Padmaavat

Padmaavat

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.

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Jalte Badan

jalte_badan-Cover

Once again, I was sucked in to buying a DVD based on the cover. This time it was the bold quote above the title that said “Picture has a moral…” But I was finally motivated to watch it by Memsaab Story’s excellent and very funny review. What a delight – Jalte Badan is so wrong it has to be right. Ramanand Sagar subscribes to the ‘more is more’ style of direction, and he is not stingy with the sequins, drama, emotion and ridiculous consequences.

Kiran (Kiran Kumar) is an innocent country lad sent to study in Mumbai. Easily drawn to alcohol, drugs, loose women and hideous décor, Jalte Badan traces his journey into degradation, blindness and woe-is-me-ness.

Jalte Badan_KumKumJalte Badan_crisis of conscience

Kiran and Ganga (Kum Kum) meet when he shoots a bird and she tells him off, waving the poor red paint splattered pigeon in his face for emphasis. Stunned by her compassion or maybe her tiny outfits, he falls in love. She is swept off her feet by…um. I don’t really know. His forlorn puppy face. Or something.

Jalte Badan_Ganga and GaneshJalte Badan_Ganga and her brother

Ganga lives with her father and an assortment of snakes, including her brother and favourite accessory, Ganesh.

Jalte Badan_troubleJalte Badan_trial by fire

But the youngsters cannot get married and live happily ever after just yet. Ganga endures a trial by fire to prove her purity and to save her father’s reputation. Her dad didn’t actually want her to do that which I found pleasing. But the Snake God and propriety must be appeased so she prances about on hot coals, waving some very synthetic and flammable looking scarves.

Kiran goes to college and attracts the ire of the groovy students who don’t want to be shown up by a tall skinny nerd. He was already headed for trouble though – Malti (Padma Khanna), local nautch girl also relocating to Mumbai to pursue business opportunities, had her fabulously made up eyes on him.

Jalte Badan_the in setJalte Badan_nerds

All the women seem to resent his declared love for Ganga and set out to prove that he cannot be in love, as men never really are (they say). It’s silly and a bit unpleasant as the girls are quite strident and pretend feminism is doing what a man would do. But mostly it’s ridiculous. Malti is outwardly a cynic but she respects Kiran’s steadfast love for Ganga even as she tries to prove it is false. She is a softy under all the bling, spare hair and eyeliner. Despite his goody goody intentions, Kiran takes to iniquity like a duck to water.

Jalte Badan_drug cultureJalte Badan_the cure

Kuljeet (Kuljeet) is a sleazy sidekick to the Boss (Manmohan), Malti’s employer and owner of a club designed to get the kids drugged, fleeced and blackmailed.

Jalte Badan_off the railsJalte Badan_blind

They take advantage of Kiran’s complete inability to say no to anyone or anything. From then on the film is a parade of Kiran’s drug faces and poor decision making.

Jalte Badan_drug faces

Ganga and Malti are feisty and foxy B movie ladies, much more fun than any simpering good girl heroines. Both love Kiran and in their own ways do what they can to free him. Ganga comes to town to find him and is also lead to Boss’s lair.

Jalte Badan_Ganga and her dadJalte Badan_control your snake

Jalte Badan_Ganga and the BossJalte Badan_feisty

Where her snake clears the dancefloor, and she kicks the bejesus out of the boss. Her snake bhai Ganesh gives his life to save her which made me sad. A note on Kum Kum and the snakes – she is fearless! I know the snakes were probably defanged, but Ganesh (lead snake) often lunges at her and she never flinches, often making it seem like part of the scene. I would not have maintained my sangfroid in such circumstances.

Jalte Badan_Malti and KiranJalte Badan_always someone elses fault

Malti also takes things into her own hands and decides the Boss and the Boss’s Boss are not her kind of people after all. It is Ganga and Malti that eventually save the day and save the gormless Kiran.

Jalte Badan_you go girl

Girija (Alka) is a peripheral character but awesome. She is sold to the Boss by her addict brother and finds herself in the Pink Rape Room, the unwilling star in the Boss’s latest film production. She escapes after turning the tables on her ‘co-star’, and is then threatened with blackmail. Girija coolly tells the Boss that she doesn’t give a rats and he can publish the mildly indecent pictures of her if he wishes.

Jalte Badan_mummy and son at the shooting gallery

Almost no one in the film possesses any common sense. Kiran’s own mother (Sumati Gupta) takes him back to the club for an ‘injection’ as she can’t stand to see her son cry. He needs help because he has gone blind from the drugs so I do question the thinking. The ‘only in films’ medicine is quite remarkable.

Jalte Badan_fire in the discoRaza Murad plays student leader Shashikant and looks like he should be sensible. So I was slightly surprised to see him leading a mob complete with flaming torches as that seemed a tad dramatic for a dancefloor invasion. And I was not expecting a speedboat chase.

The Laxmikant Pyarelal soundtrack is groovy and melodic, although I never remember much about the songs. But they add a bit of unwarranted quality and I appreciated the drug freak out item interspersed with Ganga pining away in her (miniscule) virginal white outfit.

