In the absence of all forms of protest that wracked almost all the north of the country, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat might have been just another resplendent, glitzy set-piece affair that it actually is. Thanks to the paid state-tacit- mob psychology that wasted precious bricks on unsuspecting innocents, including a school-bus of petrified children, inanimate posters, and concrete and glass structures of multiplexes however, the movie’s been raised to a hitherto unseen pedestal of curiosity.
And in that sense, there’s nothing salivatingly censurous about this project, except, perhaps, for its burgeoning length of 164 minutes. If at all, I’m shocked the Khilji clan bearers haven’t yet descended from wherever they are to add to the consumption of the kiln-baked products. Look out for that on social media, #IamKhilji or #IamakhiljiandIamnotasavage. The latter does justice to the movie’s run time, too. For that is your introduction to Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), before the long-running disclaimer that disavows any responsibility or vague similarity to anything possible, except the fidgeting-in-anticipation audience. Khilji is part Mongloid, part Wolverine, part Sonny Corleone, per writers Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia. On his wedding day, he’s busy making love to a woman while his bride, Mehrunisa (a radiant Aditi Rao Hydari) awaits without (to be fair to the Godfather, Corleone did it with the bride herself). He’s marrying her to eventually usurp power from her father, his uncle, the founder of the Khilji dynasty, and ruler of Delhi, Jalaluddin Khilji (a chicken-chomping Raza Murad, who’s voice still manages to transfix, but whose role is far too caricatured).
Meanwhile, miles away in Singhal, there’s Princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) – who is referred to thus, which means the title change was but an eye wash, what ho. No wonder the Sena’s knickers are in a twist-and-shout – who’s still single, thank you, and has just shot the figurative Cupid’s arrow into visiting ruler Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor’s) heart. And before you can say Prem Ratan Biwi Paayo, the inevitable matrimony occurs, leading to some stunning visuals, and also the inevitable Grecian descent into the Helen of Troy variation of covetous warfare. As she faces the in-house sage and philosopher-guide in Chittorgarh, Raghav Chetan (Aayam Mehta), she floors him and husband Ratan with her sharp, wise, and deep replies to the former’s probing questions. Later however, when Padmavati and Ratan discover that the sage has developed a proclivity for being a peeping tom, he’s summarily kicked out of the kingdom.
You don’t need the wisdom of a sage to figure out that Chetan will join hands with Khilji (Singh, not Murad) – who’s by now disposed of his uncle and plonked himself on a throne, that, the uncle rather presciently had declared, was uncomfortable – you realize he wasn’t talking about ergonomics, but uneasy the head and the crown, and all that. For some it is the head, for others, some other part of the anatomy, you realize. And without having seen Padmavati, Khilji’s now obsessed with her (much like the brick-toting Sena boys) for he’s the kind of guy who, once desirous of something, will ensure he has it. Reminds me of the some of the brats I see in the malls these days (#IwillgetwhatIwantbutIamnotKhilji.)
What follows is war, negotiations, an assassination attempt, an escape, war again, and the inevitable ending. Amidst all this, there’s also Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka), the first wife of Ratan, who, true to her name, constantly nags Padmavati with a litany of “I-told-you-so”s. And just when you thought he couldn’t do any worse than last year’s excruciating Raabta, Jim Sarbh plays Malik Kafur, Khilji’s eunuch-general – where their relation could have actually been a darker side to the story, there’s just an occasional wink, nod, pat, and a snide remark – and a ridiculous song sequence where Kafur holds a torch and sings while Khilji makes love to a woman, the thin curtain but a veil to cover the ruler and his general’s relationship. The writing makes Kafur a wannabe participant in a ménage à trois, while Sarbh fails at capturing either the passion or the heat of his character. Unfortunately, Bhansali plays gossip-monger, not story-teller, and this angle winds down, rather winding up.
To be fair, Padmaavat is a glorious spectacle, one that deserves an IMAX screen – but not the irksome 3-D glasses – what would Dunkirk or Sully have been, if 3-D had been thrust upon them, like it is here – one shudders at the thought. With cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, director Bhansali creates some truly fine scenes – Padmavati’s introductory scene is nothing short of magical. As transfixing is the fight scene between Khilji and Ratan, superbly choreographed and shot amidst an unforgiving landscape. The sets are stunning, as are the costumes, and the director aims to please with his grand parade of lifestyle packaging, and he does. The colors are vibrant, the sound design by Bishwadeep Chatterjee is a treat, and you’re in aural awe of Padmaavat.
And propping up this magnificent spectacle are its lead actors. Ranveer Singh once again chomps and chews at his role, this time literally. Where others might have hammed, the actor snarls and gnarls, gnawing at the very essence of what humane behavior looks like. He revels in being bad, pushing the envelope for what mainstream actors can sign up for, and dips into the ink of evil to paint a picture that is hauntingly black. His is an act of sheer gregarious evil, Satanic manipulation – note the scene where he exhorts his army to bring down the flag and go home, and then the one-eyebrow-raised-in-triumph as they fall for it – black comedy, operatic loudness and an energy that’s entertainingly unlikeable. Here’s to more of his energy onscreen.
Deepika Padukone, in the titular role (never mind an additional alphabet here and an excised alphabet there) is simply, irresistibly, iridescent. She’s ephemeral and ethereal at the same time, all grace and beauty in the melodic Ghoomar number (Shreya Ghoshal proving she’s one of the best in the playback business, Bhansali’s composition not making you head to the popcorn counter), her moves oh so magnetic and hypnotic, a dichotomous combination of fettered grace and gay abandon. The actor drips mischievous seductiveness and royalty as effortlessly as she spews fire and grit, her eyes perhaps the highlight of the movie. Any lesser act might have made the jauhar speech look ludicrous, but she invests such power and intense intent, you nod your head in anachronistic understanding.
Shahid Kapoor is a pleasant surprise here. As someone who knows his role is perhaps the least spotlighted of the three and also the least flamboyant, he carries his presence with a quiet grace that I haven’t seen him do after Jab We Met. In his eyes do you see a strange combination of meditative helplessness and acceptance of doom, a sadness and pain that’s undefinably haunting.
How you wish you could say that about the movie. And you can’t help but think that Bhansali’s trade-off is regrettable. What could have been a multi-dimensional story becomes a vehicle for an onscreen strenuous 3-D exercise; what could have been a punch in the guts narrative becomes a colorful canvas for an out-and-out overdramatized denouement, shades of Mirch Masala to boot, replete with a loud choral orchestral arrangement that’s transparently manipulative. What you get is a movie that trades powerful story-telling for visual grandeur. And you want to tell the director, pick up those scissors and pen, and move it…and us.
And to the rioting boys, drop that stone and go watch the movie. It’s all and more than what you’re ostensibly fighting for. And it’s more than likely that you’ll ship your arson arsenal to the Khiljis.
Padmaavat is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s sword violence, sensuality, and chicken eating in times of avian flu.
Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali Running Time 2h 44 min
Writers Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Prakash Kapadia
Stars Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor
Genres Drama, History, Romance
Watch the trailer of Padmaavat here: