Padmaavat

Let me get this clear right at the onset: I am not a Sanjay Leela Bhansali fan. I believe, after Khamoshi, he didn’t do a lot in terms of bringing a really good script to life, with masterful characterization and nuances in human behavior. I have believed he is a virtuouso in creating sets and rendering a brilliant colour palette on screen with the vision of an operatic DOP; apart from that, his story-telling technique failed to make me see how he has been compared to K. Asif and Mehboob Khan.

That being said, I have watched his movies, trying in vain to find the elements that people find and save a few grandly depicted scenes, I was left shaking my head. Then the furor about his latest venture, Padmavati, now Padmaavat, made the democratic principle valid and I had decided to support the movie by being one of the first to watch it.

I did.

I write this blog entry because I feel the movie deserves all the good reviews it can get. So, without further ado, I dive in. If you are not interested in spoilers (but we all know how the movie is going to end…) please do not read further.

The film is based on Rani Padmavati, a legendary Hindu Rajput queen, written about in Padmavat, an Awadhi language epic poem written by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540. A lot from this epic hasn’t been used in the film, for example, the talking parrot Hiraman, which made me a little sad, and the beginning of the movie wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t expect the Sinhalese princess to be running through the trees like Tauriel from The Hobbit, chasing a deer. But it is Sanjay Leela and I expected that the film would require a lot of artistic liberties. Of course, most film makers who deal with recreating epics and epic fantasies should know arrows shouldn’t be pulled out but be pushed through. But I digress, with this being my final lament about accuracy.

Padmavati becomes the wife of Ratan Sen (called Rawal Ratan Singh in later legends), the Rajput ruler of Mewar. Here, begins my journey to being impressed. Sanjay Leela Bhansali doesn’t remove the existence of Nagmati. In fact, it is in the due footage given to the ancillary characters that the film gets an all-rounded perspective and lustre. Nagmati’s struggle as the first wife and yet not the favoured or the more beautiful is well depicted. The struggle resolves without words as she follows Padmavati into her own end in fire.

In 1303, Alauddin Khilji, the Turko-Afghan ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, laid siege to the Chittor Fort in Rajputana. In the depiction of this potentate, the film takes its own darkness. What is a film without a good villain?

Ranveer Singh’s performance as Khilji takes on its own merit by the sheer dominance of character and the creation of it by the actor. Barbarism and carnal sexuality that must be tempered by all that is beautiful in the world are the features that Ranveer imbues into the portrayal. He has very little to help except his own personality. He has no great costumes or sets to support his aura; but from the beginning of the film with him striding in, demanding the hand of Mehrunissa, to the sword play between him and Ratan Singh he creates a monolithic presence filled with raw strength and political caprice.

According to Padmavat, Khilji led the invasion motivated by his desire to capture Padmavati. The depiction of this heroic queen is untainted by her flying through trees in the first few scenes. Once married, the manifestation of being a very beautiful woman, dedicated to and wholly in love with her husband shines forth. Costumes, jewellery, make-up all form an intricate mix to create this character. Deepika has done justice to the role and has carried the depiction with élan, grace and dignity. She shines in the very last scenes, where she has no dialogue, but the last shred of her husband, as she walks through the rugged fort towards the pit of fire. She nailed it with a look. Brilliant!

Shahid did the best with what he was offered. Through the movie, he had very little to do except be the hero to the eponymous heroine of the movie. Personally speaking, it is, in the final duel, against Khilji, that he shines. Shahid is a dancer, and SLB has used this very beautifully. His movements against a barbarian who only knows how to hack and maim, are positively graceful. Note his feet as he moves around, they fly and drop. His whole aspect shines in this sequence, and we realise what he could have done, if the world lived by the code of honour and grace, beauty and chivalry.

As mentioned earlier, apart from the principal three, the supporting actors have supported the entire enfolding drama splendidly. Mehrunissa, played by Aditi Rao Hydari, speaks of the anguish of a woman who has no say against a despotic husband, but who rebels in the saving of Padmavati and Ratan Singh – and one cannot fail to think about her journey of loving a tyrant and defying him, when she realizes the futility of her love.

Most surprising was the nuanced performance of Jim Sarbh playing Malik Kafur, Taj al-Din Izz al-Dawla, a eunuch who became the slave-general of Khilji. Jim Sarbh has done a worthy job, though I think the character asked of a more beautiful young man. Whether or not the relationship was historically a sexual one, SLB plays a tricky ball game, by making Malik love Khilji, but Khilji being incapable of love, looks only to him for counsel that ‘always proved appropriate and fit for the occasion’. I said I was surprised because the relationship that SLB portrays here is layered. He has Malik referred to as Khilji’s ‘begum’ by the Rajputs, and yet in the same sequence gives Malik Kafur the standing of a general brave enough to be the sole messenger into enemy territory. There are wonderful dialogues between Khilji and Kafur about unrequited love.

The cinematography takes the scope of the story and yet doesn’t go overboard with it. There are typical shots of war with the enemy clans descending on each other, but the ones to note are the pan shots of single characters walking across the expanse of the screen. Every scene becomes a journey to someone. The lighting is subdued, never harsh, giving the heroic characters a halo and the negative characters a shadow. The songs are unnecessary. Not one remains with you. But the background score is haunting and the one dedicated to Padmavati is riveting in its beauty – a fit descant for a beautiful woman who unwillingly sparked a war and knew how to willingly end it.

The movie is definitely worth a watch. The story doesn’t flag, the pace doesn’t lessen. There are very few moments that seem out of place and they end in the first few minutes of the film. Once the movie picks up in pace, it is unfailing leading up to its crescendo.

***

A note worth mentioning:

A few days ago, I read a brilliant review, feminist in its take and filled with a certain angst that has taken over the modern day world. After reading this, I looked at the movie from how the modern day woman would see it. I remembered the final scenes of the movie and how beautifully they were shot, and I remembered the pregnant woman and the fact that I averted my eyes from the screen. The second time I did that was when Deepika was walking straight into the fire.

For me then, the scenes were laced with a grim pathos, apart from the beauty depicted. I realised what the reviewer meant. I saw the scenes then as someone who was ignorant of a larger world view, where honour and chastity were strict conventions, unbending in their will and nature. I grew morose. I pulled down this review. But then I spoke to my partner, and he brought some perspective from a different angle.

I looked at the movie as what it was: a movie. Based on a poem. Depicted in the best light possible in terms of technique, cinematic skill and artistry. I didn’t see the need to ascribe any social message to it, especially since the furor regarding this very same movie was regarding a conventional social message. I looked at the movie, the way a movie should be looked at. It had no message to entail, except for the narration of a story, like one my grandmother would tell me with no great agenda in mind, but to entertain and disseminate the aspect of humanity.

There are manifold issues involved here, of course. The issue of whether she should have chosen death over dishonour, the issue of how such a choice was celebrated by the movie, the issue of a woman’s right to be. But then, I could talk about my belief in euthanasia, about abortion, about how it is the choice of a person to do what he wills with his own life, and the fact that she did, indeed, have a choice, and she did, indeed, choose.

The movie, like most Hindi movies, was a movie I watched just to entertain and not to have an agenda in mind – except perhaps the right to freedom of expression. And I exercise the same right by keeping this review in place.

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