Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic about a legendary Rajput queen, her warrior husband and a marauding Muslim conqueror leaves you both appalled and awed.
It’s visually breathtaking. But the film’s comic book characterisation and what looks like a glorification of Jauhar, the ancient Hindu custom of women of the defeated side committing ritual suicide by fire, is enough to make one squirm.
As the film starts, a statement to the effect that the film does not encourage in any way women to throw themselves into bonfires flashes across the screen. But the frenzied visuals at its end suggest just the opposite. The production was plagued by protests, and cinemas were ringed by armed police on opening day (imagine a Sri Lankan filmmaker getting that kind of protection). The director and two assistants were physically attacked, and mobs threatened to burn down the set, forcing the director to move locations. They even threatened to cut off the nose of Deepika Padukone, who played the role of Padmavati.
Bhansali is a product of the religion-dominated political culture as exemplified by the BJP. That’s a tragedy even greater than that of Padmavati and Bhairao Mastani
But all the protests were for the wrong reasons. Before the film opened, Hindu women threatened mass suicide in honour of Padmavati. The chief troublemaker was Sri Rajput Karni Sena, a nationalist Rajput organization which thought that the film was an insult to Rajput pride and the Padmavati legend. It’s hard to see why, as the film glorifies the Rajputs and vilifies the Islamic conquerors from Afghanistan. But all’s well that ends well. The film has been a commercial success, and Karni Sena and Bhansali have officially patched up their differences. A letter to the movie maker signed by Karni Sena high ups said that they do not have any objection about screening the film in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and Deepika Padukone didn’t have to go for a plastic nose job.
The film’s sensuous texture, from period interiors to tents billowing like sails and staggeringly detailed costumes, all in matching colours, overwhelms the viewer from the start. But when it comes to the two lovers (if one might be presumptuous enough to call them that) this sensuality is always held in check. Kissing scenes are now possible in Hindi cinema, though still not the norm. In this case, the royal lips come tantalisingly close but sadly, some man-made disaster intervenes to keep them apart. The director has wisely avoided this regal predicament. If not, the Rajputs would have declared total and unconditional war (the Rajput equivalent of the Fatwa) on him.
Comically enough, one protest was that the virtuous queen’s navel gets too much exposure in the film. In fact, one notices very little of it. Rani Padmavati’s face and torso, made up and adorned in exquisite period detail, steals all the attention from her navel. It’s the beauty of her face, as described by the revenge-seeking Brahmin adviser who defects to the Muslim side, which makes the fearsome Alauddin decide that he must have her at any cost.
If anyone, it’s the Muslims who should have protested. Alauddin Khalji (Ranveer Singh), a historical figure and the film’s villain, is shown to be a sadistic, treacherous figure who kills his father-in-law, his childhood friend and anyone who stands in his way to power and eats roasted meat like a savage. In one scene, he makes a captive Indian princess stand in a pool of water, holding up two burning torches chained to her hands, while he circles the pool, taunting her.
Sadism and brutality existed on both sides during the war. Many Muslim rulers were refined men. Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, wrote his autobiography. Others, like Akbar and Shah Jahan, were tolerant patrons of music and arts. Some, like Jehangir, was cruel religious fanatics. But you can find such examples on the Hindu side, too.
Alauddin is not all brute force in the film. He responds to fine music and regrets that he cannot write poetry. But such moments of sensitivity and finesse are harshly overridden by the overall image of an unwashed, scar-faced and lusty brute madly in love with himself and power. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s shown to be bisexual. This is a tradition which goes back to Alexander the Great, and beyond. But when the villain has this trait and all Rajputs in the film are very progressively heterosexual, that does nothing positive for India’s beleaguered LGTB community.
