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Review

Padmaavat review: A beautiful costume drama trying too hard to impress

Release Date: 23 Jan 2018 / Rated: U/A / 02hr 43min


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Shriram Iyengar

Sanjay Leela Bhansali recreates Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic on the big screen, but it leaves you a little dissatisfied.

The histories of great nations have been punctuated by historical epics (we use the term history quite loosely here, as does the Rajput Karni Sena). The Greeks had their Odyssey. The English had Arthur and his knights. India, a nation of a million histories, has an epic poem for every state. Padmaavat is one of the many.

Each of these fables has one thing in common. A woman at the heart of the tale — Helen, Guinevere, Padmavati. They have been passed down through the ages as symbols of love, sacrifice and valour. They also work as reminders to a patriarchal society of its women — desirable, dangerous and destructive.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, with its own fable-like journey to the theatres, adapts and recreates Malik Muhammad Jayasi's 16th century poem to the screen. In that, the director has emerged as a new bard himself.

Story

Bhansali's tale begins in Afghanistan, where we are introduced to a dolorous, gluttonous Jalaluddin Khilji (Raza Murad), planning to take on the Delhi sultanate. Just as he is making his plans, we see a desert-ravaged hedonist walk in with an ostrich at the end of his rope. This is Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh). He is hedonistic, grand in his ambitions and maniacal in his actions. On the day of his wedding celebrations with Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), he murders a courtier who interrupts his lusty rendezvous with a slave girl, and then just carries on. He seeks every pleasure on the planet.

Except one, which is far away in Simhala. It is here that Bhansali strays from the fable. He introduces Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) to Rawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) at a hunting accident. Ratan Singh is in search of the famous Simhal pearls that he accidentally gave away as a gift. His first wife Nagmati reprimands him to get another set. But he falls for Padmavati and takes her as well.

In Ratan Singh's court is also Raghav Chetan, the Chanakya of his kingdom. However, Chetan falls for Padmavati at first sight. Caught spying on the king and queen in their private moment, he is ordered to be thrown out of the kingdom on Padmavati's suggestion. He swears revenge and turns to Delhi for help.

This brings Alauddin Khilji to the doorstep of Chittor, and well and truly begins the saga of Padmaavat.

In his rendition, Bhansali remains faithful to the popular folklore. The narration follows the tale with the inclusion of the mirror technique to show Padmavati's face to Khilji (yes, they see each other. But the glimpse is too short for the viewers, let alone Khilji).

When Ratan Singh questions the queen's decision, she says, "Why didn't you cut off his head if this is not acceptable to you?" Therein lies the qualm of the Rajput pride. It cannot go back on its word, even if it is for the enemy.

When Khilji kidnaps Ratan Singh, Padmavati turns rescuer with some help from lieutenants Badal and Gora as well as Mehrunissa. However, Khilji pursues them leading to the eventual battle.

The climactic sequence echoes that of Troy (2004) where Hector (Eric Bana) battled Achilles (Brad Pitt) outside the walls of an impregnable castle. Ratan Singh and Khilji go one-on-one while their vast armies wait. Why, you wonder. Ratan Singh almost defeats Khilji, but Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh) shoots him from behind.

The dying Ratan Singh remarks, "If only you had fought this war by the rules." To which Khilji smirks, "There is only one rule in war. Victory." For those complaining about Khilji's tactics, do consult Chanakya.

Cue a brave Padmavati and the women of the palace committing 'jauhar' (the act of women jumping into fire to avoid being captured and defiled by the enemy). In the end, Khilji is denied his desire and faces his true defeat. The film carried a disclaimer in the beginning about not promoting sati, a disclaimer that is defeated by the queen's brave speech before the final stand.

Screenplay

The film unravels as a fable does — leisurely. This is no Bajirao Mastani (2015) and lacks the punch and dramatic tension that made it popular. The 2-hour 44-minute runtime might seem long but is required to give us the full view of the vast canvas that Bhansali uses to paint his picture.

