Movie Review: 'Padmaavat' ('Padmavati')
Opened: 25 January 2018
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jim Sarbh, Raza Murad, Anupriya Goenka
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Producers: Bhansali Productions, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures
Jauhar is the Hindu custom of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by any foreign invaders, when facing certain defeat during a war. This practice was historically observed in northwest regions of India, with most famous Jauhars in recorded history occurring during wars between Hindu Rajput kingdoms in Rajasthan and the Muslim armies – John Stratton Hawley, Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India.
In a battle of wits, a test of patience and after being engulfed in an ongoing, controversial media/political storm, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmavati, or rather, Padmaavat, finally hits the marquee, and inevitably, the question that’s niggling away at most theatrical connoisseurs and even otherwise, is whether all the fuss and brouhaha worth the inevitable fervour that the movie’s stalled release kicked up? We’ll come on to that. Either way, I’m glad Bhansali’s spectacle (visually at least), made it despite all the opposition it faced, even if what we ultimately get to see is the abridged version, with it's 'alleged five cuts, a disclaimer and a name change.'
A fictional re-telling of the story of a legendary Rajput queen, Rani Padmini (a regal and resplendent Deepika Padukone), who defends her honour against a Muslim invader, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), Padmaavat which is based on the epic poem Padmavat (1540) by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, recounts the story of the queen’s romance with Ratan Sen, a Rajput ruler (Shahid Kapoor), who marries the queen and brings her to Chittor. Khilji, a ruler from a neighbouring state who's also enamoured by rumours of Padmini’s beauty, subsequently attacks Chittor in an attempt to obtain her, and it is around this drama that the plot unfolds, ultimately culminating in a goosebump-inducing finale, which perhaps wrongly, glorifies the act of 'sati/Jauhar', no matter how painstakingly it's been executed, and however many disclaimers condone it.
Love him or hate him, nobody can deny Bhansali's vision or the world which he constructs here: the sheer detailing, his trademark opulence and the excessive theatrics are all unmistakably trademark Bhansali, but like most of his ventures, he perhaps sacrifices character and plot in an attempt to wow, and that is ultimately where the film falters. To an extent, Bajirao Mastani felt a little more authentic and had depth – in Padmaavat most of the emotions feel inexplicably hollow in comparison. Although like Bajirao before it, the problem here too is that the pivotal central romance, between Padmavati and Ratan Sen isn't fully fleshed out and feels a little rushed, and perhaps unfairly tilts heavily towards glorifying the antagonist, and while that revs up the proceedings, it's a major flaw with the writing if you end up rooting for the villain instead of its star-crossed lovers.
There are other missing strands here too. The arrival of Padmavati and the effect it has on Ratan Sen's jilted first wife (Anupriya Goenka) is only hinted at, and perhaps needed a scene where the king justifies his choice even if it meant re-treading into familiar territory. If anything, it would have given Shahid's character a little more dimension and given him more to work with apart from the consistent scowl he has affixed across his face for most of the film's (long) run time.
That said, despite these glaringly obvious flaws, Padmaavat keeps you engaged and even if there aren't any real surprises in the way its narrative unfolds, it somehow manages to come out mostly unscathed because it's largely pepped up with accomplished performances and the requisite Bhansali razzle dazzle.
Unsurprisingly, Deepika, at the heart of the venture, is grace and poise personified, communicating volumes with her luminous eyes, looking enchanting besides. In contrast, Shahid definitely looks the part, regal and oozing machismo, but his character suffers and needed to be meted out, often lacking conviction, and while his chemistry with Deepika is scintillating to watch, their love story never feels enticing despite their consistent, long drawn, lovelorn glances at one other.
The scene-stealer here then inevitably is Ranveer, around whom much of the film revolves and suffice to say, I can't for the life of me figure out the fuss over the title – they should have just named it Alauddin Khilji and they'd have been done with it. As the wily, conniving, roguish and power-hungry scoundrel, he chews up each frame with unapologetic and unbridled panache – it's a showy performance that will win plaudits, as it should, because Ranveer completely surrenders to it giving us a villain for the ages.
Like most of Bhansali's previous efforts, the supporting cast get their moments to shine too. Aditi Rao Hydari brings a gravitas to her small, albeit important part as Khiji's wife Mehrunisa, while Jim Sarbh as Khilji's loyal and trusted slave, who not so secretly lusts after his menacing ruler, thankfully, steers clear of any gay, effeminate stereotypes and makes his presence felt despite Ranveer's very prominent performance. Interestingly, the film very subtly hints at a mutual relationship between the two men, and again needed to be fleshed out a tad, given that Ranveer-Jim's chemistry perhaps has more intrigue and sizzle than the king and the queen of the kingdom they eventually attack!
For all the fuss it created, is Padmaavat worth a viewing then? Absolutely. It's spectacular to look at, and despite it's numerous chinks it's Bhansali opera at its best. Admittedly, it may not be to everyone's taste and will inevitably divide opinion, but rest assured, it's something of a relief that the film finally made it to the marquee and eventually gave us closure.
See, the film industry is an easy target. It’s easy to vilify filmmakers and gain your fifteen seconds of fame to further political agendas. Udta Punjab, Raees and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil are perhaps more of the recent 'victims' of the thugs that marred their releases, and in some cases their scripts, and while any publicity is ultimately good publicity, I have time and again said that creativity should never be stifled and that freedom of expression is the birthright of all. Why don't the hypocrites who sent out puerile threats to the artists of a film, actually address the real issues, that plague their nation, instead of bringing these irrelevant matters to the forefront all in the name of culture and religion? Especially against a film that unabashedly celebrates it? Anyway. We digress.
For all intents and purposes, it's four cheers for Padmaavat from me then – it's a film that keeps you invested and in awe of its beauty and performances, despite its many inconsistencies and flaws.