There’s a dialogue in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmaavat, where Nagmati, the first wife of Rawal Ratan Singh, accuses Padmavati for being the harbinger of bad-luck and chaos in Chittor. The reason being, if it wasn’t for Padmavati’s bewitching beauty, their kingdom wouldn’t have been staring at a certain defeat in the hands of Alauddin Khilji.
However, Padmavati rebukes these sentiments and, kind of, asks, “Isn’t it dependent on the eyes of the beholder? How am I responsible for what Khilji thinks about me?” The statement is a perfect allegory to the effect that the film has had on critics and audiences ever since it released.
Your view of the film is shaped by how you watch it or rather, what you are looking while watching the film.
Truth be told, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, especially when it comes to a historical drama like this one. Although we are told that it’s inspired from an epic poem written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Bhansali’s version of Padmaavat sounds closer to the interpretation of Hemaratan’s Gora Badal Padmini Chaupai, which itself is a re-interpretation of Jayasi’s Padmavat. But then, the film doesn’t quite stay true to either of these versions.
It’s inadvertently dramatised by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, so much that our view of the primary characters in the story, led by Alauddin Khilji, Padmavati, and Rawal Ratan Singh, is polarised. And Bhansali doesn’t leave any scope for a middle path, especially after he paints Khilji as a personification of monster, who wants to stake ’claim’ on everything that God has created, which also includes Padmavati; or how he depicts Ratan Singh as a honourable man, who abides by the code of war; or how he wants us to root for Padmavati, even when she takes it upon herself to uphold her "honour" in the end.
Several film critics north of Vindhyas have pin-pointed specific issues that they had with the film, especially in terms of how it glorifies the practise of Jauhar, and gender are identity politics that are hard to overlook in the film. And once you spot them, it’s hard to unsee or even forget the avalanche of thoughts that trigger in your mind after that.
Irrespective of which side of the argument you take about how Sanjay Leela Bhansali has re-interpreted the epic, the film has led me to address a bigger dilemma. Considering all the trauma that the team has gone through to let the film see the daylight, would you still support the film after realising how bland and disappointing it is? And more importantly, do we judge a film for what it is or how we try to interpret it? And if we are trying to find a better version of the film than the one that’s presented to us, then, are we being true and objective enough?
Well, Padmaavat left me searching for all these answers and I’m still looking for them. Having said that, sometimes, for viewers like me, who aren’t really aware of the finer details of either Rajputs or the Khiljis, stripping the story of its underlying politics and context, sounds like a blessing in disguise. Quite frankly, I saw it as a film and not as a reinterpretation of folklore or history. But, even then, Padmaavat is a disappointing film.
Oh yes! It’s disappointing to the extent that for all the brouhaha it makes about valour and pride, there’s barely a scene that made me root for the characters. Don’t get me wrong - Ranveer Singh is terrific in his role and he seems to have had a blast playing a monster; Shahid Kapoor’s well-sculpted abs are hard to overlook even if you couldn’t care less about his dialogue-baazi about the duty of a true Rajput; and well, Deepika Padukone deserves to be addressed as Mallika-E-Hind for there’s something about her eyes that captivate your attention.
The biggest problem I had with the film is that Padmaavat - the film - is clueless about who its heroes and villains are. We are led on to believe that Khilji is the villain, and that Ratan Singh and Padmavati are on the right side of this fight for dharma, but somewhere down the line, you also understand that Bhansali is more interested in exploring the life and psyche of Khilji. His obsession with the beauty of Padmavati is what drives the film and it’s him who goes through a sea of emotions when he comes to term with the fact that he cannot attain what he seeks the most. It drives him insane.
Compared to him, both Ratan Singh and Padmavati are reduced to mere cardboard characters who spew profound dialogues. If anything, it’s the story itself that has more emotion than what these two actors manage to convey. Much of the film’s problems lie in its opening act where we are introduced to each of the characters. Sanjay Leela Bhansali teases you with quite a few action sequences, but he never quite gets there.
In one particular scene, Khilji is seen riding into a whirlpool on the battlefield. It’s perhaps the most dramatic scene in the film, only surpassed by its climax. Yet, three million minutes of slo-mo shots later, all you get is a jump cut where you are shown that Khilji has already won the battle. Bhansali leaves so much to our imagination that the story running in our minds is far more intense and interesting than what we see on screen.
On the other hand, Ratan Singh and Padmavati have a bland romantic track, where, once again, we are shown just a glimpse of the intense chemistry that these two characters are supposed to share. But then, Bhansali doesn’t let us root for them because there’s so little to remember in whatever transpires between the king and the queen in the beginning portions of the film.
It’s impossible to have ignored the film and the buzz surrounding it prior to the release. And this means that most of us are, kind of, aware of the legend which inspired the story. Yet, everything that’s shown in the film is 150 minutes of ‘what’ happened rather than delving into the nuances of ‘how’ it happened. The battle sequences are a joke. If you are going to reinterpret history, then the least one could do is offer a new perspective on how battles were fought. Instead, for a while, we are shown Khilji waiting patiently for Ratan Singh to wave the white flag. It never comes. And our patience wears thin too in the process.
One aspect where Padmaavat truly makes a strong impression is its production design. It’s opulence, costumes, jewellery, and how each frame is lit is truly stunning. Perhaps, that explains why I was more worried about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s attention to detail and his obsession with symmetry than the fate of the key characters. No one lights lamps, and so many of them in a frame, like Bhansali does. The lamps withstand the strong winds of Mewar, but the taste of sand remains intact.
We know how the story is going to end. And there’s hardly anything that comes as a big surprise in terms of a cinematic experience. For all the hullabaloo that we’ve been witnessing for the past few days, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the drama surrounding the film’s release and the debate that the film has sparked post release is far more dramatic that what’s actually there in the film. It’s like an echo, and the closer you get to the source, you realise how feeble the original voice is.
Or maybe it’s like a drum, covered in exquisite linen and gems and rubies and diamonds from all over the world, but once you unwrap it, all you are left with a loud hisssssssss and an empty feeling.