The only trouble is that it feels slightly heavy in the middle. Despite the beautiful visuals, the film lacks pace and drama to go with the massive runtime.

The other weak point is the lack of supporting characters. Unlike Bajirao Mastani, except for a minor deviation into the political intrigue in Khilji's palace, the film sticks to Padmavati and Ratan Singh's romance. The character of Nagmati, his first wife, is hardly explored.

Neither is Malik Kafur (Sarbh), the slave lieutenant of Khilji, who is insulted by the Rajput commanders as 'almost Khilji's wife', a sly reference to a homosexual relationship between the sultan and his general, but that is only to paint Ratan Singh as the macho, true warrior.

That is where Bhansali creates a glorious history of the Rajputana. His Rajputs are kind, kingly, and idealistic. They do not hurt unarmed men and women. They do not go back on their word, even if that word is given to the enemy. It almost feels like a sarcastic comment by Bhansali on the actions of the protestors so far. At one point, Khilji even mocks Ratan Singh, "How good you are. How kind."

If there is anyone who should hold a grouse for distorting anything, it is Alauddin Khilji. Bhansali's film paints him as an ambitious hedonist who never stopped at anything. It accuses him of infidelity, homosexuality, and Machiavellian tactics, among other things.

Ironically, the number of beheadings in the film will take the audience by surprise.

But among Bhansali's greatest sins will be making Khilji narrate a poem with the words 'Khali Bali' in it to Amir Khusro. The madcap dance that follows puts the 'Malhari' song from Bajirao Mastani to shame.

As a fan of Urdu poetry and qawwali, your reviewer was offended at this depiction of Khusro. But he still watched the film.

If that were not enough, in his final fight Khilji wears an armour that looks very Mongolian. If he were alive, Khilji would have committed suicide before doing so. The Mongols were among his greatest enemies.

Characters

The story belongs to Padmavati, and she is played well by Deepika Padukone. Her expressions of indignation, courage, and love and her regal grace aid her well in this performance. The actress looks to have captured the soul of a queen who is politically astute, courageous, and a feminist icon. Except for the jauhar, of course.

Shahid Kapoor as Rawal Ratan Singh is quite dashing. Bhansali paints him as a one-dimensional character, driven by his Rajput ideal of not fighting an unarmed opponent. But Kapoor, with his six-pack, carries off the ideal image of Ratan Singh with grace. He is, at times, let down by the lack of depth of his character. But that is no fault of his.

Ranveer Singh plays Khilji with a manic energy that is admirable. His performance forces you to acknowledge him. He is manipulative, cunning, hedonistic, ambitious, and filled with crazy antics that are laughable. Whether it is his wild appearance, or the screen presence, it is impossible to imagine anyone else as Khilji.

The scenes between Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh serve as some of the more dramatic moments in the film, and Singh has the upper hand.

The supporting cast of Jim Sarbh and Aditi Rao Hydari deliver capable performances. Sarbh, despite his limited role, is a fascinating presence on screen and manages to create an interesting character to add to Khilji's retinue.

Cinematography

As usual, Bhansali paints a grand picture through his visual template. Sudeep Chatterjee creates a world and frames it impeccably. Yet, it does not save the film from quite ordinary storytelling, and a lack of pace. The scenes of war and the interiors of the palaces are praiseworthy. The attention to detail is an element that stands out.

In all, Sanjay Leela Bhansali manages to recreate the epic by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, transforming it into a cinematic experience. However, the staid narrative, devoid of complexity, is quite ordinary. Perhaps the director chose a linear, simple path of transforming the epic into a good-versus-evil battle in view of the humongous controversy. But that is where he robs it of its USP.

Verdict

Despite the jauhar, the director portrays Padmavati as a queen worth following and dying for. In the end, the women of the palace even put up a fight, throwing hot coals at Khilji as their last stand. But it somehow feels like appeasement trying to whitewash the bitter truth of jauhar.

In the end, Padmaavat is a beautiful larger-than-life film that unfolds at the pace of a costume drama but lacks the dramatic punch that would have truly made it an epic.

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