All those agitating over how Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat would trample all over Rajput pride, you may rest easy: the director didn’t need a memo from the Karni Sena and all the other self-styled ‘armies’ on keeping it ‘sanskaari’ — his entire film is a relentlessly opulent, magnificently-mounted paean to Rajput ‘aan baan shaan’. And, whichever way you slice and dice it, and Bhansali is a master at grandstanding, to the pernicious practice of ‘sati’.
Here’s how it goes, just in case you are one of those rare people who haven’t been breathlessly following the film’s troubles: the Rajput king Ratan Singh (Kapoor) is the hero, the Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji ( Singh) is the villain, and the object of their mutual adoration is the utterly gorgeous Padmavati, who will always and forever be a good Indian girl, and later, wife. When we see her first, she is fleet of foot and clear of eye, a joyous free spirit who has a will of her own. She ends up committing ‘jauhar’, her life and death circumscribed by male notions of honour.
If that’s not patriarchy, then I’m Queen Padmavati, who of course did not exist. And while we, of course, cannot judge the actions of the dramatis personae who presumably lived in the 13th century (even if they were mythical creatures, created by the poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi) by present-day gender roles, we do see that the director has a problem on his hands: how do you show a beautiful queen jumping into a pyre, along with hundreds of her compatriots (a cringe-making shot has a pregnant woman and a little girl), without glorifying the act?
One way of doing it is to stuff the beginning and the middle acts with so much glitter and glamour that we are expected to be swept away. Which we dutifully do: there’s a kind of beauty in the way Bhansali creates his frames. I liked the fact that, unlike in his Devdas and Bajirao Mastani, where we are constantly distracted by the scenery, here we are aware of it as background, as it should be: the characters are foregrounded, as they should be. But there’s only so much lavishness the eye can take before being overwhelmed.
It helps that Deepika Padukone, who never been lovelier, wears those stunning costumes, never letting them wear her, even if her waist is decorously covered in the Ghoomar song (alert viewers may see a flash of the said body part in other parts of the film). Shahid Kapoor sports kohl in his eyes, and clearly articulated muscles in his chest, often left bare. But his role is not articulated enough: he is left spouting rousing dialogue about Rajput valour. Much more visible is Jim Sarbh, deliciously camp in his portrayal of the slave Malik Kafur, who looks with such louche longing at Khilji. But this film belongs, far and away, to Ranveer Singh’s Khilji, who bites into mounds of meat (serving well the prototype of the Muslim savage ) and his part with such relish that you can taste it.
If it hadn’t been for the extreme reactions from a bunch of extreme reactionaries-cum-buffoons which nearly derailed the release the film, Padmaavat would have been just another Bhansali extravaganza, full of costumery and puffery. But given that all art is political, even if it is dressed up art, Padmaavat becomes more than it is, because the director chooses to heavily outline the vileness of his antagonist, and underline the ‘pati-vrata ness’ of Rani Padmavati. Far from any subtle touches, Bhansali’s black-and-white delineation of the good Hindu and the bad Muslim (who could also, gasp, swing both ways) is so stark that that we are left with no illusion about which part of the political firmament he wants to be on the right side of.
Finally, and we can’t get away from this, the question for us while watching this fresh version of the oldest tale in the book – ‘ek tha raja, ek thi rani, dono mar gaye, khatam kahani’—is, how do we deal with the fact of a woman being forced to jump into a pyre to save the ‘honour’ of her husband, and her people?
Of course, Padmaavat is spectacular: no one can do spectacle like Bhansali. This was what he was born to do. You can easily delight in it while the going is good. But nearly three hours of it, and looping rhetoric around what constitutes Rajput valour can and does become tiresome. And that compulsion to make ‘sati’ so good-looking, when the singeing of flesh can be so gruesome, is troubling.
If there’s one thing that keeps us from brooding too much through the film, it is Ranveer Singh. Not once does he try to make us like him, and that makes us like him even more. As a performer, his chief asset has been his unpredictability, in a good way. As Bhansali’s scarred, manically-over-the-top Khilji, he is electric. And try as anyone might, so is the attraction between the galloping outsider and the lovely queen: it is their doomed love story, whose embers rain on the screen, that we take away with us.
Take that, senas.