When a film has been marred with overblown controversies for more than a quarter now, it touches sky rocket expectations too, in the minds of an audience that wants to watch the best of Bhansali brand of cinema knowing fully well what that means! The biggest issue with Padmaavat is that its writing does not have the strength and merit to meet those expectations! In the absence of a complex plot with twists and subtexts, it falls into the trap of taking the extreme politically correct stand of showing everything that is right as Rajput and everything that is wrong as the Sultan!
It does so in a repetitive loop of painting Allauddin Khilji as eviler than the devil and glorifying the ineffective, outdated and patriarchal Rajput valor as the epitome of ‘usul‘, ‘siddhant‘ and everything that is Rajput ‘aan, baan aur shaan‘! The weakness exposes multifold because this entire film is told from the perspective of a one stroke demon Sultan, and provides for very little scope for the honor, elegance and strength of Maharani Padmavati to counter him or the abhorrent dominant patriarchy, so much so that she doesn’t have control to even end her own life without taking the permission from her King, her master!
I call it a weakness of character development because it clouds the entire film with an over the top exaggerated writing of an over the top devilish character, performed even more over the top by a hyper energetic Ranveer Singh, reducing it frankly to a caricature in multiple scenes, or a single note villain who gets monotonous very very quickly! He does shine in certain scenes where its more subdued straight face cruelty rather than the ferocious Brut force outbursts, but unfortunately the screenplay resorts to the extreme overuse of the later to elevate the melodrama to unnecessary buffoonery!
The writing is also a weakness because it gives so little to play with to Deepika Padukone who is undoubtedly the perfect pick for the role of this super intelligent and equally beautiful Rajput Queen. She practically has the least amount of screen time and dialogs of all the three leads. But of what she gets, she super amplifies that with her elegantly understated but super assured performance! The film is a great testimony of how much Deepika Padukone has grown as an actor. She expresses all she can and more through her speaking eyes and some terrific body language! And even though she has the least of them, she gets the most impactful lines of the film and delivers them with astounding strength! Other than the opening sequence in Singhal where she is practically wasted, her performance from when she becomes Maharani stands taller than the towering beauty she is presented as, and that possibly says it all. Pranam Ranisa!!
And then there is Maharawal Ratan Singh, with whom Shahid Kapoor gets the weakest character sketch in terms of writing, but boy that man delivers and how! Yes, he should have possibly been asked to work far more on his physicality, and appears too lean to fit as a mighty king in the full profile shots as they stand in the film, but he looks like an absolute dream in all his closeup shots, and brings a lovely understated charm and strength in sharp contrast to Khilji’s overstated absurdity! One can’t help cringe at the stupid decisions Maharawal takes in the garb of hollow valor, but to me it almost appeared like a sarcastic undertone with which his character is presented in all moments of conflict with the Sultan!
In supporting roles other than the three leads, Jim Sarbh catches attention as the Sultan’s slave and the erotica that he brings on the screen at least adds some subtext to the monotonous proceedings on the Sultan’s side! Anupriya Goenka counterbalances it terribly with her listlessly loud act, and Aditi Rao Hyderi is frankly wasted. I didn’t get who, but the actor who plays the ousted Rajguru of Chittor was terrific in his role and drew a lot of inspiration in his act from a typical Nawazuddin performance. I would have also liked to see far more spunk and energy in the overall background narration which felt dull overall.
And that brings me to the man to whom the entire success or failure of Padmaavat can be attributed to – Sanjay Leela Bhansali! Like every other film of his, he wants his vision to bask in the glory of opulent grandeur, a vision so flamboyant that it should have the power to make up for weaknesses across everything else, insipid music, weak writing, overlong screenplay, inconsistent character sketches, and single note depiction of good vs. evil! The challenge though is that this time even his vision is grander on paper than on screen!
Yes, there are certain screen frames that are nothing short of spectacular like the more closed door courtyard shots when Khilji comes to Chittor for the first time to meet Maharawal, or long panoramic shots of the Rajput sena coming down to the battlefield or Maharani’s sweeping contingent on its way to Delhi, but there are plenty of frames which also fail to capture anything spectacular too, especially the landscape frames of Chittor or the shots capturing the bland internal grandeur of the Delhi Sultanate! Frankly Bajirao Mastani was so much more colorful and vibrant on screen as compared to the muted pallets of Padmaavat!
Brilliant work though on dazzling the screen with the Rajput costumes and jewelry, and both Deepika and Shahid look a million bucks radiating beyond words in all of their single shots! The same is true for Meherunissa’s get-up as well. The same however cannot be said about the music – this is possibly the weakest album of a Bhansali film, and the only thing that stays back with you is the background theme music.
In other technical areas, the editing is pretty weak staying complacent with an overlong script! The first half especially could have been shortened by easy twenty minutes or so! The other weak link is the below average VFX, especially the entire forest sequence of Singhal, the initial ostrich scene, and many of the war sequences. We don’t need to go west, but it came out much weaker even as compared to the other magnum opus we witnessed less than a year ago with Baahubali!
In terms of choreography of two of the most important sequences of the film, Bhansali excels in one and completely fails in the other! The one to one sword fight battle sequence between the Rajput king and Sultan appears rather bland and almost child like! And while there is an obvious resentment that a practice like Jauher gets glorified through the film, one cannot help but get floored with the absolute beauty with which the climax shot is conceptualized and executed! Its an absolute painting in motion, so much so that somewhere it completely overshadows the trauma one is supposed to get drowned in as it happens! Yes, the pain doesn’t leave you numb, but the magnanimity of the shot and its visual appeal does – one thing that will stay with me for the longest time possibly about the film!
I wanted so much more to stay with me though! I wanted so much more of Maharani Padmavati and Maharawal Ratan Singh on screen and their character sketches to be far more strengthened, because frankly even with their limited scope and presence, it is them who left me the most moved and impacted overall! By their sheer power of elegance, subtlety, blazing beauty, terrific screen presence, measured underplay of emotions and epitomizing a fictional epic on screen with the mantra of ‘Less is more‘!
I hope someday Bhansali also buys into this mantra again, and creates visually stunning and yet soulfully stirring love ballads that only he is capable of, like no one else. Till then, we can only go back to glorifying the valor of his earlier films and their beauty!