As a member of the South Asian diaspora, born and raised in the United States, Hindi cinema can be a wonderful avenue for me to introduce my friends to my culture and share a piece of myself with them. One of my favourite films for the uninitiated Hindi film viewer is Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani. The impeccably crafted sets and costumes, along with the beautifully composed music, provide a taste of traditional Indian culture—packaged in an accessible story with universal themes of star-crossed love and duty to one's family. For all my friends who have seen the film, the most consistent takeaway has been the deepest sympathy for Bajirao's first wife Kashi, played by Priyanka Chopra.
My favourite anecdote comes from one of my friend who saw a few songs on YouTube first, 'Deewani Mastani' being her favourite. Who wouldn't be mesmerised by that haunting melody, the opulence of the Aaina Mahal, and the sheer perfection of Deepika Padukone? When we got around to watching the film a few weeks later though, and 'Deewani Mastani' began to play, I watched my friend's world collapse as she realised what this song meant in the context of Kashi's story. "She can't just come in here and do that! Not to Kashi!" my friend stubbornly insisted. I couldn't help but laugh when she decided that she no longer liked the song because of this new perspective. I cannot think of a better way to describe the impact of Kashi on Bajirao Mastani.
Taking a cursory glance at Kashi, you might see her as nothing more than a self-sacrificing wife with tears in her eyes. Indeed, if one were to just read a synopsis of the film, they might think the same thing. However, a closer look at Kashi's words and actions reveal how much she is able to assert herself, even within the confines of her situation. As the wife of a Peshwa in the 18th century, she obviously does not have the option to leave her husband, even if he does decide to marry another woman. Nor does she have the option to outwardly express her frustration, given that she has to remain composed for the sake of the institution and the Maratha Empire. Despite this, she manages to find her voice, refusing to be overlooked by the other characters in the film or by the audience.
The triumph of Kashi's characterisation is how the script makes her the epitome of a selfless woman without completely stripping away her agency or her humanity. In one scene, Rao brings Mastani to her own palace in Shaniwar Wada, against the wishes of his mother and brother. When it appears that everyone has deserted the palace in protest of this move, Kashi comes to the doorstep with an aarti ki thaali in her hands. Without watching the film, this seems extremely demeaning to Kashi. Why should she be obligated to perform the ceremonial rituals to welcome her husband's second wife into her palace? However, this scene is written and directed such that Kashi holds all the power throughout. She makes it clear that it was her choice to perform this ritual, in order to fulfil her duty as the daughter-in-law of the house. She directs Mastani to come closer so she can perform the aarti, but then draws the line when Mastani attempts to touch her feet and take her blessings. When Rao proclaims how happy she has made him by doing this, she quietly but firmly says to him, "Yeh swagat sirf iss chaukat par hua hai, dil mein nahi." ("This welcome only extends to this doorstep, not to my heart.") Kashi did not do this for Rao's happiness, and it is vital that he remember that.
Shortly after, Kashi receives information that a murder attempt will be made on Mastani and her son during a festival at the palace. As the thunderous "Gajanana" plays in the background, Mastani's duel against her attackers is intercut with Kashi's duel against herself—wondering whether to warn Rao about this danger to his second family, whom she technically owes no duty toward. There is no dialogue, but Chopra's eyes tell us everything we need to know about Kashi's conflict between doing the right thing and doing what might be better for her. Of course, she does tell Rao about the attack in time for him to save Mastani and his son, but what makes the scene special is that we get to see the decision from her point of view.
These layers of Kashi's humanity can also be seen when she comes to gift Mastani a sari for the women's festival. The overall purpose of her visit is to reach out to Mastani and give her the respect which no one else in Shaniwar Wada will give her. However, even in this moment of magnanimity, she cannot help but show her jealousy and heartbreak. She tearfully asks, "Yeh haath pakadte hain naa tumhara woh?" ("This is your hand which he holds, right?"), and even throws in a cheap shot implying that Mastani is simply Rao's mistress. Ultimately though, she expresses that she has come to extend an olive branch, explaining that "Rao ko tumhari zaroorat hai, aur unki zaroorat ka khayal rakhna hamari zaroorat hai." ("Rao needs you, and I need to protect what he needs.") Of course, the ultimate purpose of this scene is to create a plausible space for the two women to perform a beautiful dance number together. And while "Pinga" will go down in history as one of the most memorable songs of the 2010s, this preceding scene was unique in that it showed Kashi performing a selfless act while still giving her the space to breathe and feel the normal human emotions of her situation.
Kashi's arc culminates in the scene where Rao comes to meet her before leaving for war, and she finally expresses all her pent-up emotions about his relationship with Mastani. She laments that not only will the world forget about her in Bajirao and Mastani's legendary love story, but more importantly that Rao himself forgot about her. He tries to defend himself, pointing out that he never tried to compare his two wives. With two powerhouse actors like Priyanka Chopra and Ranveer Singh, the temptation could have been for this dialogue to escalate into a loud fight, but the brilliance of this scene is that it went the exact opposite way. When Rao defends himself, he is not trying to maintain his dominance over her, but rather pleading for her forgiveness. She finally shuts him down with undoubtedly the best line of the film: "Aap humse hamari zindagi maang lete, hum aapko khushi-khushi de dete. Par aapne toh humse hamara guroor chheen liya." ("Had you asked for my life, I would've happily given it to you. But you've snatched away my pride.") Just in the trailer, the writing of this line and Chopra's delivery made my hair stand on end, and in the film, it made my heart crumble to pieces. In just one line, Kashi sums up the universal feeling of betrayal. Whether you live in the 18th century or the 21st century, that pain will always sting the same way.
I have always felt conflicted about the portrayal of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's heroines. While the roles are often substantial enough for actresses to flex their acting chops, the characters themselves are often defined by their relationships to men. Bajirao Mastani is not necessarily an exception to this, but it is certainly a step in the right direction, particularly in its portrayal of Kashi. While she might be the self-sacrificing wife who allows the main love story to proceed, the script gives us an insight into the complex emotions which come with the choices she makes. It helps that there is not a single false note in Chopra's performance as she conveys Kashi's evolution from childlike innocence to jaded heartbreak. Prakash Kapadia's exquisite writing and her masterful portrayal create a character that—no matter what you might think of Priyanka Chopra or Sanjay Leela Bhansali or period dramas in general—you can't help but love.