I had a History teacher, bless her wherever she is, who, in swift marches through sixth through tenth grades, did something that was irrevocable and immutable for me. She did this using an unfailing technique of teaching – reading through the History lessons drily, sometimes with an almost lackadaisical approach to the vast and tumultuous periods that the text covered. She supplemented this with her question-answer sessions that she viewed only from the bioscope of the question papers that she’d set for us. Aiding her were a couple of text celebrants – or guides, as they were called then. Nandlal Dayaram and Sultan Chand’s guide books were her constant companions, as she dictated answers from them, and made sure we read nothing but. In short, History was only an exercise in filling in the blanks (…………………………….. waged the battle of …………………………. In 1843), carving out spaces on the maps (Mark the Harappa civilization in the attached map), or writing boringly long pieces (What were the achievements of Akbar the great? Name the halls in his palace and the activities they were earmarked for, and also list some famous personalities in his court and their achievements) What did this did for me was simple – I swore off History the subject, History the reading, and found solace in mystery instead.
Which is why, when director Sanjay Leela Bhansali (SLB) called me and my History teacher for a special screening of his latest production and directorial effort, “Bajirao Mastani”, I was not without qualms. But then, this movie was based on the book, “Rau”, penned by the formidable author N.S. Inamdar – and I had caught glimpses of the Marathi serial of the same name on Doordarshan. And so I went, and below is a faithful transcription of the conversation that never happened.
SLB (walking in after the movie): So, how was it? (Eyes beaming at us, watching us closely.)
History teacher: Sanjay, kaay re, how much of liberty can you take with a historical story?
SLB: Madam, didn’t you see the long disclaimer piece right in the beginning? Just so people don’t miss it, I made sure it was read out too, and unlike the pace of a mutual funds disclaimer ad.
History teacher: Hoy re, but still.
Me: Sir, to be frank, I was quite blown by the grandeur of your vision, and to me, what is possibly your best effort.
SLB (with the demeanor of Rajesh Khanna in Amar Prem, as he egged Sharmila Tagore to continue singing Rahul Dev Burman’s heart-stopping classic, “Raina beeti jaaye”): Go on.
Me: The first half was what a magnum worth its opus ought to be. Absolutely engaging drama, breath-taking sets, and palace intrigue that slowly emerges as the Frankenstein monster that eventually consumes everyone around it.
Teacher, I’m telling you this because you missed the beginning…
Teacher: Melya, I had gone to buy samosas outside. Then, I had to buy Digene, because at this age, fried….
Me (interrupting hastily): The movie opens with Chattrapati Shahu Maharaj (Mahesh Manjrekar) mulling on who to anoint the next Peshwa after his first Peshwa, Balaji Vishwanath’s demise. In a splendid scene that sets the scene for future polarisation and politics, Ambaji Panth (Milind Soman) proposes Vishwanth’s son, Bajirao’s name. This is opposed by Panth Pratinidhi (Aditya Pancholi), but then in strides Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) and demonstrating his mastery over weaponry and politics, convinces Shahu maharaj that Ambaji’s proposal to devolve the Peshwa’s role is indeed the right one. Thus is Bajirao made the next Peshwa…
Teacher: Arre pan, what was that scene with the peacock feather and arrow? This was not written in Nandlal Dayaram.
Me (ignoring the wave of panic and terror the aforesaid names brought forth): Ahem, I also loved how nicely Bajirao’s family is brought into relief at this point – his devoted, loving wife, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra), his staunch and tough as nails mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi), and his loyal brother, Chimaji Appa (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi). Bajirao goes off to campaign and war with the Mughals, his final goal the capture of Delhi to establish the saffron Maratha flag there.
While Bajirao and his army are campaigning near Bundelkhand, they get the news that Maharaja Chhatrasal of Bundelkhand (Benjamin Gilani) is under siege from the Mughals, and he’s sent his messenger with a plea for help. Bajirao refuses, and at this point, his war tent is marauded by the messenger, who quickly dispatches some soldiers to their fate. As it turns out, this marauding messenger is Chhatrasal’s daughter, Mastani (Deepika Padukone).
Teacher: Kaahee hee, Sanju. That was too much of liberty, Mastani attacking Bajirao himself. Nandlal….
SLB (a trifle impatiently): Was it dramatic?
Me: Absolutely. And the scene also marks the beginning of the sizzle and sparkle between Bajirao and Mastani. Needless to say, Bajirao helps Chhatrasal ward off the Mughals and also leaves his dagger with Mastani – which she, in accordance with a Bundelkhand tradition, believes as a sign of marriage. By now, the attraction and love between them is unmistakable, but Bajirao has to continue his campaign and return to his new abode in Poona – Shaniwar Wada. In some superbly constructed scenes, Mastani follows him and lands up at the doors of Shaniwar Wada.
SLB (going into Rajesh Khanna mode again): Go on…
Me: There’s superb atmospherics and drama here on. Radhabai and Chimaji’s attempts to make Mastani quiescent, Kashibai’s realization of her husband’s love for Mastani, Mastani’s defiance of the world, and Bajirao’s attempts to balance this storm and all the stormy characters. The movie captures all of this sharply, beautifully, and there’s a brilliantly lit scene that involves Bajirao, Mastani, Kashibai, and Radhabai, that’s fiery, high on drama, and a great interval calling card.
Teacher: Melya, if you’d written your history answer papers half as well….
SLB (now indistinguishable from Rajesh K): And…?
Me: To me, what doesn’t work in “Bajirao Mastani” is the absence of Bajirao, and Kashibai’s interaction with Mastani. Whereas this ought to have been a cracker, it seems forced when the former traipses into Mastani Mahal and invites the latter for “haldi kunku”….
