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The 'other' Bajirao Mastani


As theaters across India prepare for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's romantic saga about Maratha warrior Bajirao I, we look back at a previous avatar of this eternal romantic saga.

Shriram Iyengar

A Hindu Peshwa in love with a Muslim princess. A married man falls in love with a girl whose kingdom he wins. A lover goes into battle for her prince. The story of the Peshwa prince Bajirao I and Mastani remains one of the most romantic stories to intertwine itself with Indian history. Like the stories that preceded them; Laila-Majnu, Akbar-Jodha, Prithviraj-Samyukta, the historicity of the story is lost amid bard songs, myths and legends. The story people are familiar with today, might not even relate to the actual events in the history of the great Peshwa. It is this story that Sanjay Leela Bhansali takes on in his latest film.

There are many reasons why the legendary romance of Bajirao and Mastani has endured India's constantly changing history. The story has often divided historians and culture defenders down the middle. History tells us that Bajirao was 'gifted' Mastani in marriage by Raja Chattrasal of Bundelkhand, whom Bajirao rescued from a Mughal siege. The daughter of Raja Chattrasal and a Muslim courtesan, Mastani belonged to the Pranami sect that followed both Hindu and Muslim rituals. She was a gifted fighter, a skilled musician, and a heavenly beauty. It was natural for the Peshwa to fall for a woman who he considered his equal in many ways. They fought battles together. As acrimonious as the union was, it was considered a family affair. His first wife, although angry at this transgression, did eventually accept Mastani's son into the family. This is where history fades and legends sprout. Tales of Mastani as a courtesan admired for her looks and courage has outlasted her historical contributions. The tale of forbidden love – risque and romantic – tends to outlast any boring document on history. Their eventual downfall plotted by palace intrigues and jealous ministers adds to the compelling tale. Thus, have bards immortalised what was once an 'arranged' marriage into a rebellious love story.

The lavishly ornamental paithani sarees of Priyanka Chopra, a lissome Deepika swirling to the beautiful music of 'Deewani Mastani' and Ranveer Singh, in all his uber-machismo, is sure to help Sanjay Leela Bhansali laugh his way to the box office counters. His film contains all the elements of a staple Bollywood potboiler. It also follows Bhansali's second attempt at a historic love story, after Devdas. But, to paraphrase the good book, there is nothing original under the sun. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is not the first director to turn to this epic romance as his plot. The story has been made into films before, and successfully, during a time when the word Bollywood was still a stranger to a fledgling Indian cinema.

It was Bhalji Pendharkar who took up the story for his directorial debut way back in 1925. A filmmaker known for historical subjects, Pendharkar began his career in the silent era of films. He would go on to establish himself as an icon of Marathi cinema and its culture. Pendharkar also has the rare claim of being the first director to shoot Raj Kapoor in a film. In 1946, he shot Prithviraj Kapoor as the fabled sage, Valmiki, while his son Raj played the mischievous Naradmuni. His final film, Tambdi Maati (Copper Earth) launched another iconic face of Marathi cinema, Dada Kondke.

Coming back to Pendharkar's Bajirao Mastani, it was typical of the historical dramas of the time. Pendharkar, as was his style, focussed more on the historical achievements of Bajirao; the romance between Mastani and Bajirao was simply a hook hang the plot on. His cast included the legendary stage actor Nanasaheb Phatak, Miss Jones, Master Vithal and a young talented Yakub (who would go to great heights as a versatile character actor). Nanasaheb Phatak, he of the sonorous voice and a magnanimous presence, played the ebullient Peshwa. Going by Bhalji Pendharkar's other films, it was likely that the focus of the film was the sacrifices made by both characters to further the cause of their kingdom. There are no records of the film, or any reels, that have survived the onslaught of time. What remains is the fading memory of an event that brought a fascinating tale of Maratha history alive for audiences. It would launch Bhalji Pendharkar's career. He would go on to make several other films on Maratha history, namely Netaji Palkar (1939), Thoratanchi Kamala (1941), Bahirji Naik (1943), and Chattrapati Shivaji (1952). But it was his Maratha Tituka Melvava (1964) which made him an everlasting legend in the annals of Marathi and Indian cinema. It earned him the Dadasaheb Phalke award.

The famous Peshwa's connection to Indian films did not end with Pendharkar's epic. The story has already been transported to Indian television through a serial 'Shrimant Peshwa Bajirao Mastani' that also sought to romanticise the fable. Where Bhansali differs with his predecessors is in focussing on the romance and its grandiose scale, rather than the story. Transporting the real life love story between Ranveer and Deepika onto the screen as the fabled couple seems too good an opportunity for a filmmaker like Bhansali to miss. The first cast for this epic included another real life couple, Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Alluring as the story is for Bollywood, it has scarce connections to the historical occurrences during the time of the Peshwa. This follows closely in trend with Ashutosh Gowariker's 'Jodhaa Akbar' which transformed another marriage of convenience into a tale of doomed and fraught romantic epic. Facts are the tombstones of art, they say. Bhansali is well within his right to romanticise a plot that practically writes itself into any Bollywood potboiler. Mr. Pendharkar, as a director and a filmmaker, would have had similar ideas when making his film back in 1925. Fables are, after all, the backbone of storytelling.