Note – this review contains spoilers

After all the hype, the protests and controversy, Padmaavat finally released in the cinema last week. And now that’s it’s actually here, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. With sumptuous costumes, lashings of sparkly jewellery, fantastical sets and very one-dimensional characters, the only possible way to describe Padmaavat is as a very expensive fairy tale. The main characters are all either very, very good, or very, very bad and there is no grey, no hint of any depth or any room to move outside the very strict boundaries of each persona. The film is based on a poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, so it’s obvious that Sanjay Leela Bhansali hasn’t set out to make a factual historical drama, and there are plenty of disclaimers at the start to drive home that point. And while there are some problems with the story, most particularly around the problematical ending of the film, it is exquisitely made, stunning to look at and a beautiful work of art. But it’s a work of art that has no soul and even with all the pomp and circumstance, ultimately Padmaavat ends up being surprisingly dull.

The story follows the exploits of two kings, Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the Rajput king of Mewar, and Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), ruler of Delhi. Ratan Singh is very, very good. He often wears white clothes, talks a lot about honour and Rajput bravery and is committed to following his rather strict principles. Alauddin Khilji is very, very bad. He murders his uncle to take the throne, sleeps with prostitutes on his wedding day and is generally portrayed as a rapacious monster, instantly ready for any kind of depravity. Ratan Singh is always very clean, Alauddin Khilji wears black and has dirt or blood smeared all over his face. There is no middle ground; these two are the quintessential opposites – the white king and the black king, pure good and pure evil – what else can Padmaavat be other than a fairy tale?

Ratan Singh meets Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) when he takes a trip to Sinhala to buy pearls for his first wife Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka). Padmavati is beautiful and clever, the white queen to Ratan Singh’s white king and although they meet when Padmavati mistakes Ratan Singh for a deer she is hunting and shoots him, they are instantly attracted to each other. The romance is stylised and extravagant. When Ratan Singh is recovering and getting ready to leave, Padmavati takes her dagger and slices open the wound, declaring that now he has to stay longer. But even with all this posturing, there is little chemistry between the two – smouldering looks aside there is very little substance to their relationship even after they are married and back in Mewar. Possibly it’s all the formality and ceremony that comes between them, the application of colours at Holi for example feels cold and ritualised rather than the usual spontaneous flurry of powder, but Ratan Singh’s Rajput pride seems a major barrier to any genuine relationship.

This is partly why Ranveer Singh’s Khilji makes more of an impression. Being totally evil, Khilji gets to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants with whoever he wants, and as a result is exuberantly happy, even when he is pining for Padmavati. A woman whom he has never seen, but still desires because he has to have everything that is unique in the world. Some of his excesses are so ridiculous that they are simply hilarious, such as spraying perfume on a female servant and then rubbing himself against her to transfer the scent.

Ranveer throws himself into the role with such passion and energy that of course by comparison Shahid’s Ratan Singh appears rigid and cold. He is, but the contrast between the two men makes the white seem insipid, while the black resonates with evil intensity.

While both men turn in excellent performances, Ranveer stands out for the sheer lunacy of his portrayal. Khilji is a monster, and Ranveer conveys his evil nature and total obsession while still managing to make the audience laugh. He brings everyone with him on his madcap ride into depravity and ensures that he is the central focus of any scene, no matter what else is actually happening around him.

Deepika Padukone has more to do since Padmavati has a fraction more depth than her husband. Think ivory rather than pure white. She’s also got more common sense than everyone else in the film put together, illustrated by her detailed plans and well thought out rescue of Ratan Singh after he is captured by Khilji. Of course, most of that could have been orchestrated by her two faithful generals, but Padmavati gets the chance to prove that she can fight and develop a plan of attack. Better than her husband to be honest, who bizarrely keeps believing Khilji will act with honour despite never seeing any indication that this will be the case. All of which makes it seem odd that Padmavati would commit all the women to jauhar rather than grab her trusty bow and arrow and die fighting. Regardless, Deepika Padukone looks stunning, even managing to rock a unibrow, and looks perfectly graceful and regal whether she is dancing for Ratan Singh, running through the forest or explaining her strategy to the generals.

