Padmaavat Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Cast: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jim Sarbh

Rating: 2 stars ✮✮✩✩✩

Based on the fictional poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-hyped Padmaavat begins after the Khilji dynasty has gained a strong foothold in Delhi. The hedonistic Sultan is deposed by his nephew and son-in-law, Alauddin (Ranveer Singh), who claims a birthright to everything that is ‘nayaab’ (precious). While he sets out to expand his Sultanate, Maharawal Ratan Singh of Chittor (Shahid Kapoor), marries Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) who is the daughter of the Singhal king. Word of her beauty spreads, and Alauddin sets out to capture the queen, who is nayaab in her own right.

Bhansali’s film has suffered relentlessly at the hands of moral police for the last few months, but its real suffering comes from the burden of inertia it gets weighed under. Its sluggish pace is perhaps meant to be indicative of the months of waiting Alauddin had to do to get a glimpse of Padmavati’s face. Seasons change, Diwali and Holi are celebrated inside the Chittor Fort, whilst Alauddin camps outside in the desert with his army. However, it is not enough to justify stretching the film beyond the 120-minute mark. Interestingly enough, it is during Alauddin’s moments of frustration that something seems to be happening; whereas beyond the walls of the fort, a singularly insipid and lifeless romance takes place. There is neither passion, nor rage when political intrigue and treachery of one of their own priests is uncovered. Subtlety is an art antithetical to Bhansali’s brand of cinema, which consistently boasts of grand spectacle, opulent production design, exquisitely choreographed dance numbers, and melodrama. However, Padmaavat is lacking in the execution of these trademarked Bhansali-isms.

Bhansali has stitched this film with elements “inspired” from some of his own films; Ghoomar is reminiscent of Nagada Sang Dhol (Ram-Leela) and Pinga (Bajirao Mastaani). Discerning viewers can also identify fleeting shades of Game of Thrones, Jodhaa-Akbar, and even Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, on whose antagonist Ranveer Singh has based his own. Much of the film, in addition to the battle scenes, makes use of VFX, with the unfortunate effect of interrupting the actors’ placement and presence. Kapoor, in particular, is wooden in his mannerisms and diction. In classic literature, the moment of recognition between two lovers is of vital essence. Kapoor’s initial scenes with Padukone, in the forests of Singhal, fail to evoke awe or tenderness, even as the cinematography tries to channel Avatar.

Whilst the pious love between the Rajput king and queen leaves a lot to be desired, the homoerotic undertones of Alauddin’s interactions with his eunuch slave-cum-general, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), stand out the most. Sarbh’s rendition of the character is divested of grotesque lasciviousness even as he expresses his desire for his master, who is pining for Padmavati. “Main aapke bahut kareeb hoon, lekin Padmavati ki jagah nahi le sakta.” (“I am very close to you, but I can’t replace Padmavati.”), Sarbh articulates this softly, assuring his master that he is there for him, without any self-pity, and it is remarkably met with an easy acknowledgement from Alauddin. Perhaps it is the only aspect of the film which is not regressive, and attempts to push the envelope for queer representation in Indian cinema.

However, the narrative of Padmaavat posits queer sexuality within Manichean binaries, just as it does with everything else. The Hindu Rajputs stand for all that is righteous, virtuous and moral, and the Muslim Khiljis are depicted as barbaric hedonists who cheat, lie, manipulate, plunder and pillage their way to success. In this regard, Kafur’s — and indeed Alauddin’s — sexuality is shown in a morally questionable light. When Rajput generals are informed that Alauddin has sent Kafur as his envoy, they introduce him to Maharawal as Alauddin’s wife — “Malik Kafur ko uski begum hi samajhiye.” Additionally, Padmaavat dwells on Alauddin’s sexual excesses and concubines, but the fact that Maharawal has two wives is not met with objection.

For a film that bears the title of its female protagonist, it sadly does not give her much to do. Padukone, as Padmavati, oscillates between stiffly uttering her lines by rote when she is resolute, and being a docile wife, easily welling up at the sight of her husband. A woman’s body becomes the site of violence and domination in every war-torn regime, and in 1303 AD, the solution is to die with honour instead of living with shame. Having left the days of hunting and archery behind her, Padmavati’s bridal shringaar becomes her new armour. Even though she has to seek her husband’s permission before committing jauhar (mass self-immolation), she chooses to do so, instead of continuing to live as Khilji’s queen. Unfortunately, when the moment arrives, its execution ends up valourising the regressive custom.

Elsewhere, during the siege, a body of a Rajput soldier continues to wield his sword after getting decapitated; women maintain more than one-arm distance between each other while running for safety as the fort is infiltrated. The neatness of the scene may appeal to strict disciplinarians, but it looks awkward and orchestrated when the situation calls for chaos. The film is a single-minded ode to Rajput valiance and discipline in battle. Any injury to communal sentiments is reflective of the viewers’ discretion, as can be seen with the protesters’ misappropriation of the moral codes of medieval India, an era that modern India dangerously seems to mirror today. For instance, Maharawal is justifiably livid upon Alauddin’s request to see Padmavati’s face, but for protesters to threaten the filmmaker with self-immolation, in much the same way as the characters in the film, is alarming.

Often when a work of fiction ends up hurting the sentiments of religions or communities, artistic freedom is doggedly questioned. But when convenient, art is also misused to further propaganda. All art may or may not be political, but it is imperative to respect the sanctity of artistic freedom. How else will history differentiate between the achhe din of 2018 and 1303?


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