Like his villain Alauddin Khilji, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a director with a ravenous appetite. He has an insatiable hunger for drama, romance and above all, beauty. Early in Padmaavat, Khilji declares – har nayab cheez par Allauddin ka Haq hai. It could have been Sanjay speaking. Because above all, Padmaavat is a thing of beauty – the rich fabrics, the jaw-dropping jewelry, the sumptuous, palatial interiors and of course, the sheer gorgeousness of the leads – Deepika Padukone resplendent with her unibrow, the sculpted Shahid Kapoor who personifies nobility and Ranveer Singh who makes for one hell of a charismatic monster. Every element in Padmaavat, apart from some clumsy CGI landscapes and post-shoot 3D rendering, is a nayab cheez.
But films are not paintings. They need a beating heart to come alive and this is where Sanjay stumbles. Padmaavat is based on a poem about a Rajput queen written by the 16th-century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The film begins with a disclaimer that there is no historical authenticity to the events depicted. This is a work of fiction – Sanjay adding his own poetry to Jayasi’s.
I have no idea how much the ugly politics surrounding Padmaavathas distorted the director’s original vision but what we get is an unapologetic valorization of Rajputs and an unqualified demonizing of Khilji and his entire clan. Apart from his wife, played by a radiant Aditi Rao Hydari, the Muslims – down to the last man – are murderous, manipulative, cheating barbarians. Toward the end, the fight between Khilji’s army and the Rajputs is described as a ‘dharm yudh’. And we all know who finally emerged victorious – not literally but morally.
The valorization makes the Rajput characters cardboard. Deepika and Shahid look convincingly regal. Her incredible eyes, brimming with tears, register every emotion. But mostly, Sanjay requires them to give each other swooning looks. Everyone seems to be moving in slow motion as though they are part of a striking tableau. They mouth theatrical dialogue like – Rajputi Kangan mein utni hi takat hai jitni Rajputi talwar mein or dar naam ka gehna Padmavati ne kabhi pehna hi nahi. There is no relatable emotion here. Just frame after frame of painstakingly art-directed, gorgeously-lit pageantry.
Padmaavat is designed as an unabashed ode to Rajput bravery but ironically, the character who makes the biggest impression is Alauddin Khilji. As Sanjay and writer Prakash R. Kapadia tell it, Khilji is the devil incarnate. He likes to possess pretty things – which includes women. He murders, without pause, even his own family members. It is suggested that he is bi-s*xual – Jim Sarbh gets the unforgiving role of Khilji’s servant Malik Kafur. In one scene, a character says of Malik, uski begum hi samajhiye. Of course here bi-sexuality is a value judgment – it is one more sign of Khilji’s monstrousness.
Some scenes become unintentionally comical – in one, Malik is singing while Khilji makes love in a stupor. In another, instead of putting perfume on his own body, Khilji throws it on a girl and then rubs the girl against himself.
Ranveer bites into this character like Khilji chews into meat – did I mention that he also lacks table manners. Khilji is repellent but you can’t look away. His king-size nastiness infuses vigour into the film. Ranveer chews the scenery with aplomb and yet the first half of Padmaavat remains listless.
I clinically admired each frame. I applauded the work of cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee, costume designers Harpreet-Rimple, Maxima Basu, Chandrakant & Ajay, and production designers Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray. But I wasn’t seduced by the story telling.
Padmaavat sputters to life in the second half. The queen, who disappears for part of the first hour, reappears and takes charge. The climax in which the Rajput men go out for one last battle and the women prepare to immolate themselves is visually stunning. Sanjay pays homage to the unforgettable climax from Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, also a tale about a man obsessed with possessing a woman who refuses to cave in. In that film, women threw red chilies on the lecherous subedar. Here it is coals. The drama rises to a crescendo and the powerful, problematic legend of Padmaavati actually comes to life.
I’m an admirer of Sanjay’s passion and rigour, of his operatic sensibility and his commitment to creating epics. He isn’t subtle but he always plays for broke. To steal a line from the poet Robert Browning – Sanjay’s reach always exceeds his grasp. That’s what a heaven’s for. This time he doesn’t quite get there. I’m going with two and a half stars.