A few of the peripheral characters also fare rather better. Jim Sarbh is excellent as Malik Kafur, Khilji’s assistant, general and sometime lover. Aditi Rao Hydari is also very good as Khilji’s first wife Mehrunisa and Raza Murad is excellent as Khilji’s uncle Jalaluddin.

However, Ranveer’s histrionics, the wonderful fabrics and stunning sets aren’t enough to disguise what is a rather lacklustre story. Every scene seems to be drawn out unbearably long to add yet more speeches about Rajput honour and bravery, or showcase beautifully designed costumes and breath-taking scenery that simply distract from the plot.  It’s also predictable and that makes it somewhat dull, no matter how stunningly beautiful the film looks, or how ridiculous Khilji’s excesses become.

However, much of that is as expected for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film – his attention to detail is amazing and every single scene is constructed as if it is a still-life painting with wonderful balance of light and shade, colour and depth. We expect extravagance, and that is what he delivers. What is more problematic though is the final scene where all the women commit jauhar rather than submit to Khilji’s victorious army. Despite the disclaimers at the start of the film, Bhansali seems to glorify the women’s march to the flames and adds many unnecessary details. It also goes on for a very long time so that the inappropriateness of the camera angles and discordant notes of the triumphant theme are emphasised. While the final act of jauhar may be true to the poem, and a historical reality of the time even if Padmavati herself is perhaps not, it doesn’t seem right that such actions should be seen as a ‘victory’ for the women and not a tragic loss of life. This is disturbing on many levels and while I don’t disagree with Bhansali’s addition of the final chapter to the story, I do feel that such celebration and exaltation is completely the wrong way to approach the subject. It’s a disturbing and jarring end to the film and simply doesn’t fit into the fairy-tale of the preceding two and a half hours.

Padmaavat is a stunningly beautiful film with much to enjoy in the sets and costumes. I could spend hours pausing this film on DVD and marvelling at the fabrics, the details in the palace floor tiles and even the plates and cutlery. Ranveer too is amazing despite his Khilji being such a one-dimensional construct and Padmavati is generally a strong female character. But the finale seems a direct contradiction to the disclaimer at the start while the story, for all its fantasy elements, never really comes alive. All of which makes Padmaavat a visual treat for anyone who enjoys the artistry of Bhansali films, but unfortunately not essential viewing for anyone else.


Anaarkali of Aarah

Avinash Das’ Anaarkali of Aarah is a powerful and highly entertaining film with a strong thread of feminism in action, not just in speeches. And Anaarkali is a kickarse woman who compelled my full attention.

Anaarkali (Swara Bhaskar) is a folk performer, singing and dancing her way through innuendo laden songs for appreciative male audiences. She is loud and proud in both appearance and action, and genuinely loves what she does. She lives in a small world in a small town, and is happy and confident strolling the streets and turning men’s heads as she sashays by. But one of her troupe’s patrons, Dharmender Chauhan the VC of the local university (Sanjay Mishra), is obsessed with Anar. At a high profile police event he gets dangerously drunk and invades the stage. Anaarkali and her ‘friend’ and business associate Rangeela (Pankaj Tripathi) try to put Dharmender off but he persists in trying to rape her on stage. She is frightened and angry, and slaps him hard, adding a mouthful of curses for good measure. Can a woman really get away with defending her honour when the men around her don’t see that she has any? Can a woman assert autonomy over her body when men don’t think she has the right to say no?

Mild spoiler – in this film world, she might. But even if you know the ending this journey is really worth taking.