Will Jalte Badan change the mind of The Youth about recreational drugs? I don’t know but after looking at the interior design for a couple of hours, I needed a drink! 3 stars!

Chori Mera Kaam

A child is kidnapped, only to see the criminal Amarchand (Anwar Hussain) stymied by Inspector Kumar (Policeman PRAN!). Kidnapping was clearly Amarchand’s go to plan as before long, Inspector Kumar’s eldest son is also abducted. This tactic fails, as Pran announces he would sacrifice all of his children, not just one, to bring a crook to justice.

Oh dear, such a promise made to the filmi forces of fate can only mean bad news. Things happen, as they do, especially when guns, alcohol and revenge are involved. Young Munna is abducted, rescued, caught, menaced, rescued, abducted again and finally taken in by a thief called Mr John (David Abraham).

Years pass and Munna becomes Bholanath (Shashi Kapoor).

He leaves jail after a delivering a ‘fortunately/unfortunately’ style monologue that exercises his range of facial and vocal expressions. His on/off girlfriend Sharmilee (Zeenat Aman) gets out at the same time and this delightful Kalyanji Anandji song gives us a fly on the wall view of their daily rounds:

While Bhola has a heart of gold he isn’t the brightest crayon in the box, and gets by on charm more than planning. He understands people and can take advantage of their weakness and stupidity but he doesn’t ever seem to think too far ahead. Bhola has many of the traits of a stock filmi heroine and Shashi seems quite unselfconscious about playing dim and pretty. And yes, Shashi naysayers, I do think he was acting. He could have been dressed prettier though – the brown highpants are not good especially with the Kapoor thighs.

Sharmilee is smart and more practical, despite her predilection for ruffly outfits, and I never expected to see Zeenat stealing a chicken so that was noteworthy. Sharmilee has a sick father that she supports through her petty crimes, and she explains to him that her work is what takes her away. I liked this slight role reversal where the lady gets to come and go, citing ‘work’ and her responsibility as breadwinner. It isn’t a sustained element as she does get sidelined towards the finale, but it is fun to see the girl in charge for a while and Zeenat suits this kind of role. She directs Bhola during a break in and seems to coach him in what he needs to do to carry off a con.

Shashi and Zeenat have nice chemistry as the likeable criminals. They play out their scams with relish, and bounce dialogue back and forth with dash and enthusiasm. They also have some great outfits and Shashi scores some excellent shirts.

Escaping from the police after an attempted burglary, Bhola and Sharmilee make off with a briefcase which contains a manuscript called ‘Chori Mera Kaam’. They are spotted by the mysterious Shankar (Ashok Kumar), who has a history with Mr John and unbeknownst to Bhola, was instrumental in his early life. He also seems to be beloved by the wig department.

The obligatory comic relief  in this case is a protracted and very amusing scam involving Sharmilee being allegedly hit by a car ad killed. Pravinbhai (Deven Varma), the unfortunate driver is conned into paying compensation and digging a grave at the ruins near Borivili. By coincidence this is where Shankar hangs around. By an even more fortuitous coincidence, Pravin owns a publishing house.

Bhola becomes an overnight sensation, his illiteracy and lack of nous covered up by Shankar who blackmails Bhola and Sharmilee for a share of the proceeds. This manual on how to commit the perfect crime draws the attention of villains and the police. Amarchand aka arch-criminal Number 7 wants to find a mask maker as per page 165 of ‘Chori Mera Kaam’ so he can carry out even more heinous crimes. I love that the police seem totally mystified by how people keep getting away with crimes described in the book, although they also read it so surely they should be prepared. Number 7 does have an expensive looking lair to maintain, right down to the essential stuffed tiger, so I can imagine his cashflow was under some pressure.

And then the plot thickens.

There are cross and double cross manoeuvres, silly disguises and improbable schemes. So it’s all great fun but there is a pinch of substance. The film favours the ‘good’ criminals – those who steal because they are poor, have dependants and have no other means of making a livingl. These are the sympathetic and sentimentally appealing characters. Writer K A Narayan makes some observations about the hypocrisy of the wealthy educated criminal like Amarchand who has no such excuse for his choices.

Iftekhar as the Police Commissioner looks like he turned up on the wrong set but was too polite to just leave so stayed on and did his bit. I liked Ashok Kumar as a paunchy middle aged hero – he was smart, capable and took to the wigs with great enthusiasm.  Shetty made a flamboyant purple suited appearance so it was clear Number 7 had opted for the very best class of henchman. Raza Murad played Shyam, Pran’s policeman son, and didn’t get much to do apart from being a lot taller than anyone in his family. Urmila Bhatt’s small role as Amarchand’s independent and dignified wife was quite pivotal, and only once in her scenes did I yell ‘nooooooooo’ at the DVD.

Eventually Bhola finds out the truth about his parentage. His biological father and brother need help to clear their names and bring Amarchand to justice, and it’s a chance for the petty crim to change his fate. The final confrontation must have given director Brij food for thought – it involves Shashi, Ashok and Pran in disguise, rain, lots of mud, a tiger and a bucket.

You may imagine how these things combine to form a wacky but satisfying conclusion, or just go watch the film. 3 stars!