Cast: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari, Anupriya Goenka, Jim Sarbh, Raza Murad
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rating: * * ½
About a Barbarian who wouldn’t let go off the wild idea taken root in his egoistic head, Padmaavat exclusively belongs to Ranveer Singh who with his animalistic zeal, makes a meal of his role as the vile, power-crazed Alauddin Khilji who lusted after an imaginary Padmaavati (Deepika Padukone) –a beauty created from the vengeful, delinquent mind of a royal couturier/adviser, ousted from grace for his insubordinate deception.
SLB’s Padmaavati (as played by Deepika) is pretty but the point is that Alauddin Khilji never really saw her. So instead of playing it straight SLB should have made this a psycho-drama about the baseness of the human mind that can conjure up an obsession without even seeing the object of his impassioned devotion- much like the Karni Sena which went about orchestrating high drama without even seeing the film they were so vehemently protesting about.
This Sanjay Leela Bhansali trademark spectacle that wears its epic overtones in regal finery, may have been signed by controversy ever since its inception but it’s quite obvious from the simple-mindedness evident here – the mob mentality that has ruled the politically motivated protests have little to do with fact. Instead it’s the viewer who has been short-changed – by the sheer unbecomingness of a narrative that is overtly obsessed with visceral balance while criminally underplaying the political manifestations of a drama that has it’s origins in a flight of fancy- a Sufi poem of the same name written in 1540 by Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
The poem was set in medieval India, 1303 AD, and bespoke of a period of Rajput hegemony where honour and valour were codified by fair-play and degenerative rituals were palmed off as glorified acts of the highest sacrifice. SLB tries to give Padmaavati an assertive bearing but it is totally lost when she assumes the Jauhar pose (which in fact takes up nearly 15 mins of runtime) in an attempt to defeat Khilji at his own game. Honour above life appears to be the theme that SLB is championing here but if you look closely you will find that the honour being glorified here is merely patriarchy served up in a fashionable bowl. The dialogues may lionise Rajputs but their portrayal here is antithetical to that. Chittor fell because of Rajput disunity and utter foolishness. Ratan’s belief that Khilji would play fair when all pointers indicate otherwise only brings into question his own intelligence or lack of it.
Queen Padmavati was supposedly known for her exceptional beauty but as Sanjay Leela Bhansali makes it, Mehrunissa (played by Aditi Rao Hydari), Jalaluddin Khilji’s daughter, would win all prizes. Hydari’s delectable loveliness in fact comes in the way of believing in this sordid tale. The other miscast runaway here is Shahid Kapoor, who looks a little too inconsequential to play the Rajput King Maharawal Ratan Singh of Chittor who supposedly won the heart of the warrior princess while searching for pearls in the forest adjoining her Singhal (now in Sri Lanka) kingdom???
Shahid may have internalised his performance but it doesn’t come off as strong or valorous. His screen presence is limiting especially when juxtaposed against a vainglorious Ranveer and epidural pure Deepika. His display of brawn is also quite toonish in comparison to Ranveer who struts around with impervious abandon. SLB also tries to introduce a gay-bisexual angle with Jim Sarbh as Malik Kafur, Khilji’s consort-of-sorts, playing the third wheel – which comes unstuck because SLB doesn’t find the courage to show his bestial antihero in a compromising clinch…or is it the censor board at work? Either ways, the lack of visual sexual context stymies the film.
The suggestion that Khilji was open to such debauchery is not much of a big deal anyway. This is in fact a good versus evil portrayal where the good appears insincere and the evil thereof, appears over romanticised. Modifications ordered by the censor board, may have ruined the flow of the story but that’s not to say SLB may have made a masterpiece or anything close. It’s quite clear from the opening frame itself that SLB was thoroughly caught up in the romance of a story that defied all logic and had no intention of making it into anything but a fanciful rendition of a deviant ardour.
The writing by Prakash R Kapadia and Bhansali, is downright stupid too. None of the characters are worthy of empathy. They are all too wishy-washy and paper thin that even the slightest breeze would sway them into an altogether different direction. Ratan Singh’s warrior code is presented in defeatist fashion- as though he has already accepted his failure in the face of an enemy that is so impassioned with abandonment that his victory is forgone. The audience in fact favours Khilji who justifiably rustles up all the whistles and eyeballs. SLB tries to make an oblique political statement by showing Khilji setting fire to the history that came before him but it’s lost in all the showy pomp and pageantry that has now become his metier.
Even if you can forgive such oversight, it’s hard to overlook the flatness of a sordid, rambling, monotonous narrative that flows only when it is on song. The opulence and grandeur seem like window dressing in a finery store that has nothing much to shout about other than its mannequin like flaccidity. Even the sequence where the Rajput women gather together and spray burning charcoal on a Khilji, all-too-eager to rescue Padmaavati from her self-defeating act, seems straight out of Ketan Mehta’s iconic Mirch Masala. And frankly, that cannot be counted as homage when the avowed scene fails to stir you up in any form.
The lack of objectivity and nuance is doubly galling because Bhansali makes no bones of favouring the Hindu King over the Muslim despot. The Hindu king is portrayed as unblemished (but comes across as insipid) even though he has multiple wives while the Muslim king is deplored for wearing his virility on his sleeve. But contrary to Bhansali’s artistically cloaked objective it’s the portrayal of Khilji that receives the most whistles and praise. And rightfully so because Ranveer is electric in his assumption of an oppressor, a sort of antiquated Khalnayak, who prized his so called Naayaab cheezen (so called priceless possessions) above human life.