In a scene towards the latter part of writer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new film, Rani Padmavati has a conversation with the mother of Badal, a loyal soldier in her royal husband’s army who gave up his life to save his king. The queen informs the madre that her son is dead. The aforesaid madre refuses to mourn her child’s passing, replying instead that a Rajput who loses his life on the battlefield is not to be deemed dead.
By then, much speechifying about Rajput valour and usool (principles) has already flowed under the bridge on screen. But wait…there is more. “Today I understand why Rajputs are said to be brave,” says Ms Padmavati. “It is because they are born of brave mothers like you.”
Oh Mummy! I almost choked on exasperated laughter in that moment as I sat watching in IMAX 3D in a darkened hall in Delhi, because like so much else in the film, the goings-on in this passage too contradict what its self-worshipping Rajput characters are saying. Far from being an example of that much-touted Rajput bravery, Badal’s end was the result of a foolish and egoistic Rajput king’s foolhardy moves going against the common-sense advice of his far more intelligent wife Padmavati — the king’s stupidity leads to his imprisonment by an enemy ruler, at which point Padmavati displays further intelligence and political acumen in entering the lion’s den and snatching her husband from the jaws of death with the help of those like Badal.
If anyone’s courage should have been celebrated at that point, it should have been the courage of Padmavati who, genetically speaking, was not a Rajput herself but a child of the Singhal kingdom that lies in modern-day Sri Lanka.
Lesson No. 1 from Bhansali’s guide to populist pandering: do not let facts stand in the way of dialogues designed to massage the collective ego of the men in a community you wish to please.
Padmaavat — originally named Padmavati till the Central Board of Film Certification forced a title changefollowing extremist reactions from that very community — is steeped in such unwitting contradictions. The film tells the story of Rani Padmavati, second wife of Maharawal Ratan Singh, king of Chittor situated in today’s Rajasthan. H.R.H. Ratan encounters Padmavati in an accident when he visits Singhal to procure its famed pearls for his first wife. They fall in love and Padmavati returns with him to Chittor as his bride. Through a series of events, Alauddin Khilji, sultan of Delhi, hears of the woman’s unparalleled exquisiteness and — since he wants to possess every “nayaab cheez” (unique thing) in the world — attacks Chittor to get her for himself. After another chain of events, Padmavati kills herself along with all the female adults and children of Chittor in the practice of jauhar, an old north Indian custom where women would commit suicide by jumping into fire instead of risking being raped by a rival army when faced with certain defeat.
Bhansali’s Padmaavat is based on the 16th century fictionalised poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Most modern historians concur that Rani Padmavati a.k.a. Padmini is a figment of Jayasi’s imagination although Alauddin Khilji and Ratan Singh a.k.a. Ratan Sen a.k.a. Ratnasimha are historical 13th-14th century figures and the siege of Chittor did indeed happen, Alauddin’s purpose being to expand his kingdom and not to forcibly take a mythical queen.
In the year leading up to the release this week, fundamentalist Rajput organisations have committed acts of violence, threatened worse, demanded a ban and in general created a hubbub based on their inexplicable assumptions that this film insults their people. Quite the opposite. Padmaavat is an irritating ode to Rajput bravery which, if you read history books, is as much a myth as Padmavati a.k.a. Padmini herself.
From the very first scene, Bhansali’s goal is clear: to pedestalise Rajputs and demonise the Khiljis, to pander to the larger Hindu Right via Rajputs by slandering a Muslim king.
And so, while H.R.H. Ratan Singh (played by Shahid Kapoor) looks pristine, as if his pyaara sa, gora sachehra has been newly cleansed by an Emami or Vaseline face wash, Alauddin (as played by Ranveer Singh) is a perennially dirty-faced devil, his chehra forever smeared with what appears to be blood and mud even when he is not in battle. Alauddin’s hair is wild, his walk almost bear-like, his eyes at all times either narrowed to slits or widened to convey his menacing intent, while H.R.H. Ratan looks angelic. If Alauddin wants a woman for himself, he is portrayed as lustful, whereas Ratan’s betrayal of his first queen for Padmavati is sweet romance. Alauddin has sex with another woman minutes before his wedding, rapes his first wife Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari) and beds a prostitute even while consumed with desire for Padmavati, but H.R.H. Ratan makes sweet sweet lurve to Padmavati. Alauddin and his uncle Jalaluddin (Raza Murad) are shown tearing into massive chunks of meat like savages, while H.R.H. Ratan feeds himself delicate morsels of food. Bad Alauddin always wears black and other dark shades, whereas the good Ratan dons whites, beiges and cheery colours. Wicked Alauddin stomps his feet in laughably animalistic dance moves to the song 'Khalibali' whereas Ratan, dahling Ratan, carries himself with dignity. And get this, in what seems to be Bhansali’s ultimate signifier of debauchery, the nasty Muslim king’s male lover is trivialised – oh no! bisexuality! how terrible, no? – whereas the good Hindu man’s eye wanders with poise and only in the direction of women. Heterosexual promiscuity and infidelity are allowed, no?
