Bear with me, as I interpret an imaginary situation in Sanjay Leela Bhansali language. In the grand haveli of Rajput honour, Bhansali arrives with a gift. His arrival is announced with a procession, of course. Of a hundred colour-corrected Deepika Padukones twirling in gem-studded ghagras. The gift is his most “naayab heera”, Padmaavat, a 200-cr, CGI and zardozi paean to Rajput valour. The unimpressed heads of the haveli twirl their mustaches in disgust. A thali of red vermilion (picturesquely) flies across the room. A dejected Bhansali falls on his knees. Somewhere, Kirron Kher, lets out a scream (naheeee) and runs through corridors after corridors with her dupatta trailing in all its billowy glory.
I know, OTT. Bhansali-level OTT. But a film like Padmaavat deserves nothing less.
The most staggering thing about the whole Padmaavat brouhaha, where school buses full of children are attacked with glee, is its poetic irony. And that makes a tragic hero out of the filmmaker. Nothing can be sadder than that.
A lot of blood and sweat may have gone into making Padmaavat, but the film reeks of artistic and ideological compromises. It’s a film designed to breed hate. Rather, thrive on it.
Having said that, one can’t deny that Bhansali took on an extremely difficult task when he decided to make this one. A film on a deity-like fictional queen who committed jauhar to save her honour. How does a progressive, sensitive filmmaker tackle this subject without glorifying the act of self-immolation? Bhansali has the answer. By NOT being a sensitive, progressive filmmaker.
Bhansali, whose love for everything shiny and aesthetically pleasing is often mistaken for art in India, invests very little in the psyche of the queen. Big surprise that. He chooses to dwell on the legend of her. Thus, we have a sweeping spectacle where a criminally-wasted Deepika Padukone hurtles towards her destiny (read a giant well of fire), without even stopping to think. I know, I know, if you had made Padmavati even consider this decision, the country would have been set ablaze. But really Mr Bhansali, this?
Bhansali chooses to begin this tale in Afghanistan, where a young Khilji and a gang of surma-eyed men are being debauch while chomping on impossibly big hulks of raw meat. Bhansali doesn’t waste a moment in establishing Khilji as the deplorable face of the Muslim “other”. Ranveer Singh’s Khilji is an exercise in unbridled excesses. On his wedding night, Khilji murders one of his closest aides, rapes one of his bride’s friends and then dances like a maniac in front of a (CGI) bonfire.
He is like Ramsay’s Samri on acid. As the narrator points out, even the moon trembles at his “haivaaniyat”.
Meanwhile, in Singhal (present-day Sri Lanka), Padmavati frolics around the same forests where Baahubali molested Avantika. Since she is a warrior princess, she is armed with a bow and arrows and wears designer dhoti pants.
But we all know who the shikaar is. Shahid Kapoor, the king of Mewar in a mission to find Singhal’s most precious moti. The Singhal setting gives Bhansali and his art-director the opportunity to create exquisite sets (which have no historical bearings), for the lead players to look painting-like in.
Kapoor, who has the ignominious task of being hopelessly ill-equipped to tackle any situation at every point of the film, looks and sounds like a south Delhi boy attending a destination wedding.He wears his angrakhas and sherwanis with a strange kind of self-consciousness. His body, toned to perfection, is meant to grace Calvin Klein centre-spreads not halls of a Rajput haveli. And the worst thing is Kapoor seems to be criminally aware of that. More often than not, in those leisurely shirtless scenes, you can see his gym-selfie pout emerge from the beard and the twirled mustache. Haider is officially dead!
Soon, the Singhalese princess is packed off to Mewar to be the second queen of the king, and she takes no time in breaking into a ghoomar jig within days of stepping out of the palki.
They don’t call her a goddess for nothing.
The Khilji track now gathers force with a dozen or more instances of treachery and the Bhansali version of perverted sex (he tickles the bosom of his stoic queen with his crown while pinning her down to the bed). Singh, a vision in fur trench coats and ushankas, spends most of his screen-time being ridiculous. And to be very fair, he does do a convincing job of it. In Khilji, we have a villain so decidedly one-note that you can predict each of his actions with consummate ease.
But it’s the treatment of the Malik Kafur track that makes Bhansali’s intentions crystal clear. Kafur, who was one of Khilji’s most trusted aides, was rumoured to be his lover too. In Padmaavat, the Kafur-Khilji track is packaged like the partnership of two deranged debauches, who, apart from conspiring to kill and plunder, also have sex with each other. In other words, Bhansali ensures that not even for a moment do we see these two as lovers. They are two men who are committed to a life of debauchery. Of course they will have homosexual tendencies.
Eventually, as Padmavati is confronted with prospect of surrendering herself to the greed of Khilji, after her husband is unfairly killed by Khilji and his deceitful army, she gives a pep talk to a congregation of women. The conclusion of the speech is that since the men who died in the battlefield are “not less than gods for them, they should commit jauhar”.
Yes, Bhansali CHOSE to say that instead of many other nuanced arguments he could have used to justify the act.