As one of the most-talked about Hindi filmmakers of modern era, Bhansali’s works have included noteworthy movies some of which were huge box office hits (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas, Black, Ram Leela, and Guzarish). Bhansali’s pet project since Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) was Bajirao Mastani. Finally seeing the light of marquee during Christmas in 2015, Bajirao Mastani, a period costume and action-adventure epic, achieves both a box office juggernaut and makes a commanding artistic statement.
Faced with fractures from possible overreach into huge sections of the sub-continent, the expansive 18th century Maratha empire, based in Pune, urgently needs a new Peshwa (prime minister). Overcoming strong rivals with a show of successful military campaigns and single feats of bravery, the dashing Bajirao (Singh) clinches the much-coveted post. On one such military campaign, Bajirao comes to the aid of the beautiful warrior-princess Mastani (Padukone) and gets drawn to her even though he is already married to the influential and equally beautiful Kashibai (Chopra).
The concept of a flawed leader who is at a major crossroads of his life is the stuff of legends. On that level Prakash Kapadia’s script posits Bajirao as a conflicted man, a lion caught in the doldrums of a personal winter. Or more precisely, his world forces him into conflict he can’t easily navigate. The battlefront emissary, a shrewd war tactician and by all accounts a hardy and brave warrior, strangely, is more-or-less at peace when he is vanquishing his elephant-back or horse-back foes in the empire’s far-flung vistas.
The other, more urgent, battle Bajirao must overcome is on the home front, where Bajirao’s secret marriage to Mastani makes not only Kashibai unhappy but has the entire capital in an uproar. There are also the palace politics of Mastani’s arrival into the household, albeit at first housed with courtesans—thanks to the icy reception from Bajirao’s mother (Azmi). Then there is Bajirao’s political nemesis (Pancholi) who harbors a hidden agenda. Finally, the fact that Mastani —who has a Rajput father and Persian mother—is of Muslim background is used as a ruse by the local priestly class to instigate the nobility against Bajirao.
A sizable boost to Bajirao’s success has to do with music. Bhansali, who previously scored the soundtrack for Guzarish and Ram Leela, again takes up the baton. The result is a spell binding score that more than once touches light classical ragas, especially “Mohe Rang Do Laal,” a duet with Pandit Birju Maharaj and Shreya Ghosal and Ghosal’s “Deewani Mastani.” The hit “Pinga” duet, choregraphed superbly by Remo D’Souza, is a fetching tandem dance featuring both Padukone and Chopra in a dazzling explosion of sights, colors and sounds.
The box-office results for Bajirao have been nothing short of amazing. As if validating the raves, there was the near sweep of many of the popular industry awards. Now that Filmfare gives out its famed awards in early January for the previous calendar year, Bajirao won Best Film, Best Director (Bhansali), Best Actor (Singh) and Best Supporting Actress (Chopra). In an amazing achievement, Bhansali’s film won nine out of the 12 categories it was nominated for. In the Awards’ 61-year history, only three other movies have won more Filmfare Awards; Bhansali’s Black (2011) won 11, while Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) each won 10.
Bhansali and a small army of artisans and craftspeople make it seem effortless. Sriram Iyengar, Sujeet Sawant and Saloni Dhatrak’s gorgeous set pieces evoke upper crust chivalry from an era when tradition ruled and stepping out of line was tantamount to treason. The period precise sensibility is extended to first-rate culturally-appropriate costumes for both Mastani with her Mughal gowns and Kashibai in her queen-like Hindu attire. While the lingo at times gets annoying going from street-wise Mumbai Hindi to classical Marathi, the eyes are too busy chewing up the scenery.
Based on respected Marathi writer Nagnath Inamdar’s historic (and fictitious) novel Rau and set on southern India’s vast Deccan Plateau during the 18th century when the Mughal empire was generally in decline and the Maratha empire was in its glory, Bhansali’s Bajirao captures the historical imagination like few other recent Hindi movie entries. While the historical Bajirao, Mastani and Kashibai were real life figures, Bhansali goes to pains to point out that this movie is a work of fiction. Fiction that is worth standing up and cheering for!