Anar is a wonderful character and Swara Bhaskar is brilliant in the role. Anaarkali is not a fallen woman, she doesn’t need or want redemption. She’s a star in her particular field, and she thrives on the glitz and attention. When Anaarkali struts down the lanes near her home she tosses her hair and sways for her public. When she’s at home she’s foul mouthed and a bit goofy.

Anaarkali is an astute judge of character and mood, usually knowing when to be abrasive and when to simply listen and let the situation deflate. And then she realises that there is such a thin line between acclaim and notoriety and the line is drawn by men in power. Bhaskar delivered a layered performance, showing Anar’s stagecraft, her public persona, and her domestic side and the fluidity with which she switches between them. When Anaarkali lost her home and her troupe I felt her profound and debilitating grief. But Anaarkali is a strong and pragmatic woman. There is no attempt to paint her as a virgin prostitute who only dances. She is frank about her industry but retains the right to choose who, when, and where she has sex with a client. There are men in her life but far from waiting for a white knight, Anaarkali was pretty set on rescuing herself. I might want to be friends with Swara but I’d probably be slightly scared of Anar’s acerbic wit.

It was telling that when the police went into damage control, it was to protect the VC not uphold the legal rights of an assault victim. And also telling that the men near rioting when the show was cut short were not protesting in support of Anaarkali, they were furious because they were denied a spectacle. She is accused of bringing about her own downfall due to arrogance. Nobody seems interested in telling the VC not to be so rapey or allowing her to file charges against him. Sadly I didn’t find much of this to be a stretch of the imagination. Sanjay Mishra is vile as Dharmender, but in a very restrained and slimily real way. The VC’s entitlement is sometimes breathtaking. He only sees Anaarkali as a mirror of his own desires, and nothing is more important to him than his own gratification. He is so convinced she must submit to him, ostensibly because he is crazed with love but really because he is so rich and influential she has no right to refuse. Mishra’s scenes with Anaarkali seethe with anger (mutual), fear (hers), and thwarted desire (his).

Rangeela is an interesting character. He defends Anaarkali but will sell her out in a heartbeat. I tried to believe that was to protect the rest of his motley troupe but even so. When she needed him, he was a weasel. Pankaj Tripathi is solid in the role although I felt maybe some of his character’s story might have been cut and that I wanted to know more about his relationship with Anar. Mayur More is sweet and funny as Anwar. He adores Anaarkali and music. Their dynamic is more cute and flirty, with Anaarkali taking a while to see him as a young man rather than a kid. He tries to step up to look after her but he respects her wishes when she wants to resume singing. Hiraman is a devoted fan of Anar’s and he helps her get her mojo back through a recording gig. I really loved Ishteyak Khan’s performance. He was subtle but radiated love and pride when he was near Anar. His silent and dogged anti-bromance with Anwar was also fun to watch. It’s a really good ensemble cast with everyone fully inhabiting their roles.

Avinash Das has written a strong screenplay and delivered it with an assured visual interpretation. The lighting and composition underscores the drama but isn’t so stylised that it distracts from the performers. This is a small and vivid world and beautifully realised. The story rockets along but there is room for some directorial flair with a nice loop from an early flashback to the finale. Whoever cast the playback singers did an awesome job as the tones and style matched so well I never once thought it was anyone but Swara Bhaskar singing. The songs are full of double entendres that are sexual and also relate to the social position of a woman in Anaarkali’s job. When she sings her final song it is an awesome middle finger to the patriarchy.

I’d had this film on my list to write about for a while but then conversations with a Twitter friend and reading Anu’s review seemed to be a sign to get a wriggle on.

See this for a genuinely female centric film that has a fairly sound feminist position, and a rousing good yarn into the bargain. Swara Bhaskar is fearless and imbues Anar with an unapologetic sensuality and strength of purpose. 5 stars!