By contrasts, Rajput King Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) and Queen Padmavati are both physically and morally beautiful. The script shows her to be politically more astute than her husband, as she warns her husband that sultan Alauddin’s invitation to him might be a trap. But he believes in chivalry and noble conduct in war. Not that the entire Muslim army is shown to be treacherous. When Alauddin is seen to be losing his duel with Ratan Sing, and his boyfriend and general Malik Kafur Jim Sarbh) gets ready to kill the latter with an arrow, a fellow commander tells him that’s against the rules of war. But Kafur retorts that what matters is to win.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic about a legendary Rajput queen, her warrior husband and a marauding Muslim conqueror leaves you both appalled and awed
But such sops to minority sentiments are useless when weighed against the film’s overwhelming pro-Hindu bias. This one-sided portrayal doesn’t diminish the film’s considerable dramatic power but diminishes its artistic value. What a pity, because ‘Padmavati’ at times has the dramatic power of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Indian epic filmmaking has come of age. From Asoka to Yoda Akbar and Bhansali’s previous historical epic Bairoaho Mastani, they are impressive feats of filmmaking, and our own budget epics look amateurish, even inept, by comparison.
The historical events in the films can’t be determined exactly, except for the siege of Chittor by Alauddin’s army. There are several versions of the Padmavati legend and she is not a historically verifiable figure (some say she lived in the 13th century, others put it as the 14th). That hardly matters, because films based on historical events, from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to the more recent biopic about Winston Churchill, can distort history or even invents events. Gladiator is a good example of deliberately distorting history for dramatic effect.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, wasn’t killed by his son Commodus. But Commodus was one of the worst tyrants to rule from Rome. He was actually worse than the character in the film. Commodus, as emperor, revelled in Gladiator games and slaughtering animals.
He even dressed up disabled people as mythological creatures so that he could kill them in one of his gladiator spectacles. Also, Commodus wasn’t killed fighting anyone in the arena, as the film shows. He was killed in a bath by his mistress Marcia’s accomplice.
The biggest flaw in Padmavati’s storyline is the black and white portrayal of Hindu and Muslim rulers and their politics, and its glorification of the Jauhar tradition. 16,000 Hindu women marching stridently like beautifully draped zombies towards a bonfire, while deterring the bewildered conqueror by throwing charcoal at him, can’t be described as anything else. As for Rajput heroics, the king is so steeped in macho tradition that, when Padmavati makes a deal with Alauddin and gains access to the chained, bedraggled figure, Ratan Singh berates her for dealing with the enemy for his sake. Even to commit suicide, she must ask for his permission, which doesn’t say much for the status of Indian women of that era.
And that battle scene where a Rajput general carries on fighting even after his head rolls off his head is simply ludicrous. As Indian critic Uday Bhatia put it, the Rajputs “were known to make terrible tactical mistakes and die to fight bravely, and Padmavati is forced to choose between fire and a murderous lunatic who makes parrot noises”.
American critic Rachel Salz was even more cryptic in her dismissal of the film: “Padmavati and her king, Ratan Singh, dressed in gorgeous silks and bangles, are more heaven to look at than delightful to know.”
As the film starts, a statement to the effect that the film does not encourage in any way women to throw themselves into bonfires flashes across the screen. But the frenzied visuals at its end suggest just the opposite
Nonetheless, there is much one can salvage from this one-sided extravaganza. Bhansali’s use of folk music for the score is interesting, and the dance sequences are often enchanting, though it’s hard to understand why sultan Alauddin performs a break dance with his warriors at one point. Despite such faux pas, the film is enjoyable if you can forget its finger-in-the-eye racism and other prejudices.
Bhansali’s earlier epic Bhairao Mastani, also featuring Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh (she as the Muslim warrior princess Mastani, and he as the Rajput warrior Bhairao who falls in love with her) was a more balanced film, with the same exquisite period detail but more historical insights into the realpolitik of the time – the fearsome dominance of Brahmins and that loathing for the Muslim invader which clouded judgement (Mastani is the daughter of Hindu ruler by his Muslim wife) and defeats idealist and romantic love. There is a very well-executed song-dance sequence too, where Padukone and her fellow dancers perform in carrying medieval lutes and in semi-European costumes.
All this is in the tradition of Bollywood’s best moments, but in contrast to the secular tradition of Indian filmmaking of as exemplified by Satyajit Rai, Bimal Roy and Raj Kapoor (in their different approaches), Bhansali is a product of the religion-dominated political culture as exemplified by the BJP. That’s a tragedy even greater than that of Padmavati and Bhajirao Mastani.
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