Saturday Features

Pride and prejudice

  • Not only are its gender and religious politics very much askew, Padmaavat is also just not a very good film—sure, it looks stunning, as all of Bhansali’s projects are, and is propped up by a fine cast, but the story itself is bland and unimaginative
- OBIE SHRESTHA
Bhansali’s newest is basically a long, dull and embarrassingly self-unaware piece of propaganda that crudely reinforces the narrative of the Righteous Hindu and Dangerous Muslim that Hindutva extremists have long been peddling

Feb 3, 2018-Wait, THIS is what all the fuss was about?” I kept asking myself over and over again throughout the new Padmaavat, née Padmavati, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest period disco ball to roll onto the big screen. Unless you’ve been living under a nice, peaceful rock, you’ll know that the film has, to put it mildly, generated a fair bit of controversy these last few months, with angry Hindu conservatives—particularly those from the Rajput community—rioting, tossing out death threats and warnings of mass suicide like so much candy, and even vandalising a school bus, because, well, one is apparently never too young to learn the ropes of toxic communalism. 

So what was it exactly that had gotten all these unmentionables in such a twist? The protesters claimed that Bhansali’s film distorted history by grossly misrepresenting the life of the 14th century Rani Padmini, widely revered among the Rajputs as a cultural symbol, even though, technically, there’s very little actual historical proof of her existence, and she might very well have been a figment of the imagination of the poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in whose 16th century work she features. Against this background, the very fact of its release made Padmaavat feel like a good jab against overzealous censorship—despite Bhansali having to make certain changes to get the film passed, including a digital waist cover-up (a ridiculous string of words I never thought I’d have to write)—a triumph of sense over hysteria. 

If only it had all been in the service of a better film.

Because, in a nauseating instance of irony, we discover that Padmaavat is actually specifically tailored to appease right-wing sentiments, a no-nuance paean of praise for the valour and other assorted virtues of the Rajputs that tries to make a blatant case for Hindu nationalism, in all its patriarchal, regressive glory. I bet the rioting mobs are feeling a teensy bit silly now for having raised such an impassioned objection to a product that so aligns with their values. And not only are its gender and religious politics very much askew, Padmaavat is also just not a very good film—sure, it looks stunning, as all of Bhansali’s projects are, and is propped up by a fine cast, but the story itself is bland and unimaginative.

It’s love at first shot for Princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) and King Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). While out hunting in the forests of her native Singhal, Padmavati accidently plugs the visiting Ratan Singh, and instead of cursing at her in five different languages like any normal person hit by a stray arrow, he decides she must be The One. No sooner have the bandages come off than the two have gotten hitched, and are headed back to Ratan Singh’s kingdom of Mewar, a long-standing Rajput stronghold, to live happily ever after. Well, at least for a while.

Meanwhile, a storm is brewing in Delhi. The warrior Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) has been hard at work trying to displace his uncle from the seat of the Sultanate, and has finally succeeded in claiming the crown. But this isn’t enough for the relentlessly, exhaustingly ambitious Khilji, and it’s not long before his roving eye has settled on a new prize: Rani Padmavati. Having heard a great deal about her unmatched beauty, and egged on considerably by someone with a bone to pick with Ratan Singh, he soon becomes obsessed with the idea of having her. This obsession leads the two great houses to come to blows time and time again, a battle not just between two men, but also the ideologies they espouse: where Ratan Singh is a walking-talking repository of all things upright and good, and Khilji the opposite, a man driven by selfish, base emotions, with his moral compass all but smashed to pieces. 

As you might expect of a Bhansali film, no expense has been spared in terms of production design: This is as large scale an effort as the director has ever mounted. The sets here practically ooze grandeur and regal opulence, particularly those depicting Mewar; there’s so much thought and work invested in each little visual detail, including those gorgeous costumes—color and composition aligned with such determined artistry, as well as, oftentimes, an almost neurotic sense of symmetry. 

But even as you might marvel at the beautiful tableaux of Bhansali and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s making, it all feels a bit excessive and pointless when the story at the centre is as insipid as it is here. Take away the fancy visual frills and you’re left with….what? Basically a long, dull, and embarrassingly self-unaware piece of propaganda that crudely reinforces the narrative of the Righteous Hindu and Dangerous Muslim that Hindutva extremists have long been peddling. Indeed, the relentless invocation of high falutin Rajput principles, even as Ratan Singh’s utter ineffectiveness as a strategist couldn’t be more evident, starts to get ickier and more irksome as you go along (or unintentionally hilarious, if you’re in the right mood), as does the very simplistic depiction of Alauddinas just a covetous, godless, meat-chomping madman, subtleties be damned. Even the spark of homoerotic attraction between the latter and his slave-general played by Jim Sarbh, a dynamic that could’ve been interesting to delve deeper into, is eventually demonised as just another instance of Alauddin’s moral depravities. 

What of the titular Padmavati herself, you ask? To be honest, the character doesn’t really do enough to warrant top billing—Padmavati is a pretty prize, little more, and the film is far more interested in the two men fighting over her. It’s such a waste to have one of Hindi cinema’s biggest young talents onboard, only to confine her to playing a glorified mannequin for the latest in eastern wear. And spoiler alert—although not really if you’ve done even the most rudimentary Googling on the subject—as if it weren’t bad enough that our heroine almost entirely lacks in agency throughout, it’s in the film’s climax, ie that horrific, sanctimonious mass immolation scene, that she’s shown as coming into her own and “asserting” herself. Really? 

Now while I’m not implying that we should rewrite history (or even a fictionalised version of history like the one this film is based on) to selectively omit practices we might find distasteful, but to blatantly glamourise something like that—and this being Bhansali, you better believe he’s made sure it’s beautiful to look at—with nary a nod towards present-day sensibilities or seemingly any introspection whatsover, feels monumentally tone-deaf on the director’s part. The film essentially reaffirms the age-old association of men’s honour and pride with women’s bodies—to be won and lost, protected and violated, as our masters see fit—and the idea that a woman’s worth and her sexual purity are one and the same thing. It’s the same tired rhetoric that celebrates self-sacrifice as the highest of “womanly virtues”… all of which conspires to make Padmaavat feel truly medieval, in the worst possible way. 

I feel sorry for Singh, who practically pulls a nerve trying to make the material work, and while he’s the most memorable here, his performance needed a better film. At least Kapoor doesn’t appear to have exerted himself too much: The actor’s default expression is a mask of stoic hilarity. I wish we’d gotten to see more of Aditi Rao Hydari who plays Alauddin’s first wife—the only character who goes beyond a mere cipher—but, not surprisingly, her part is minimal. 

Needless to say, it’s a difficult one to call. You should probably go and see Padmaavat, given what it’s been through to get to you, but remember, that’s pretty much where the positives end. The rest is just disappointment. 

Published: 03-02-2018 08:21

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