Starring: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jim Sarbh
Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films can be pretty divisive. Audiences tend to either completely buy into, or be completely turned off by his style, inclination towards focusing on the grand and the rich. You can feel the big budget, and the hard work on the production design oozing off the screen in Padmaavat, just like his previous films, particularly Bajirao Mastani and Devdas. And while I (still) would call myself a loyal fan of his work, considering him currently one of Bollywood’s greatest storytellers, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by Padmaavat.
I went to see it a second time, so what I write here is based mostly on my feelings having seen it again after being disappointed the first time. While my expectations were high on first viewing, by the second time a few days later, I had already come to terms that it isn’t SLB’s strongest work. It is difficult not to compare it to Bajirao Mastani, given the cast and that they’re both period films, despite them being set centuries apart.
I loved Bajirao. I saw it multiple times in the cinema in its first run, and then again when the BFI showed it as part of their India on Film season. It was gorgeously put together, and for me didn’t sacrifice the story or soul in its opulence. Aesthetically, Padmaavat is very similar; with its grand sets and costumes, and bar a few odd moments of CGI, it is one of the best looking Bollywood films I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch on a big screen. But the story and the characters don’t rise above all that is shiny and gold in the film, rather they seem to get lost amongst it. And I think what I find most disappointing is that it isn’t as if SLB hasn’t shown us in previous works that he can do better. Even in the richness of Devdas, or the strangeness and blue of Saawariya (which I know not many people are a fan of, but I certainly am), the heart of the story and its characters find their way out of it all. Not that Padmaavat is purely superficial, but there is something distant about it, making it a difficult film to engage with.
It feels wrong to say this about an SLB film, but it isn’t really a musical, and the way the songs are inserted, a part of me wishes he’d avoided them all together. I found Binte Dil unnecessary both in its placement, and in its existence. It doesn’t make a point that the rest of the scenes between Ranveer Singh and Jim Sarbh don’t already. The Holi song was a nice touch, but surely Ek Dil Ek Jaan,or something similar, would have felt more appropriate to how it was picturised. In its current place, Ek Dil, though a beautiful song, doesn’t feel like it belongs there, and as if played over the scene just to use the song. Then there’s the big song, Ghoomar, which I really like, but doesn’t do justice to Deepika Padukone an amazing actor or as a trained dancer, nor SLB as a director of musicals. It is the kind of song we expect from them, without that touch that makes you want to sit and watch it forever. Deewani Mastani from Bajirao was captivating, and also plays an important part in the story, as did Nagada Sang Dhol in Ram-Leela. Apart from meeting an expectation, and attempting to show a part of Rajput culture, the song in the film doesn’t add much. It’s also oddly shot and/or edited together. I don’t know if this is because they had to CGI clothes onto Deepika, but the awkward shots already existed by that time, and so you can’t blame it on that entirely, if at all. Despite how much I didn’t enjoy Khalibali and it’s terrible (almost repeated from Malhari) choreography, the camera work here does the song and the choreography justice, which Ghoomar seriously lacks. Particularly in a Bollywood movie, not all songs of a musical are going to add serious substance to the plot, but I honestly expect so much more of Bhansali given how well he’s directed and composed for musicals before.
The three lead actors’ dedication to their roles really does show, I’ll give them that. Ranveer Singh easily gives the best performance out of them, being completely immersed in the character of Alauddin Khilji. Shahid Kapoor also gives one of better performances he ever has, thanks to the direction of someone with the ability that SLB has. But Deepika Padukone, while very good, doesn’t shine as much as she did as Mastani, and this might be why I struggled a little to engage fully with both Padmavati and Padmaavat. She looks beautiful, and dressed up to look the part, but in comparison to Bajirao Mastani, where despite Mastani making some questionable choices I understood and sympathised with her character, and rooted for her and Bajirao as a couple. Padmavati is a more rational character, but I found it harder to love her and sympathise with her in the same way. Maybe because her character is put on such a high pedestal, literally labelled a goddess, that the mere mortals in the audience can only look up in awe, but not connect on a personal level.
I could talk about Jim Sarbh’s much-acclaimed performance, which was an unmeasurable improvement on whatever was going on with him in Raabta, but one of the film’s stronger elements is Aditi Rao Hydari, and the impact she has in her short amount of screen time. In the scene where she comes face to face with Rani Padmavati, she looks as, if not more beautiful, which emphasises the ridiculousness of Alauddin Khilji’s obsession with everything precious, and highlights what he is rejecting in his pursuit of Padmavati.
Just an extra thought… No one ever seems to mention Bhansali’s obsession with having his characters walk through water. It happened all the time in Bajirao Mastani, and happens fairly often in Padmaavat, but I don’t really get it. I guess if I lived in a palace with fountains all over the place, I might walk through them too…
This film feels a lot less like a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film than other of his others, and I can’t help but wonder how far the film presented to us now has come from the film he would have made had he not been through so much that he shouldn’t have had to, not just over the release of the film, but during shooting as well. I don’t want to go into detail about the crazy controversy over the making and release of the film, but we’ll never really know what his thought process was, and or the full extent of the compromises he made as an artist to tell the story he wanted to, but also make sure the film got its release. A part of me hopes that there was a version of Padmaavat once upon a time, when it was Padmavati, which was much more of what we know SLB can deliver, but that we’ll never get to see.