Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali || Produced by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sudhanshu Vats, Ajit Andare
Screenplay by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Prakash Kapadia || Starring: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Aditi RAo Hydari, Jim Sarbh, Raza Murad, Anupriya Goenka, Ujjwal Chopra
Music by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sanchit Balhara || Cinematography: Sudeep Chatterjee || Edited by: Jayant Jadhar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Akiv Ali || Country: India || Language: Hindi, Urdu
Running Time: 163 minutes
At times, my interest in Bollywood filmmaking ebbs and flows with the work of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I’ve written much about my limited patience for 1990s Hindi melodramas centered around glorified sitcom plots (e.g. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai , Hum Aapke Hain Koun , Hum Saath Saath Hain ), bland films about non-resident Indians (NRIs) abroad (Kal Ho Naa Ho , Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara , Ae Dil Hai Muskil ), as well as my irritation for modern Hindi “action” films (e.g. Ghajini , Dhoom 3 )… but my affection for old-school period dramas in the vein of Bhansali’s extravagant visual style and luscious dance ensembles has only grown with time. Not only are his elaborate set-designs, intricate costumes, and powerful use of music a natural fit for India’s artistic culture in general and the Mumbai film industry’s stand-and-deliver acting style in particular, but his work has been remarkably consistent from the late 1990s through today. 2015’s Bajirao Mastani, for example, a veritable remake of his most famous picture, Devdas (2002), is as good as any Indian musical released in the past decade.
Enter Padmaavat, Bhansali’s latest and perhaps most controversial period epic . Adapted from the epic poem of the same name by 16th century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, the film depicts the clash of medieval Hindu Rajput and Afghani Muslim Khilji cultures, the latter one of several Muslim dynasties to invade and conquer parts of the Indian subcontinent prior to the Mughal Empire, which dominated the region until the start of British colonialism in the late 19th century. The former Rajputs, specifically the Medapata (Mewar) kingdom of what is now south-central Rajasthan, led by Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), attempt to fend off the kidnapping of their newest queen, the titular Padmaavat (Deepika Padukone) by the latest Delhi Sultan, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh).
The source of both this film’s controversy and its quasi-historical inspirations are confusing to Western outsiders. To admit I don’t feel comfortable analyzing the narrative’s portrayal of the real-life practice of juahar (mass self-immolation by Rajput women of the Mewari capital, Chittorgarh, prior to the city’s sacking by Muslim invaders) relative to modern day patriarchal mores would be putting it mildly. All I can do is what I always do with regards to film analysis on this site, which is to review a given film on the basis of its cinematic merit, or how it functions as a film first.
Regardless of Padmaavat’s overt themes and pseudo-historical subject-matter, Bhansali’s latest is an interesting followup to not only his strongest film in years, the aforementioned Bajirao Mastani, but also the South Indian epic, Baahubali (2015, 2017). The latter film was a breath of fresh air given Hindi filmmaking’s annoying ripoffs of Hollywood action cliches and cringe-worthy Hindi “hip hop” music videos in recent years, an unapologetic throwback fantasy complete with elaborate dance numbers and psychedelic action sequences. Like Baahubali, Padmaavat is Indian cinema “returning to its roots,” socially conservative themes included, and that traditionalist approach is what an auteur like Bhansali does best.
Padmaavat succeeds as a convincing period drama, utilizing a plethora of impressive sets, location-photography, and (mostly) competent blue-screen composites to portray 13th century India. The opening sequences introducing Singh’s Khilji antagonist and Kapoor falling for Padukone are shaky, to say the least, with awkward blue-screen backgrounds and worse CGI animal FX, but the film’s presentation skyrockets thereafter. Bhansali’s use of color grading and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee’s impressive lighting imbue this story with the type of ethereal, borderline surrealist tone reminiscent of classical Bollywood.
Chatterjee’s frequent use of slow, patient dolly long-takes during both musical sequences and ensemble dialogue mirror that of his work on Mastani, while his SteadiCam techniques during the film’s few action sequences are paired with effective choreography and neat gore FX. The movie’s two musical numbers are colorful and thematically rich, again recalling Bhansali’s greatest strengths as a director; it’s a shame there aren’t more of them.
The weaknesses of Padmaavat are not its “regressive patriarchal mores,” nor its portrayal of Islamic villains — as I said, I don’t have a dog in this fight, and both controversial subjects work within the context of this film — but rather aspects of its central characters played by Padukone, Kapoor, and Singh. I’ve never been a huge fan of Padukone’s acting due to her limited range, which is on display as our title character. She’s not bad, just… not memorable in any way outside Bhansali’s glorious visuals and seductive slow-motion. Kapoor and Singh fair much better from an acting standpoint, but both characters are somewhat one-dimensional given their strict good-guy and bad-guy archetypes, respectively. Again, none of these starring roles, nor the supporting cast for that matter, are poorly acted or irritating in any way, but nobody stretches beyond their stock characters.
This is most disappointing with regards to Singh’s villain, Alauddin Khilji, through whom Singh chews the scenery with glorious abandon. Given the narrative’s heightened, surrealist tone, Singh feels the most “natural” in this environment, but his simplistic character holds back one’s emotional investment in his arc. I wonder if this film’s overall lack of deep character development is attributable to Bhansali’s screenwriter credit over longtime collaborator (and far better writer) Prakash Kapadia, who is first author on Bhansali’s strongest films (e.g. Devdas, Mastani).
For all its bombastic reception and tumultuous production, Padmaavat turned into another reliable Bhansali feature, for which I am thankful. It is not his best or second best work, in part due to its sparse musical sequences to pace out the considerable (in absolute terms, not by Indian filmmaking standards… ) 163-minute run-time, as well as some mediocre characterizations. I also cannot understand for the life of me why Bhansali continues to cast Padukone in his films — it’s like Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio all over again — but Padmaavat is a strong, cohesive visual narrative nonetheless.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Sanjay Bhansali has proven himself an enduring, consistent filmmaker across multiple decades of work. His charismatic visual style and powerful ethnic scores are as strong as ever in Padmaavat, while his portrayal of cinematic violence continues to improve with the help of director of photography, Sudeep Chatterjee. This is no career high-point a la Devdas or Bajirao Mastani, but it’s no nonsensical (though entertaining) clusterfuck a la Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013).
— However… I remain unimpressed with Deepika Padukone’s ability to carry a film, or rather her lack thereof. Her and Shahid Kapoor’s characters are disappointingly formulaic, while Ranveer Singh’s terrific effort as our lead villain is undercut by a simplistic arc. Why does this two hour and forty-three minute period drama have only two song numbers?
—> RECOMMENDED, nonetheless. I haven’t seen a Bhansali film I haven’t liked. He’s the anti-Karan Johar.
? Compare the final siege in this film to the Battle of Blackwater, please.