Film Review: Padmaavat
It’s 2018, and we’re making movies that are unironically in love with the idea of women burning themselves alive to save their honour. Padmaavat doesn’t see jauhar—the Hindu practice of self-immolation by the women of the losing side in a war—as a particularly gruesome by-product of defeat. Instead, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film spins this horrible fate as nothing less than outright victory.
Jauhar is, of course, historical fact, and no one’s suggesting that a film cannot be made on it. But a film that shies away from the compulsions that must have driven at least some of those deaths, which instead wraps the act in poetry and piety, is a worrying one to encounter in this day and age. I’d assumed Padmaavat would make some sort of warped point about jauhar as an act of female agency: I choose to kill myself rather than be raped and enslaved. Yet, even this choice is denied to the women. In a scene I found grimly amusing, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) actually has to ask her husband, ruler of Mewar Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), for permission to commit suicide if things go wrong.
The one with the power to make it all go wrong is Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, equal-opportunity lover and all-round psychopath. When Ratan Singh’s exiled former teacher tells him of Padmavati’s beauty and predicts that their futures are linked, Khilji becomes obsessed with her. He travels to Chittor with his army, gets himself an audience with Ratan Singh and demands a glimpse of Padmavati, which he’s granted. After that, it’s only a matter of time before the Rajput men do what they did in most battles—make terrible tactical decisions and die fighting bravely—and Padmavati is forced to choose between fire and a murderous lunatic who makes parrot noises.
Unlike Bhansali’s last film, Bajirao Mastani (2015), a more syncretic period epic, Padmaavat feels depressingly of the moment, a clash-of-civilisations narrative weighed down by tradition and mythology, happy to encourage the myth of Muslim invaders as lust-driven savages. When Bhansali shows us Alauddin dancing with his troops, gnawing meat off the bone, or having his feet massaged by his general, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), he is encouraging us to compare this dishevelled, long-haired, deviant foreigner with the fair-skinned, heterosexual, beautifully attired Rajputs. The Alauddin-Kafur dynamic might have been fascinating to explore (both are real-life characters), but the film is only interested in using pansexuality as a sign of moral dissoluteness.
Singh’s seething performance is, at best, an unhinged parody of a nutjob villain; at the very least, it’s lively. Padmavati and Ratan, on the other hand, are unspeakably boring, with their talk of usool and guroor and long lists of what Rajputs are known for (bravery, honour, more bravery, fair play, carrying on fighting when they’ve been beheaded). Having named the film for her character, Bhansali struggles to find anything worthwhile for Padukone to do. On more than one occasion, she’s reduced to dressing Kapoor (if that sounds in any way sexy, let me disillusion you right away). Apart from one bit of enterprise in the middle, this film may as well have been called “Khilji”.
Padmaavat feels like Bhansali’s attempt to carve out some of that Baahubali territory for himself. This includes the decision to make the film in 3D, a first for the director. Bhansali is a remarkable visual stylist, but the detailing that he normally brings to sets and costumes seems to get lost here. The images in the foreground are a lot sharper—a waste of screen space, considering this is a director who packs every inch of his frames with purpose. Some of the scenes are actively worse for being in 3D; during a battle sequence, flaming arrows are beautifully framed against a dark sky, but the sensation of them flying into your glasses a second later ruins the effect.
After all the death threats and destruction of property and compromises, it’s as many of us suspected: the Karni Sena has unwittingly been protesting a wet dream of Rajput pride. Pride beyond logic, pride in defeat, in suicide, in abetting suicide. Perhaps the richest irony—and the biggest disappointment—is the similarity between the Sena’s vision and Bhansali’s. The only lessons worth taking from Padmaavat are sartorial, but this thin epic is likely to be parsed for meaning by millions in the coming weeks. When none emerges, we’ll likely do what we’ve always done—fall back on tradition.