There is no pretence at objectivity or nuance in the contrasting portrayals of the two monarchs. This is a literal echo of the average Hindu right-winger’s view of Muslims as horny, carnivorous beasts. Padmaavatis a perfect example of a Hindi film couching its extreme prejudices in grandiloquence and tacky clichés, with those clichés embedded in resplendent frames.
Meanwhile, the gorgeous Ms Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) wears gorgeous lehengas while her gorgeous hair flows in just the right gorgeous wave and her perfect gorgeous makeup remains unsoiled even when she hunts in a Singhal forest or flees Alauddin’s fort. As with all Bhansali’s post-Khamoshifilms, this one too is operatic in tone and visually stunning. After a point though, all that flawless beauty — architectural, sartorial and human — becomes exhausting (as it did in his worst film so far, Guzaarish), especially because his biases, his penchant for overstatement and his regressive worldview overshadow all else.
Among the many contradictions in Padmaavat is the fact that it chooses to lionise Rajputs when, by its own admission, Chittor fell because of Rajput disunity and cowardice. H.R.H. Ratan seeks help from all his fellow Rajput rulers but they turn him down for fear of antagonising Alauddin.
The biggest — and most frightening — contradiction though comes in the horribly romanticised depiction of jauhar, although the opening disclaimer states that the film does not intend to glorify the custom. Really? Why then does a closing voiceover, right after the act is shown on screen, seek to deify Padmavati’s ‘sacrifice’? She walks towards the flames, her hair blowing in the breeze, her voluminous skirt swirling about her ankles, her eyes burning with determination, full-bodied music playing in the background, joined by a sea of women clad in bridal red (including — I wanted to vomit when I saw this — a pregnant woman and a little girl) all voluntarily approaching their death.
That anonymous child is the only one in the crowd looking fearful rather than purposeful. I wonder if Bhansali let that shot of her frightened face slip in by mistake, because the rest of that elongated passage is clearly intended to valourise Rajput women. Jauhar was a horrendous practice underlining the belief that a woman’s life is worth nothing if her vagina, the sole property of her husband or future husband, is invaded by another man. Considering that conservatives even in today’s India place greater value on what they see as a woman’s ‘honour’ over her life, it is scary that Bhansali has chosen to glamourise jauhar in his film in a bid to play to the Rajput gallery.
I am only portraying a reality from our past — I can almost hear him say the words. There is a difference though, Mr Bhansali, between portraying a shameful reality and venerating it.
So yeah, everything in Padmaavat looks pretty, but the film has little else to offer beyond that, not even the striking performances that marked out Bhansali’s last directorial venture, Bajirao Mastani, in 2015. Ranveer Singh appears to have bowed completely to Bhansali’s vision of an evil Muslim king. While one cannot argue with an actor seeing a director as his captain, what is certainly worth questioning is his decision to accept this role with the full awareness of what that vision entailed in this case.
Others who have submitted entirely to Bhansali’s line of thinking in their performances are Raza Murad playing the ravenous Muslim, Jalaluddin Khilji, and Jim Sarbh (who was so interesting in Konkona Sensharma’s A Death In The Gunj just last year) here playing a scheming homosexual, Alauddin’s slave Malik Ghafoor who one of the virtuously heterosexual H.R.H. Ratan’s courtiers describes as Alauddin’s “begum”. Giggle giggle.
Shahid Kapoor as Ratan Singh has precisely one expression on his face from start to finish, which is such a disappointment considering how amazing he was in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014).
Deepika Padukone and Aditi Rao Hydari look great, of course. They are the only ones among the lead cast who manage to eke something out of the stereotype-ridden writing by Prakash R. Kapadia and Bhansali. Although their roles do not give them much space for depth, they remain convincing as epitomes of grace and elegance throughout.
Neither their presence nor the overkill of extravagant spectacle can save this film though. Apart from the tuneful 'Binte dil' and brief snatches of the background score, even the music does not match up to what Bhansali’s films have delivered in the past.
Padmaavat’s disturbing ideology — misogynistic, communal and homophobic — is bad enough. The final nail in the coffin is the lack of chemistry between Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor, which made me long for the Aishwarya Rai-Hrithik Roshan pairing in the equally lavishly produced, vastly superior Jodhaa Akbar (2008). Remember Queen Jodhaa peeping out from behind curtains at the topless emperor? It was a scene crackling with electricity and longing. Watching Padmaavat’s lead couple together though, I could not for the life of me understand why Padmavati gave a fig — or her life — for H.R.H. Ratan.