After much controversy and debate, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmavati – renamed to Padmaavat – officially released worldwide to packed movie theaters and thundering box office sales. Following suit from his previous films, Bhansali once again explores historical fiction, situating this one in the 13th century context of the Indian subcontinent’s politics and the lives of Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), and Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh).
Also in the milieu are archetypal characters one would expect to find in any historically-based drama film – Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka), the disgruntled first wife of Ratan Singh, Raghav Chetan (Aayam Mehta), the scheming revenge-plotting expelled Brahmin priest, Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), the neglected and abused wife of the tyrant, and Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), a subservient servant who is (not so) secretly in love with his maniacal monster of a master.
There is no doubt that Bhansali knows how to create a visual spectacle and display extravagant opulence on the big screen. But for viewers who have seen Bhansali’s body of work as a filmmaker, there are no surprises or particularly new elements in Padmaavat that distinguish it from his more recent films. Like Ram Leela and Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat musically and choreographically features a traditional Indian group dance, an ode to and display of traditionally strong and energetic masculinity, a sensuous expression of lust (“Binte Dil”, which resembles a male/queer version of “Ang Laga De” from Ram Leela), and a romantic heartwarming ballad. The action and fight sequences are all too predictable and the level of violence and gore is extreme.
Padmaavat is rooted in and filled with Hindu mythological tropes and themes. Bhansali clearly draws comparisons of Padmavati to Goddess Durga and Savitri and Alauddin Khilji to Raavana – both directly through the dialogues and indirectly through the cinematography and the characters’ actions. His directorial touch and attention to detail in certain scenes throughout the film do not go unnoticed but in fact provide more insight into the inner workings of his characters. That said, there is no real plot in this film, which makes it feel like a drawn-out ordeal for viewers who are left waiting for a significant sequence of events.
Any discussion of Padmaavat would be incomplete without mention of the mass self-immolation (jauhar) that marks the climax and resolution of this film. It goes without saying that this ending is intense and powerful, particularly on a large screen, but it left me feeling confused about choice and empowerment. It certainly raises questions surrounding the chronological context of women’s roles and rights then versus now.
As a feminist and mental health professional in-training watching the jauhar scene in the audience, I felt angry and helpless, as I struggled to identify an alternative to this form of collective suicide. Part of me secretly hoped that instead of committing suicide themselves, the women would set Alauddin Khilji and his troops on fire, with an alternative ending of Padmavati ruling the Rajput kingdom thereafter as Queen. Needless to say, if Bhansali’s goal was to re-author this narrative from history, that would have been a empowering ending to make the story of Padmavati even more relevant in a 21st century context.
Coming to the performances, the highlights of Padmaavat are definitely Ranveer Singh and Jim Sarbh, whose chemistry and passion for power are a treat to watch. Despite the one-sided love and adoration of Malik Kafur, the queer subplot between him and Khilji is much appreciated as a welcome change from the heteronormativity of Indian cinema and testimony to the fluidity of gender and sexuality across time in Indian culture and history. Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone hold their own as strong leaders, and their display of Rajput pride in their roles as King and Queen of Mewar cannot be overlooked. While Shahid’s dialogue delivery and punchlines reverberate with resonance, Deepika’s are not quite as effective, falling short of the power-packed performance expected of her.
Sanchit Balhara’s background score personifies epic grandeur, especially in the climax as all the red-clad Rajput women run towards the fire. Ganesh Acharya’s signature choreography in “Khalibali” reflects Alauddin’s madness personified through movement, which Ranveer Singh executes excellently and energetically.
Final Verdict: Padmaavat is an intense and extravagant display of greed, opulence, materialism, and power. For those who are familiar with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, there is nothing particularly novel or unique in Padmaavat.