Teacher: Maazhe kunku….maazhe kunku…
Me (ignoring her): In short, when Bajirao isn’t around, the energy flags a trifle. And I didn’t care much for the “Pingaa” song, much as you’d thought of it as a flagship number for this project; not because the song is without merit (the antara is truly melodic), and Shreya Ghoshal and Vaishali Made sing it brilliantly – but that scene brought the drama a level down for me.
Teacher: Sanju, kaahee hee. Nandlal Dayaram would have committed suicide if they had been asked to include the question, “In which year did Kashibai dance with Mastani?”
SLB: What about the other songs?
Me: The music score is easily one of this year’s best. It encompasses the scale of what this movie is about and there’s genuine melody. “Mohe rang do laal” is an anachronistic beauty and rarity – lovely classical number, sung ever so well by Shreya Ghoshal, this one was true goose bumps. “Albela Saajan” was nice, but sounded as if you’d found Ismail Durbar’s notes from “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” and applied them to “Bajirao Mastani”.
Me (interrupting, on a roll): Prakash Kapadia’s screenplay and dialogues are just right, the latter thankfully avoiding too much of histrionics most of the time, and providing the right weight to the ongoing drama. Sanchit Balhara’s background score and music is just about the right tone for a movie of this scale and vision. As is Sudeep Chaterjee’s moody cinematography.
And the production design is of a scale one hasn’t seen so far in Hindi cinema. Saloni Dhatrak, Sriram Iyengar, and Sujeet Sawant’s production design is simply breath-taking. The sets, the scale, and the colors, all congregate to make “Bajirao Mastani” a movie that’s a royal dazzle.
SLB: Sure, and…
Me (unstoppable juggernaut): Of the cast, Tanvi Azmi as Radhabai, Bajirao’s mother, is superb. Her crafty, venomous reaction to Mastani is masterful, as is her demeanour that views Mastani as nothing but an opportunistic and cheap charlatan. The supporting cast comprising Milind Soman, Aditya Pancholi, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi, Benjamin Gilani, are all assured and right.
Priyanka Chopra is the brave one in this project, knowing fully well that she’s not in the title role. It is to her credit and uberous acting chops that she carves her own, unintimidated and classy space. When Ranveer’s Bajirao comes home after being anointed the Peshwa, Priyanka’s standing on the first floor, looking down at his entry. She kills that scene as her eyes well with tears of joy and pride and she lovingly looks at Ranveer. Later, when Deepika’s Mastani makes an entry into the court with the “Deewani Mastani” number, something dawns within her, and you can see Priyanka take a deep breath and control her anxiety. It’s a fleeting shot, but what a performance. As the movie progresses and Kashibai grows angrier with Bajirao and Mastani, every scene of hers with them reeks of hurt, something that Priyanka gets across subtly and beautifully.
As Mastani, Deepika scores top on the charts with grace, nimble-footed action, and an act that screams for love, justice, and finally gives into eternal hopelessness. And yet, in none of the scenes is Deepika loud. She’s absolutely amazing, her dances leaving you in a bind of magic and ethereal daze. Her first dance in front of Bajirao, “Mohe rang do laal” is a study in grace and beauty. Her eyes radiate uncontrollable love that fill up as tears, even as she moves, her fingers, hands and feet doing complete justice to Pandit Birju Maharaj’s choreography. Her eyes never leave Ranveer’s and yet she’s lets the fire burn within, her luminous eyes radiating the helpless and hopeless love she falls herself in. And when she’s onscreen with Ranveer, you can cut through her crackling passion and yearning with a knife. Truly, a stunningly class act.
SLB (going all Kaka on me again): Go on…
Teacher: Tujhe history marks kiti, tu boltoys kiti….
Me: In the role of Bajirao, Ranveer Singh has had to cross multiple comfort zones, and he does it with a stunning grace of a seasoned warrior. Every scene he’s in, he’s chewing away at the delectable VFX-enabled scenery. With just that hint of a Maharashtrian accent he gets in, he cracks the dialogues with a ferocity that’s awe-inspiring. In his confrontational scene with the Nizam of Deccan (Raza Murad in an unfortunately rare screen appearance), Ranveer’s threatening dialogue delivery with unexpected pauses and inflection is a scene worth watching. (And why did you have to include the disclaimer in that scene that the tiger scene was shot abroad? Has our censor board gotten that ridiculous? Honestly, pahla(j) to aisa nahin thaa.) Likewise, anytime any character (except his wife) tries to cleave between him and Mastani, Ranveer’s eyes narrow like a tiger’s ready to pounce and defend her. Throughout the movie, his is an act that’s also of impeccable body language – ramrod as a warrior, he walks, fights, and like one. Even in that ludicrous dance number, “Malhari”, Ranveer maintains his warrior-like stance, not giving into the usual graceful or lithe dance movements. And when he’s apologizing to Priyanka, he’s all soft and heart-meltingly good. Even as he races toward the tenebrous end, he’s frighteningly effective, you’re as affected by his hallucinations.
Teacher: Aaata poore. Kaay Sanju – Bajirao dancing and all? I thought I was watching Bajirao Sing Hum..ha ha ha…my sense of humor…
SLB (interrupting): So, overall…?
Teacher: Bolti aahe…I found the movie okay, baba. But too much creative liberty can be difficult to digest, Nandlal Dayaram ki kasam.
Me: If you, Mr. Bhansali, had been my history teacher, I would have enjoyed the subject more and read about Bajirao Peshwa much earlier. But honestly, this movie has most certainly piqued my interest in him.
SLB (beaming): Ah well! You’ll be happy to know that I’m working on the script of a movie on Shivaji next.
Me: Err..will it have Shivaji and Aurangzeb dance to “Imli ka boota”?
SLB (face darkening with anger and shock): Who leaked my movie script??!!
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Watch the trailer of Bajirao Mastani here: