Synopsis – Set in medieval Rajasthan, Queen Padmavati is married to a noble king and they live in a prosperous fortress with their subjects until an ambitious Sultan hears of Padmavati’s beauty and forms an obsessive love for the Queen of Mewar.
My Take – Since the time filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali broke on to the Indian screens with the emotional roller coaster, Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), we all have become accustomed to his style and vision. As a recognized benchmark filmmaker, his films from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) to Devdas (2002) to Bajirao Mastani (2015), have garnered acclaim for his visual direction, lavish set, gorgeous costumes, breath-taking visuals, larger than life characters and mesmerizing music along with an authentic screenplay backing it all up (2007’s Saawariya is an exception), unfortunately this time around, his latest has been in news for all the wrong reasons. Originally set to release on December 1st, 2017, the film was mired in controversy due to the portrayal of a supposed fictional romantic liaison between two its lead characters, Alauddin and Padmavati, in the film that sparked violent protests by Hindu radicals in India even before the film had entered post production. Followed by an attack in Jaipur where the sets were destroyed to the ongoing protests by the Rajput Karni Sena, the film has continued to been in the eye of a storm since street protests against the film turned increasingly violent, with reports of vandalism around a number of multiplexes in Gujarat on Tuesday, followed by protests planned by Hindu groups who accuse director Sanjay Leela Bhansali of distorting history. While the Sena have gone ahead to openly demand actress Deepika Padukone‘s nose and director Bhansali‘s head for a reward along with the non-release, it’s a shame on the central government who remain unwilling to put this smaller groups in check in order to save their vote bank in the upcoming elections. Now that the film has released, all those protesting can finally mellow down as there is utterly and absolutely nothing in the film that could hurt the proud Rajput clan’s pride and dignity. Instead, this film is more like a director’s love letter to the Rajputs as he shows them in the most glorious light ever seen on the big screen, something the royal descendants can be proud to be associated with. Add to that the director’s trademark touches, one can say that he has pulled off a project of such a scale quite effectively. The trailer promised a visual delight with some passionate performances, and it does not disappoint at all in that area, yet something prevents the film from reaching its height of epicness – the writing. Yes, running for a massive 163 minute, the screenplay doesn’t justify its run time, as its lacks the emotional connect, not even that occasional moment of warmth or terror that you can expect from a Bhansali film, and just seems too dependent on its marvelous actors to somehow use the surroundings to make it work.
Loosely based on a Sufi poem of the same name written in 1540 by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the story set in Medieval Rajasthan follows Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), the young princess of Singhal known for her extraordinary beauty, who during a during a hunting trip ends up accidentally injuring Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a Rajput ruler of the Guhila dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Mewar in Northwest India, who was in the land looking to get pearls for his wife Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka). However love blossoms between the two and Padmavati returns to the city of Chittor with Ratan Singh as his second queen. Upon arrival she manages to impress everyone including the resident sage Raghav Chetan (Aayam Mehta) with her humility and commitment to Rajput values, however, due to a deceitful act, Raghav Chetan is banished from the Kingdom and finds himself at the doors of the Khilji empire, led by Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), the Turko-Afghan ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, an equal-opportunity lover and all-round psychopath. Known for his murderous ways & lust for possessing anything beautiful at any cost, the vengeful Chetan convinces Allauddin to invade Chittor, so that he can seize the beautiful Padmavati, and fulfill his future as the ruler of the world . Despite disapproval from his wife Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), Allauddin grows increasingly obsessed with lust upon hearing about Padmavati’s fabled beauty, and with his loyal general, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) at his side, he takes his army and sets in motion an epic of battle of wills between the Sultanate and Singh’s kingdom. As seen in the trailers, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali promised a visual treat to his viewers and that is what he delivers. It merely narrates an epic tale of war and love, beauty and madness and as once you step into this world, without any preconceived notions, you are in for a visual treat, grand sets and costumes, and memorable performances. Here, he is in no rush to finish the story. He takes time to build the world and the characters and does so tactfully until the very last frame of the film (which is sure to make your jaw drop). Besides, you will find characters not just existing in their safe space, but rather in the royal background, trying to use words to one-up each other, whether be it for love or animosity, it’s a war of words and as a director he understands that. It’s only him who can balance the melodrama with epic tales and not tip over and make it feel forced, it’s to his credit that after all these years, his style and flavor of drama still works and that’s because he has subtly changed and refined it throughout. More than anything, it’s the director whose transition and maturation as a film-maker is evident in the film. Of course, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has always been a master of his craft and a true auteur (if one may use the term). In this film, every frame and every visual bares his signature in big, bold letters and you cannot forget that. A lot of attention to detail has been paid to every character, all of whom look genuinely belonging to that era. Whether it’s the introduction of Jalaluddin Khilji or Deepika’s entry or the view of the Darbar of Alauddin, every shot leaves you awestruck. Some things are quintessentially Bhansali. The grandeur, unmistakable magnificence, the spectacular sartorial choices, the gems and jewelry, and “all days are wedding days ” kind of finery that looks all the more inviting when seen through 3D glasses . The lavish frames captured by Sudeep Chatterjee’s camera with the humongous palaces, never-ending war fields, horses ravaging enemy territory and the clanking of metal on the battlefield – the film commands attention, revels in it, makes the most of it and looks breathtaking in every perfectly crafted scene. Every inch of director Bhansali’s 164-minute period drama about the sacking of Chittor is perfectly framed; every character is symmetrically arranged, in coordinated colors; every bauble is of extreme elegance; every line of dialogue is momentous; every wound spurts just enough blood to ensure that it is in perfect balance with all the other elements on the screen.