Qarib Qarib Singlle

Jaya (Parvathy) is a single woman, busy with her career and an array of friends who rely on her for help. She has been a widow for around ten years, and there is something both wistful and a little salacious in the way she notices signs of sex all around her. She wants to move on but is a bit conservative when it comes to dating publicly, and is wary of losing someone she loves again. But she sets up a profile on a dating site and one response stands out amongst all the sleazy ones. She sets up a coffee date with Yogi (Irrfan, still so fancy he needs no last name). He is a scruffy and unpretentious bloke who seems to say whatever is on his mind. Yogi is convinced his exes are all still pining for him while Jaya is pining for her dead husband. Through one of the few really clunky exchanges in the film, they agree to go on a roadtrip and visit his exes. They can get to know each other on their co-funded separate bedrooms holiday, and Yogi believes Jaya will come to see what a catch he is.

Parvathy is impressive as Jaya, initially quite stitched up but revealing more of her hopes and desires as she opens up under Yogi’s impulsive influence. Jaya is a career woman and Parvathy is authoritarian as a hardarse manager but in Jaya’s personal life she shows the fragility and caution that has stopped her from really moving on. She has wonderful chemistry with Irrfan and as she warms to Yogi I found I was seeing him differently too. In some scenes the sparkle of laughter in her eyes could be genuine amusement at his outrageous behaviour. When Jaya lets herself go she is physically braver than Yogi, while he seems socially and emotionally more robust. Jaya often interacts directly with the camera and Parvathy is amazingly skilled at acknowledging that we are watching and aware without breaking out of Jaya’s character. Jaya finds herself tagging along with a carefree and chaotic guide, and between the stress, fights, and hilarity she reconnects with life. That sounds grand but this is an intimate and very personal story.

Irrfan is charming and funny as Yogi – who could almost be a Manic Pixie Dream Manchild (MPDMc). He is entirely comfortable with himself, and has a deep and possibly delusional confidence in his charms. Yogi needs to let go of his past too although he doesn’t recognise his nostalgia as toxic. He is a catalyst if not a wrecking ball. Yogi can’t help himself from going off on tangents and has a very lax approach to time management and logistics. And I won’t start on his fashion sense. He would have driven me mad. But he is a kind and intelligent man, and Jaya responds to his curiosity about her. Some of the antics are clearly just for the sake of having something go wrong at that point to force Jaya off onto another tangent, and Yogi bears the burden of the poor decision making based comedy. But Irrfan plays his scenes with Jaya with wit and warmth and only a few lapses into acting school improv shenanigans. As an MPDMc Yogi did get on my nerves but I was relieved and happy when Jaya called him out on those behaviours, and also appreciated his response. If, like me, you liked Irrfan in Piku or Life in a Metro, then I think you’ll enjoy this performance too.

The extended trip and varied transport allows for other characters to enter and leave the story without taking up too much space. Also I greatly enjoyed the dashboard decoration of one taxi, fake grass and all. Yogi does spend some time with his exes but the glimpses of their lives look like they are all well and happy, not hung up on him at all. Neha Dhupia is all glamour and self-assurance as his legendary second love. I also enjoyed the direct life advice from the taxi driver played by…someone whose name I have neglected to note.

The story meanders across India from Mumbai to Rishikesh and Gangtok and elsewhere, using planes, trains, taxis and autos. Tanuja Chandra and Eeshit Narain manage to make every location look breathtakingly beautiful and instantly recognisable without resorting to tourist brochure clichés. The golden afternoon light and conversations under the stars create an atmosphere that keeps things anchored in the world and avoids feeling stagey in the dialogue heavy scenes. The music is largely used in the background but when made a focus it seemed that the lyrics were pertinent to the drama. There are no big production numbers and that is just perfect for this film.

The mechanism to get the roadtrip underway was highly contrived, the material is a bit thin in places, and the ending is a little too rushed. But the journey in the middle is charming, infuriating, and ultimately uplifting largely due to the excellent work by Parvathy and Irrfan. One to see if you like a sensible and respectful approach to your rom coms.