Over the last 12 months, some pockets of India got violent over a poem. People barely read these days, let alone poetry and even less something that was written nearly six centuries ago, so this sudden sensitivity was a surprise. But regional and religious pride is an arcane arena, prompting a waltz between ignorance and irony, transforming angry drifters into fact checkers, historians and aesthetes. The members of the offended mob, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, who felt their honour was besmirched, should watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, a historical drama inspired by the 16th century poem Padmavat — a piece that moved them (and some politicians and supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party) to vandalise a film set, call for bans, issue death threats. They’ll find out, much to their surprise, that Bhansali is not a foe but an ally. To a bloodthirsty bunch drunk on native pride, Bhansali’s epic serves not country liquor but single malt.
The story is simple. Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) has recently become the Sultan of Delhi after deposing his uncle Jalaluddin (Raza Murad). But Alauddin isn’t just a shrewd warrior. He’s also a murderer and a rapist, someone who devours ginormous pieces of meat and orders executions amid banters. The film’s moral pivot, and Khilji’s nemesis, is the Hindu king of Mewar, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). He has recently married Rani Padmavati, the princess of Singhal (Sri Lanka) renowned for her beauty. When Khilji finds out about Padmavati, he marches towards Mewar to subjugate Ratan Singh’s kingdom and win her over. Khilji’s army is mighty and cruel, but the Rajputs, as the film first suggests and later shows, can fight fire with fire.
Padmaavat’s premise – the battle between brute and civilised, moral and immoral – is nothing new to popular Hindi cinema. It doesn’t question or challenge our views: we pick a side, applaud and whistle, go home. But by casting a young Bollywood star as the film’s villain, Singh, and adapting a story where the evil renders the good inadequate, Bhansali showed willingness to at least, if not anything else, challenge himself. He certainly had the cast – Singh and Padukone were stunning in his last, Bajirao Mastani, a drama signaling the director’s return to form. Bhansali also has a flair for directing period pieces, imbuing them with opulence and melodrama, qualities central to Padmaavat. Here, he also has the technology.
3-D – yet to reach mainstream Hindi films – seems like an apt fuel for Bhansali’s ambition. In his films, the settings often function as visual language and character, dwarfing his larger-than-life heroes, placing them in a grand, imposing world, a theatre not unlike themselves. In Padmaavat, too, Bhansali and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee make the settings – palaces with fluted pillars and patterned-hole windows, impassive mountains flanking vast battlefields – come alive with ferocious intensity. Scenes are often shot with the camera either close to the ground (amplifying the setting’s interminable extent and the feverish approach of threat) or from high above (giving the relatively regular scenes a mythic quality) – visual contrasts that make this world immersive and arresting.
Bhansali is also ably supported by Singh, who embodies Alauddin’s manic energy and obsession well, topping them off with unexpected bursts of humour and violence. Singh towers over his co-actors, Padukone and Kapoor, who stick to their briefs and the limitations imposed by their roles.
But is a film just camera angles and lights, costumes and colours, performances and story? Is a film just about what it’s saying – not about what it is not? What about a film set in the past, the 14th century, revealing a troubling mindset of the present? When Ratan Singh needlessly references Rajputs’ courage and honour the first few times in Padmaavat, you dismiss it as a minor annoyance, an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s subject (a quibble also applicable to a recent Indian blockbuster, Baahubali 2). But the invocations of Rajput pride increase at a rapid pace in the second half, riding over the story and themes, leaving you baffled at what this film has suddenly become: a cultural propaganda in the guise of a period drama.
There are dialogues – lines and lines of them, in numerous scenes – on how Rajputs don’t attack “ghayal (wounded)” or “lachaar (helpless)”, how they’re committed to their principles, how even their colours are as powerful as their swords. These assertions soon become redundant; at their worst, they’re ludicrous and predictable. They also frequently lack context, adding nothing to our understanding of the film.
These strains, especially in the current political climate, seem troubling because they feed into the paranoia flared by the Hindu right. Muslims are the ‘other’; they plundered our land, depleted our resources, took away our women. Muslims are also duplicitous and prone to violence. Hindus, on the other hand, are noble and brave. These contrasts rankle because they arise from the film’s inconsistent narrative and unidimensional characters. Alauddin’s roving eye furthers his villainy, but Padmavati, a fearless and confident woman, never questions her status as a second wife. The women in the Mewar kingdom are second-class citizens, subservient to men – which is evident in numerous scenes – but that is never acknowledged, either. Padmaavat defines vice and virtue on the basis of faith, and to see such simplistic interpretation of history, even when adapted from a fictional work, is disconcerting.
But above all, Padmaavat is regressive. And it is so in the most unfortunate way possible, using tradition as an excuse to advance disturbing notions of valour. Towards the climax, Padmavati asks permission from Ratan Singh, saying, “Aap ke ijaazat ke bina hum marr bhi nahin sakte (I can’t even die against your will).” Sati, a reprehensible custom of Hindu society, was banned by British India more than one-and-a-half centuries ago. To see a 200-crore film genuflecting to it without interrogation and introspection – and in the process, confounding helplessness with honour, repression with freedom – is to see a country reverse its clocks.