Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Ranveer Singh
Rawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the proud Rajput ruler of Mewar in the thirteenth century, is a spiritual predecessor of Newton Kumar, a twenty-first century Dalit government clerk whose principles and idealism irritate everyone around him. Amit Masurkar's painfully honest titular protagonist (Rajkummar Rao) turns out to be a tragic misfit in today's cynical world – a fact continuously magnified by wry Assistant Commandant Aatma Singh's (Pankaj Tripathi) exasperation with the young man. Even the brooding Narayan Shankar (Amitabh Bachchan's) Brahmin-esque obsession with paramparas, pratishtha and anushaasan made him quite an outlier in Mohabbatein's pop-utopian universe.
As it turns out, not much has changed in eight centuries. Because we feel a lot like an eye-rolling Aatma Singh when Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Rajput King relentlessly invokes his race's guroor, usool and ittehaas when faced with his empire's imminent destruction. I can't help but imagine Tripathi react to the grand Rawal Ratan Singh ("were you an umpire in cricket matches, too?") with a mix of bafflement and disgust. There's nothing wrong with a little glorification of old-school morality. In cases such as Newton and Shankar, the filmmakers are aware of the transformation the characters must undergo in order to find a balance between traditionalism and evolution; the films rely on their ability to recognize their own datedness.
But Bhansali's lens matches that of the time he chooses to represent. He is dead serious about Ratan Singh's stubborn valour, even as he goes about trying to indicate that these values are only relevant in context of its medieval environment. He attaches a misguided sense of heroism to the King's self-righteousness – right till the end, even when it is at odds with the slender "humanity" of the story.
As a result, this film is not unlike one that might have been conceived by the enigmatic minds of the Karni Sena – one that ends up so self-reverential and hagiographic that it is ironically undone by its own one-dimensionality. So convinced is Bhansali of the Rajputs' illustrious legacy that not once does he realize that all the aggressively stupid decisions made by the King with regard to the plot are guided by these same lofty qualities: his "imaandari ka ghamand". His inflated ego makes him an irreversibly incompetent leader.
The one pragmatic person that mocks him ("Your principles are so nice"), Delhi Sultinate's Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), is made to be a womanizing, eccentric and psychotic villain who displays a Darr-like interest in Singh's luminous second wife, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone). Khilji is the Joker to Singh's Batman, the SRK to Singh's Sunny Deol – except that his win-at-all-costs philosophy is not flawed at all. It is, dare I say, quite progressive; while his counterpart harps on about his place in the pages of history, this man simply burns those pages so that history can start and end with him.
Khilji (Ranveer Singh) is the Joker to Singh's (Shahid Kapoor) Batman, the SRK to Singh's Sunny Deol – except that his win-at-all-costs philosophy is not flawed at all.
In fact it's hard to sympathize with the pretty Rajput couple. The integrity of war cannot be applied to the humaneness of romance. What's brave on the battlefield might often seem ridiculous in the bedroom. Yet, they regularly advertise their ethicality in a way that begs to be taken advantage of. He chooses her because she is well versed in everything from combat to caste. But once she becomes his queen, he reminds her that she needn't meddle in serious constitutional matters; he'd rather die in Khilji's dark dungeons than suffer the ignominy of being rescued by a woman. As I said, not much has changed in eight centuries.
Their love, too, is the Bhansali brand of love – lavish, surreal, immortal and preconceived. We are to merely invest in their passion because it exists – from the way she bashfully looks at him, or the way he twirls his moustache. Their union is made in heaven, because they occupy a palace in which every lantern is symmetrically aligned to signify the aesthetic properness of a royal romance. They occupy an atmosphere ripe with a haunting background theme, and near-mythological supporting characters – a banished brahmachari-turned-traitor, an envious first wife, a brave senapati – meant to test their unshakeable bond.
That's not to say Padmaavat isn't a well-made film. It is just the wrong one. And it would be infinitely poorer if not for Ranveer Singh's electric performance. His is an unhinged Vishal Bhardwaj character stuck in a sanitized Bhansali sonnet. His extravagance and energy suit the role so much that he unintentionally ends up exposing the blandness of those that surround him. It's a bit like an intense Virat Kohli at the crease, while the rest fall like nine pins around him.
Much like Rawal Ratan Singh, Bhansali is in danger of being usurped by his own exaggerated sense of legacy. Padmaavat is a slow-motion step in that direction. Perhaps it's time to create history instead of recreating it.
There's something far more substantial to be found in the tale of Alauddin Khilji and his naked desire to conquer humans and lands. Here is the kind of man who processes his own toxicity as a dangerously comical trait. He grooms himself by spraying scent all over a standing sex slave before rubbing her body against his, all the while making it look like the most natural course of action. There is a strangely tangible level of chemistry between Padukone and him, even though they never appear in the same frame. His equation with his eunuch slave, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh and his bizarre accent), is one of those gloriously nutty and inexplicable things – a Munnabhai and Circuit with dollops of homoerotic tension. It is the one time we can sense the director not obsessing about the tonality and ittehaas of his vision.
Bhansali thrives on being disconnected from the changing moods of contemporary Hindi cinema. But there's a fervid humanity to two of his best films – Khamoshi and Black – that he seems to have eschewed in favour of scale over this decade. The kind of compassion he yearns to depict in his period spectacles isn't rooted in everyday emotions. It is always large and beyond our reach, not unlike the distant coldness of the British monarchy. The problem is that he has started to believe in the realness of these mythical feelings. And he seems to have formularized it, instead of letting it assume a fantasy-based genre-fluidness. One wonders if he has begun to hide behind the form of his productions – evident from Padmaavat's post-converted 3D imagery. This is a futile and unnecessary choice, given that it completely flattens the film's visual texture and detail – two of Bhansali's chief weapons – into a sandpapery mess.
As much as he remains an expert at manufacturing human sentiments, he is still a novice at reflecting human nature. Much like Rawal Ratan Singh, then, this maker is in danger of being usurped by his own exaggerated sense of legacy. Padmaavat is a slow-motion step in that direction. Perhaps it's time to create history instead of recreating it.