Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali || Produced by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Kishore Lulla
Screenplay by: Prakash Kapadia || Starring: Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Tanvi Asmi, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi, Milind Soman
Music by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shreyas Puranik, Sanchit Balhara || Cinematography: Sudeep Chatterjee || Edited by: Rajesh G. Pandey || Country: India || Language: Hindi, Marathi
Running Time: 158 minutes
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) is far and away my favorite Bollywood film, despite not being the best Hindi blockbuster I’ve seen, nor the most original or innovative in the industry in any capacity. Rather, Devdas embraces what I love most about big-budget Hindi filmmaking — rich historical melodrama, period epics, illustrious set designs, beautiful costumes, and old-school South Asian music and dance — and never comes within a million light years of modern Bollywood’s worst trends (e.g. terrible CGI, unnecessary green screen, MTV-stylized musical numbers, awful action scenes, super slow-motion, cringe-inducing “comic relief,” etc.). Much like Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables (2010), Bhansali’s films refuse to modernize and remain firmly rooted in the best genre trends of decades’ past, and his distinct Bollywood-incarnate style is purest and perfected in his 2002 epic.
His filmography’s shortcomings notwithstanding (Guzaarish , Ram-Leela ), at least he hasn’t dared make anything like Dhoom 3 (2013) or Munna Bhai: MBBS (2003). If that doesn’t give him credibility, I don’t know what will. Make no apologies, Bhansali… which brings us to his latest film, Bajirao Mastani, another old-school historical drama centered around a melodramatic love triangle, volatile family politics, and complicated royal government maneuvering. Sounds good to me!
In all seriousness, though, Bajirao Mastani may be Bhansali’s best film since his 2002 magnum opus. The film sees Bhansali reunite with Devdas-screenwriter Prakash Kapadia, and unsurprisingly is also his strongest story since 2002. Much like that Aishwarya Rai vehicle, BM channels effective, well paced melodrama around a likable and realistic love triangle, which is in turn wrapped within a rich historical backdrop and royal family soap opera.
The best aspects of Kapadia’s script are its three leads, played by Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, and Priyanka Chopra, all returning cast members from Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. All three actors give their best performances in years, but much of their acting owes credit to Kapadia’s well written characters and the intriguing, intertwined relationships between them.
In a nutshell, BM explains in excruciating detail how much of a mess polygyny is (even for a badass 19th century warlord), and studies the complicated romance and familial fallout that results. It’s a more mature take on the same concepts from Devdas, never wallowing in its romantic anxiety and melodrama the way that film does. BM isn’t a cover song of the same tale, though, but rather an entirely different perspective of a similar relationship dynamic between similar yet unique characters. Much like this year’s American box office heavyweight, The Force Awakens (2015), Bajirao Mastani recalls rather than rebels against classical storytelling formula, but that’s hardly a knock against either film. Both honor their narrative legacy and structure while executing a proud yarn all their own.
Further like The Force Awakens, BM’s diegesis and narrative are backdrops for its likable, memorable characters rather than the main focus. Neither Star Wars as a franchise nor much of Hollywood or Bollywood culture as a whole are known for logically consistent, realistic world-building. They champion awe-inspiring spectacles and wondrous worlds where emotional character drama and universal beating human hearts take center stage. BM, like TFA, is not one lacking for realistic, multidimensional characters nor effective thematic analysis, and that’s what makes them work so well. No one comes to these films for the technical nuances of political governing or interstellar travel. Those who make such complaints against either filmmaking style are in the wrong arena.
But this is not a review of vintage Hollywood space operas; this is a recognition of Bhansali’s dedication to what Bollywood does best. Here at last, we have a period-piece Bollywood romance that takes full advantage of its love-triangle and all the Hindi glitz and glamour that can (and should) come with it. It’s been a long time coming.
As expected, the two biggest selling points of this film are its three main characters, a.k.a. the love triangle, and Bhansali’s direction of the musical numbers. The most refreshing thing about the former is how well balanced Singh, Padukone, and Chopra’s characters are, how no one is reduced to a cartoon character and, most critically, how each has their own distinct faults and strengths in personality and moral fiber. Given the political backdrop of their three-way romance, each member of this trio has to put up with a fair amount of crap from their in-laws, their immediate family, and the sociopolitical expectations of their high-ranking statuses. No character is ever defined as clearly in the right or wrong, and all are given chances to rant, rave, and yell when they feel slighted.
Again, much of this set-up is derivative of most Bollywood flicks ever made, particularly historical dramas, but BM’s execution of these tropes and the maturity with which Kapadia writes the romance elevates this story above the lion’s share of the industry. Singh’s character, the Maratha Peshwa (prime minister), is well within his character (and political power) to take multiple wives, and does so by formally wedding Padukone, an illegitimate Muslim-Rajput noblewoman. Given how Singh has a loving and extremely patient first wife in Chopra, this remains a douchebag move, and yet Chopra refuses to sell out Padukone’s dignity or allow the latter’s children to be assassinated. Then again, Chopra frequently chews out Padukone for being the homewrecker that she is, and spends much of the latter half of the film giving Singh a brutally cold shoulder. Singh, in turn, teeters back and forth between seducing both women and paying lip service to his family and their sponsors, all the while attempting to hold his military adversaries at bay.
Round and round this dynamic goes, allowing the audience to taste each character’s behavior and motivations, dissecting them from the inside out. If this were a Karan Johar film, our three leads would spend nearly three hours crying or shouting at each other with little rhyme or reason to their actions. PEOPLE SHOUTING IS DRAMA!
As for the film’s other big plus, the audio-visual treats that are the musical numbers, Bhansali outdoes himself. Few of the song are as melodic as Devdas‘ soundtrack, but Bhansali’s direction of their choreography is just as strong, and the backdrops are as gorgeous as ever. Cleverly placed matte paintings and minimal green-screen enhance the lighting and dress of the dancers, but never distract from them, nor does the camera ever move unmotivated or remain too static. The music is sultry, seductive, and traditional in the best way possible.
BM is not a perfect film, of course, just like Devdas was not a flawless piece. The movie has as much filler as your standard Bollywood romance, and its ending drags on for far too long in typical melodramatic fashion. To Bhansali’s credit, he doesn’t indulge in megalomaniacal monologues near as much as he did in Devdas, and BM’s death scenes are far more low-key than most Hindi blockbusters. However, the film does descend into almost obligatory silliness by the end and even allows a comical (yet mercilessly brief) CGI-addled action scene before the final act.
Still, Bajirao Mastani is a welcome return to form for Bhansali and retro Bollywood epics in general. Too long have cartoony digital FX and poorly executed melodrama ruined both my beloved American and Indian film cultures. At last, we have a spiritual successor to Devdas to save us from the Dhoom 3’s, Ghajini’s (2008), and Ra.One’s (2011) of today.
It’s time to take it back old-school, ladies and gentlemen.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Sanjay Bhansali finally picks a script worthy of his direction (i.e. not one he wrote) that boasts deep characters and a realistic, relatable romance. Singh, Padukone, and especially Chopra give great performances that feel like actual people, rather than one-dimensional caricatures. Bajirao Mastani features a plethora of great-looking, great-sounding musical setpieces, utilizing minimal special effects, great production design, and wonderful costumes to produce fantastic spectacle.
— However… Bhansali remains no better than the average Bollywood filmmaker at streamlining his movies to an appropriate length. The final act runs far too long, featuring an unnecessary action scene, a silly dream sequence, and a few shoddy computer effects.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
? And that, folks, is why you only date one chick at a time. Which begs the question: Why would you ever be tempted to press your luck with a Priyanka Chopra?