First of all, the Rajputs have nothing to object about in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. The filmmaker has glorified their valour and even their foolishness couched as usool (principles). If at all anyone has the right to protest somewhat, it would be the descendants (if any) of the Khilji clan, portrayed as greedy, lustful, unscrupulous savages without a trace of human decency.
The film throws a challenge at all those who decry the Karni Sena violence and the political filibustering that followed. If freedom of expression and creative liberty are to be safeguarded, then Bhansali’s film with its discomfiting currents of sexism, racism and obscurantism has to be defended too. Maybe the last is slightly acceptable because it is a period film, but then the question arises, why make a film that glorifies mass female ritual suicide (jauhar)? At the time when the story is set (14th century), with constant warfare going on and repeated invasions by foreign (read Muslim) rulers, the only way to save women from dishonour was to kill them. The onus of honour was on the shoulders of women then, as now; unlike Japanese harakiri, under which men killed themselves by the sword if they were dishonoured. But watching a film today, in which a queen exhorts a horde of women dressed in bridal red (including a pregnant woman and a child) to jump into the fire, is distressing. That, along with the Rani of Jhansi, Rani Padmavati is practically the only woman from Indian history held up as an example of courageous womanhood is even more disturbing.
That said, the film will be seen by audiences in large numbers, because Bhansali lays out a spectacle like no other. Everything is opulent, larger-than-life (kudos to the production design and costume team) and aesthetically lit and shot (Sudeep Chatterjee), even the dark, unsightly living quarters of the Khilji barbarians.
Ranveer Singh plays Alauddin Khilji with energetic glee and the many close-ups show him with an avaricious or depraved expression. In contrast, Rawal Ratan Singh of Chittor is upright and dignified. When he falls in love with Sinhala princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), he marries her; the first wife Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka) summarily discarded. Khilji treats his wife Mehrunisa (Aditi Rao Hydari) disrespectfully, kills her father and brother; on the day of his wedding to her, he is with another woman, and then dances with wild abandon.
His blood thirst and lust are Khilji’s only defining features — he even has a male lover, his chief aide Malik Kafoor (Jim Sarbh), used for mild comic relief and referred to contemptuously as Khilji’s begum.
Ratan Singh banishes his Rajguru (Aayam Mehta) on his new bride’s insistence; he promptly joins the Khilji camp and tells him that he could rule the world with the beautiful Padmavati by his side. Khilji carries out a long siege of Chittor that ends with the capture of Ratan Singh. Padmavati, crosses the palace threshold, that was forbidden to women, and actually rescues her husband without ever showing her face to any enemy male. An enraged Khilji attacks viciously this time, and the end of the story is known, so it’s no spoiler.
Bhansali uses bits of his own films — the swirling ghagra dance, Khilji doing a macho foot-stomping number Khali Bali, just like Malhari from Bajirao Mastani; in the earlier film the romance grew when the woman was wounded, in this when Ratan Singh is accidentally shot by Padmavati’s arrow.
To his credit, Bhansali portrays Padmavati as intelligent and brave, he also gives Mehrunnisa a redeeming sequence and a spine — both women were restricted by social rules of their time, or they might have lived better.
Khilji had more to him than his insane desire for an unseen queen — he was known for reforms and pro-poor measures — but Bhansali’s film has no room for nuance. All characters are uni-dimensional, still, Ranveer Singh’s fascinatingly vile warrior king overshadows both kohl-eyed and stiff upper-lip Shahid Kapoor, as well as the gorgeous Deepika Padukone using her expressive eyes. Unfortunately, the prominent image of Padmavati in the film is her marching resolutely to her death, of course, not before taking permission from her husband to die. By the time the inevitable climax arrives, viewers are probably exhausted, if they weren’t already with the needless controversy surrounding the film.