Though upholstered majestically, the story somewhere fizzles out. When stripped away of all the covers, the film is at its heart the story of Queen Padmavati and the Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji, who, on hearing about her beauty, wages two wars and kills countless people just so he can “conquer” her. But unlike director Bhansali’s earlier films, where he was able to find emotional depth even in opulent historical romances, this one falls short. Sure, there is plenty of other drama, but it is perhaps not as riveting because the dichotomy between good and evil is too stark. Characters are black or white, with no subtleties, and the moralistic tone of the Rajput code of ethics becomes cumbersome after a while and you can often predict what is going to happen next. As a cinematic spectacle, the film cannot be faulted as it is singularly beautiful – but the beauty, unlike its titular character, is merely skin deep. Queen Padmavati, whose story the film purports to tell, is anything but a superficial beauty. She values virtue over looks, and can plan wars and anticipate an enemy’s moves better than her warrior husband. Yet, we only get a glimpse of what is supposed to be a multi-dimensional personality. For the most part, the queen is reduced to a one-tone portrait of devotion to her Rajput husband, Rawal Ratan Singh, who is even more vanilla than Padmavati, content with spouting platitudes about valor and honor. In contrast with the unscrupulous Alauddin Khilji, he sounds even more prudish and condescending, and together with Padmavati, Ratan Singh weighs down the film. Though entertaining, some might find certain aspects of Khilji’s projection OTT. The song where he is dancing with his generals reminds you of Malhari and one will find it hard to believe that Khilji really shook a leg like this! Plus, it’s a little baffling how a man so shrewd so willingly puts everything on stake just to win a woman he has never seen before. At 163 minutes, director Bhansali‘s ambitious film starts to drag and is an imaginary piece with not enough meat to keep the viewer invested. Bhansali failed in delivering a good start as the film starts on a slow note and doesn’t even speed up until Pre-Interval. Thankfully, the slow pace of the first hour shifts as soon as the film reopens post interval. It’s rightly dramatic, eventful and thus by default, more interesting. Despite these drawbacks, the film keeps you hooked mainly due its performances. As the titular character, Deepika Padukone is powerful, restrained and charismatic. Here, her breathtaking beauty is in full effect in this film, outshining ornate, gilded palace walls and the elaborate outfits she dons here. Shahid Kapoor gives a restrained performance with his eyes conveying his emotions. Playing the second fiddle, he may not have the body or mannerisms of a tough leader, nevertheless gives his best. The highlight of the film is obviously Ranveer Singh, as he plays his character with aplomb in what is certainly a career-defining role for the actor who is more often cast as the romantic lead in mega Bollywood productions. Here, Ranveer amuses you with his stunning performance because he is the only one who makes all the sense in the film. He makes you dislike him but that’s what is exactly needed. While other characters are bound by code, he is unfettered, dancing with animalistic abandon on the celebratory song Khali Bali. His performance is magnetic and you can’t look away. Among supporting roles, Aditi Rao Hydari and Jim Sarbh, in particular, deserve mention, while Anupriya Goenka is wasted. On the whole, ‘Padmaavat’ is a decent entertaining periodic drama which despite its story telling flaws deserves a watch for its acting and visual execution.
Directed – Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 164 minutes