s films, Padmaavat too celebrates the grandeur of India’s rich heritage, its magnificent heroes and larger-than-life women who were Real Heroines and even villains turned rulers. Unmatched in scale and opulence, Bhansali takes his creations a notch up every time but his plots and characters suffer as a result. Here too, there is little evolution of the lead protagonists: be it Shahid Kapoor who plays Raja Ratan Singh, Padmavati his second queen - the exquisite Deepika Padukone or Ranveer Singh who essays the Turkish invader Alauddin Khilji. Khilji is certainly not glorified, not in the manner that Abdul Lateef was glorified in Raees by Shah Rukh Khan. Khilji is dyed completely black as a character who dresses and behaves more like a ragamuffin than the Sultan of ‘Hindostan’. He has little to do except obsess over Padmavati of whose beauty he has only heard. Other than that, he spends time killing his kin or satisfying his lust. Blinded by power, which is fuelled by ego and his loyal vassal Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh – but of this fine actor a little later) Bhansali’s Khilji is dark with no redeeming shades that may make him appear human. His ruthlessness and cruelty being legendary, Bhansali has chosen to focus only on that and no other shade of his is examined. Ranveer Singh with his unbounded energy does justice to the creative expression of the director. But where was the need to put in an item song where Khilji dances with his troops? If this is freedom of expression in Bhansali’s terminology, little more need be said about authentic portrayal!
Also unfathomable is the lack of chemistry between the Raja and the love of his life, Padmavati. They appear to be in love for appearance’s sake only. They fall in love in the first frame they set eyes on each other and that is end of it. Even further into the film, the viewer is not engaged emotionally and ends up not feeling for them or falling in love with either. For someone whose story of committing Jauhar and one who exhorted 16000 women to immolate themselves in a burning pyre are legendary across India and spoken of with a lot of pride and respect even today, Rani Padmini in Padmaavat needed a lot more profundity than portrayed.
Sure, like all of Bhansali’s heroines, Padmini too is a woman with a lot of spine – she takes political decisions despite being admonished by her husband; she counsels him where is necessary; she administers and over rules senior courtiers when the need arises; she is deeply conscious of the Rajput’s aan baan aur shaan (reputation, wealth and honour) and in the end also exhorts women for Jauhar. Padukone is exquisite as she is headstrong but there is no depth or evolution to her character, unfortunately. In a film meant to celebrate her courage, Rani Padmavati should have been nuanced far more.
As for Shahid Kapoor, he stops short of being wasted. As the weakest of the three leads, he shines only in scenes when confronting or confronted by Alauddin Khilji. A highly underrated actor despite stellar performances in films like Kaminey, Haider and Jab We Met Kapoor deserved better in Padmaavat even if the film’s story belonged elsewhere. He rises above his station but fails to touch the audience. At the end of the day, just mouthing dialogues about Rajput honour and principles fails to connect – if anything their endless repetition tires you out. It is a long film and one which could have been snipped short but why waste all that footage?
Jim Sarbh (remember the villainous hijacker from Neerja) is the actor to watch out for in future. As Malik Kafur here, who in real life was a eunuch and rose to become a general in Khilji’s army, Bhansali’s Kafur stops just a tad short of being effeminate. But Sarbh convinces you about the longing he feels for his Sultan; his unquestionable loyalty; his demonic shades and his envy when the Sultan pays more attention to women. Sarbh brings to his role a quiet intensity and stands unmistakably tall.
Shot in warm and icy tones (depending on the character) Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography is expansive - especially so, the aerial photography, some of it breathtaking. Chatterjee’s repertoire includes a canvas ranging from the magnificent to the rustic: think Bajirao Mastani, Guzaarish to Dor and Iqbal. It can be challenging to work with VFX integration but the two time winner of the National Award for Best Cinematography seems on home turf having done so in Bajrao Mastani as well. The layered look in Padmaavat adds stupendous depth to its indoor sets and outdoor locations. As Indians we love our stories to be presented larger-than-life and Chatterjee’s frames capture just that. He ably supports Bhansali’s vision of operatic richness. That is just another reason why Padmaavat deserves that visit to the theatre.
Padmaavat will also draw its audiences for two-three other reasons: First, pure curiosity – for obvious reasons. Second, for its uber-rich portrayal of Rajasthani splendour and grace. And third, for the magnet that Deepika Padukone is. She stands statuesque with a halo of infinite possibilities yet to be explored and oozes charm in every frame.
Irrespective of what historians may claim - to know history in a 360 degree perspective is near impossible. It is coloured by accounts written by individuals who view events, incidents through their own prisms of loyalty and ideology. Neither Karni Sena nor Sanjay Bhansali can really claim to be depicting history as it was created back in 1303. But that is no reason for you to stay away from that one time watch of Padmaavat. For all its flaws (including scant regard for the Mewari dialect) it is still a labour of love and deserves its space in the firmament of Indian cinema.