Let us forget all the violence angry members of the Karni Sena and other satellite right wing groups are creating against the release of Padmavat for a minute.
Let us forget the lack of authenticity of historical documents, writings and poetry that point out that Padmavati is fiction, or, that, Allauddin Khilji lived between 1296 and 1316, or that Padmini is mentioned in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poem in 1540 so they never could have met in a mirror reflection or otherwise.
Just let us sit back and enjoy Sanjay Leela Bhansali and his team’s obsession and passion for grandeur, for audiovisual extravagance that escalates every second through a pair of 3-D glasses and for characters whose sole credibility lies in:
(a) the unreality of their projection on screen,
(b) the absence of a powerful narrative and
(c) lots and lots of costumes, head gears, jewellery and of course, arms and weapons of war…and murder. In fact, a noted jewel designer has commented that jewel designers will be inspired by the jewels worn by Padmavati in the film!
Padmavat, the story, hardly needs repeating here as we all know it backwards and forwards by now, is a grand film where all the major characters except Allaudin Khilji are expected to act with deadpan faces that sometimes carry a sparkling anger, or love, or romance, or hate, or vengeance in their eyes while the rest of their faces have paralytic muscles that refuse to move.
They deliver very strong and lengthy dialogue in deadpan voices and it seems all that the women – Padmavati, her co-wife, the badi raanisa and Meherunisa are expected to do is look enchantingly, hypnotically and mesmerizingly beautiful.
Rawal Ratan Singh was already married when he went to Singhal and fell in love at first sight with Padmavati, the Singhal princess who is skilled in hunting with a bow and arrow. He hardly recognizes the existence of the badi ranisa and neither does Padmavati bother about his married state when she agrees to marry him.
Unlike what we have read in fairy tales and royal family histories, it is chhoti raani Padmavati who enjoys pride of place as the queen and even the maids and other servants kowtow and bow down to her.
The note before the credit comes up clearly states that the film does not encourage the practice of Sati and then proceeds to celebrate Sati with the most elaborately choreographed jauhar conducted in the history of Indian cinema.
If you are watching it through your 3-D glasses, you will be sucked into the long, long shots capturing eight hundred women of all ages, decked in bright red chunaris and ghagras moving in two-tiered synchrony along the corridors of the spacious Chittor palace moving proudly to their fiery deaths, willingly taken under the command of Padmavati who is christened “Bhavani Maa” by the eldest among them.
But wait. Before taking the decision to walk into a raging fire the women have themselves created and before Rawal Ratan Singh marches out to vanquish the lustful lech Allaudin Khilji, she tells him, “Will you please give me permission to exercise my right to commit jauhar?”
When he looks confused, she adds, “I cannot even die without your permission.”
Imagine this being said in the 21st century never mind through a concocted resurrection of a historical legend on celluloid. In other words, the visuals and the dialogue run completely against that claim in the pre-credit disclaimer.
You can spot a couple of little girls dressed in red with their ghunghats drawn over their heads marching towards the wall of fire. Do they really know what they are doing and why they are doing it? For eight hundred daasis, hundreds of soldiers, one does not find a single child in the huge palace of Chittor.
Poor Deepika Padukone, who demands, and gets a higher price than the great Amitabh Bachchan and he said so himself, is reduced to a beautiful doll bedecked in Rajasthani finery who walks like a mannequin, talks like a mannequin and wears heavy jewellery and costumes like a fashion designer’s dream.
Her eyes, thankfully, do the talking that is necessary but her facial muscles do not move at all which is a pity as she is such a versatile actress with a wide range. She is reduced almost to a handmaid tying the turban around her husband’s head or just dressing him up, or smearing him with the colours of holi.
The same goes for Aditi Rao Hydari as Khilji’s first-cousin-cum-wife Meherunissa, who Khilji claims he has loved bepanah (wrongly used because in English, bepanah means "shelter" so bepabah means "shelterless") but she has probably remained a virgin as Khilji is shown having violent sex with different women in his “harem” whose faces are kept away from the camera.
