Sunday, February 4, 2018

Padmaavat: A Review


As someone who has come across Bollywood/Tollywood films, I can say that I'm not unfamiliar with the genre.  However, Padmaavat is a different type of Bollywood film altogether for me.  Unlike other Bollywood films, Padmaavat is the first one I have seen that is not set in contemporary times.  Second, Padmaavat is one that cannot be called 'jolly' in any sense of the word.  Finally, Padmaavat is the first Bollywood film, at least that I can recall, that has been met with controversy and scandal even before it was released, with some of that continuing afterwards.  This film, based on an epic poem which may or may not be based on actual historic events, now is finally released. 

Was it worth all the death threats and rioting?

Muslim warrior Alauddin (Ranveer Singh) has designs on Mehrunisa (Aditi Rao Hydari), the beautiful daughter of the Sultan.  Alauddin is not a good man: he is screwing a maiden on his wedding night and kills a loyal servant who tells him to go to the wedding dance.

Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Singhal, the Princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) is a warrior princess, one who enjoys the hunt.  She, however, accidentally hits Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a young king who is visiting on a state visit.  Padmavati nurses him to health and as things go, they fall madly and deeply in love.  They marry and she goes to Chittor, her new realm.

Alauddin, for his part, continues plotting to conquer the world, aided by his loyal manservant/assassin/potential lover Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh).  Malik is totally devoted to his Master, and fortunately for him, he is the only one whom Alauddin seems to trust completely, unaware that at least once Malik spied on him in a lovemaking session (that scene was interrupted though, as from what I know of Indian films there is very little actually shown in terms of flesh and sex).

One person who did spy on his Rani and Rajah was Ratan Singh's guru, who was exiled.  Now, the guru arrives at Alauddin's court, and he has a prophesy for him.  He describes Padmavati's great beauty, and adds that if he were to conquer her, Alauddin could become the most powerful man in the world, a new Alexander the Great or Sikander-e-Sani.

With motivation like that, Alauddin declares war, as he puts it, not to extend his territory but to extend his arms.  Needless to say, Ratan Singh isn't going to let his second wife go off with another man, especially since he's madly in love with her.  He manages to withstand Alauddin's long siege, and Alauddin at first appears almost sane.  It isn't until he subtly suggests he'd like to see the Rani that Chittor is enraged.  Padmavati, for her part, agrees to a quick glimpse via mirrors and smoke, but that was a bad move.  The quick glimpse is not enough for Alauddin, but enough to make him more determined.

Alauddin tricks Ratan into becoming his prisoner, and now Padmavati faces a terrible choice: surrender or let her beloved die.  She agrees to meet with Alauddin, if certain conditions are met.  Alauddin agrees to them all: allowing her to bring 900 maidens, seeing the King first and seeing him released, and the head of the guru.  It's all a major ruse: the maidens are disguised warriors, and the lovers escape with help from Mehrunisa.  Enraged, Alauddin marches again on Chittor, with a larger army.  Ratan faces him in a one-on-one match, but is killed by Malik, contravening the rules of war.  Chittor is now totally left in ruins, but Alauddin will be defeated.

Padmavati, in a calm act, declares that she and all the women will commit Jauhar, ritual self-immolation, what is also termed 'sati', where women set themselves on fire.  Alauddin would not get his war booty.

Padmavaat was initially so controversial that even the original title caused outrage.  Originally titled after the main character, Padmavati, the title had to be changed to the epic poem about her (Padmavaat) because as the film points out in a post-script, she is held as a Goddess.  As such, you just cannot make a film about a Goddess without running the risk of offending some sensibilities.

Those sensibilities were later inflamed by unfounded rumors of a dream sequence between Padmavati and Alauddin where they became lovers (no pun intended).  While there was no 'love/dream sequence' and there was never one in writer/director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's script, the mere suggestion of such a sequence was enough to infuriate certain sections of the Indian population.  Death threats against Bhansali and actress Padukone were issued, and the set was damaged in an act of vandalism.   

As it stands, I'm a bit surprised these same people were upset, because the end result is that Padmavaat is actually pretty accommodating to an almost anti-Muslim worldview.  I claim no knowledge of how Alauddin was in real life and confess to having never heard of any of this prior to Padmavaat, but one can't watch how Alauddin is without coming away with strongly negative views on him.  As portrayed by Ranveer Singh, Alauddin is in turns crazed, almost demonic, and perhaps homosexual or bisexual (which might be seen as being even worse in some more conservative Indian circles).

We get quite a few suggestions about how close the relationship between Alauddin and Malik may be almost from the latter's first appearance.  Presented as a gift to Alauddin by his father-in-law, Malik appears to be almost in a bridal gown.  Later on, Ratan's generals say that Malik is so close to Alauddin that some call Malik 'his consort'. 

Perhaps the oddest and most overt claim of an 'unnatural' relationship between Malik and Alauddin comes from Malik's love song, Binte Dil.  As Malik starts singing this number to Alauddin, we had already been treated to the sight of them in a large bathtub together, though to be fair Malik was fully dressed.  As Malik starts singing, Alauddin does some writhing and thrusting in the tub, then finds himself in the throes of passion.  Granted, he was in the throes of passion with a woman, forcefully drawing the curtain on Malik as he continues singing, but the whole number is probably as homoerotic a musical number as we are likely to see from a Bollywood film. 

At least one that does not actually feature a same-sex love story, which given how conservative the Bollywood film industry appears to be, is not something likely to happen.

Another musical number, Khalibali, performed by Alauddin as he comes close to his victory, is also, well, a bit bizarre.  Yes, I think it's worth mentioning I'm coming at this from a thoroughly Western point of view, even if I have seen several Bollywood/Tollywood films, so I don't declare myself an expert on these musical numbers.  However, seeing an almost completely unhinged Alauddin with a group of warriors as backup dancers and he almost in a rage sings and dances is unnerving, and having the scene end with Alauddin getting hit by arrows is the coda on the general offbeat nature of Khalibali.

It's a sign of how unique the number is that one isn't even sure the arrows are real or a dream.

Credit should be given to Ranveer Singh, who makes Alauddin into a frightening, crazed being even when dancing in Khalibali, his manner intensely threatening.  I cannot say much for Kapoor other than he has an extremely firm body which is showcased often.  I put it more to the character, who at times seems so gentle, especially when looking at the second Rani of Chittor.  The one thing I remember about Padukone is that no matter what, she looked as if she was always on the verge of tears, her eyes perpetually red. 

It's a pity, as she started as a strong warrior princess, but once she was married she became if not docile at least less warlike, but again credit for making her a shrewd figure who out-thinks her enemies.

Out of the dance numbers, only Ghoomar has what most would consider a typical, or stereotypical, Bollywood number: the elaborate dance and lavish sets and costumes all befitting a spectacle.

As for the Jauhar, the film had the good sense to not show the actual mass suicide, giving us just enough to shock without delving into the full horror of it.  In this aspect, it is reminiscent of Masada, when the Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. 

Padmaavat, for all the controversy and scandal it unleashed, was surprisingly very respectful to the legend of Padmavati and her act of jauhar; it might be interpreted closer to being about the present than the past.  The idea of the Muslim flag flying over the Hindu kingdom or Alauddin burning any historic text that didn't mention him evokes memories of ISIS and its brutality.  I cannot say whether this was in mind for Padmaavat, but in terms of cinema it was good but at times a little curious, with one good though crazed performance and songs I doubt will linger apart from Ghoomar

All Hail the Goddess...


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