Is this to denote that they are faceless and do not have an identity? Or, is this to protect their privacy? It is not difficult to gauge the right answer, given the brazen celebration of patriarchy the film spells out again and again and again.
Shahid Kapoor appears a bit discomfited given his costume and the regal persona he fleshes out because he looks completely distanced from the Rajput kings of yore. He too, acts mainly with his eyes while the rest of his face, and even his body, remain as if transfixed in their lack of expression or emotion or both.
His feudal and patriarchal trait comes to the fore when he commands Padmavati that political and war decisions are not for her to take, come what may because she is a woman and his raanisa to boot! One misses the crackling chemistry of love and passion Bhansali captured so well in Raaslila and the scenes, including the kissing, are stripped of erotica because of the heavy dialogue.
When one looks back on Ranvir Singh’s essaying of Allauddin Khilji, we know why the other characters were stripped of their right to facial expression and body language. All this has been handed over on a golden platter to this character who monopolises the screenplay, the dialogue, the action, the fights, the actions and everything else that needed to be outlined, underlined and fleshed out.
Ranvir puts on a larger-than-life performance stylised to conceptualise to fruition the evil the character personifies in this film. He gnarls his teeth which makes him look like a monster in those Hollywood monster flicks when he is angry. He laughs to instil the fear of death and danger among everyone, including his lover-boy Maqbul.
He coolly ignores his beautiful wife and uses his good arm to squeeze the life out of his nephew even when he is bedridden with arrows struck into different parts of his body. All that one supposes, is fine to represent evil in its varied manifestations.
However, Bhansali stretches the fantasia elastic too far when we see the Sultan of Delhi engaging in a wrestling match with one of his idle soldiers as a way to keep the army away from revolting, or dancing like Singh did in Bhansali’s Galiyon ki Raaslila in the famous “scabies” dance number. Imagine a Sultan of Delhi dancing with his entire army in contemporary style in full gusto!
Singh throws up magnificent celluloid imagery of one of the most outstanding and ugliest villains of Indian cinema, albeit a very loud, crude and cruel villain who actually enjoys killing, betraying, torturing people never mind how close or how distant, how loyal or how disloyal they are to him. So, it comes somewhat as a surprise to find him go so weak at the knees for Padmavati, sorry, Padmavati’s mesmerising beauty that also makes Meherunissa catch her breath!
Sudeep Chatterjee works his wonderful magic with his camera all over again in Padmavat. This man is truly amazing and Bhansali would perhaps not been able to create the technical jazz he does without the help of this magician of camera technique.
From the shot of the ostrich walking in its regal gait towards Jalaluddin’s palace, through very long shots of soldiers marching in the distant horizon to the tiered images of women in red walking slowly in rhythm targeting their final exit, to the fired missiles jumping out of Khilji’s magic invention rushing right into you, to the women throwing burning coals at Khilji’s soldiers reminding us of that unforgettable scene in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, this is cinematography that may embarrass any jury at any international film festival.
How he makes this possible, of course with Bhansali collaborating, is a mystery. The fraction-of-a-minute mirror scene may also suggest a seduction to egg on Khilji’s lust than to protect the ‘honour’ of Padmavat. Here too, Chatterjee works his magic to perfection and some more…
Bhansali’s musical score is very good too but a bit of an overload in a film with that much of dramatics and make-believe. Fewer songs would have made for more concentrated viewing.
The iman played on the flute by the betraying Brahmin guru of the Chittor King is a beautiful touch that carries feather-light brushes of beauty in conflict with ethical principles of the flautist.
Padmavat is a sad reflection and even veneration of patriarchy reconstructed from the 13th century for the present generation to reflect on which is not a healthy thing and makes a mockery really of the Karni Sena’s rebellion again and again and yet again.
The film venerates the practice of Jauhar, it glories bigamy subtly and not so subtly, it pays a tribute to the objectification of women as things of beauty or sex or both. On hindsight, we did not quite need those 3-D glasses.