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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Bajirao Mastani

Bajirao Mastani

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest epic is another triumph for the set designers, costume makers, make-up artists and jewellers of whom there must have been legion. It’s not just visually spectacular either, with impressive performances from the main leads and a beautiful soundtrack and background score. In fact the story turns out to be the weakest link in an otherwise lavish spectacle since for an epic love story, the film is strangely lacking in romance. However the film still makes an impact and with strong female characters, glittering scenery and plenty of Ranveer Singh, it’s definitely well worth watching in the cinema if you can.

The opening scenes are imperially ornate and immediately set the scene for an epic tale of daring do and palace intrigue. Unfortunately there is subsequently rather less of the daring do, with few scenes of battle and the palace intrigue hinted at doesn’t come to anything either. Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) wins the post of Maratha Peshwar with some rather nifty archery, and immediately heads back to battle to continue the expansion of the Marathi kingdom. While out on campaign he comes to the aid of the King of Bundelkhand and after rescuing the kingdom from an army of invaders, Bajirao falls for the King’s daughter by his second Muslim wife, Mastani (Deepika Padukone).

Mastani is a warrior too and manages some impressive sword work herself, which is presumably why Bajirao falls for her. But what happens in Bundelkhand should stay in Bundelkhand and the trouble starts when Mastani follows Bajirao back to Pune, where Bajirao lives with his wife Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) and his mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi). Radhabai is incensed that her family line should be polluted by a foreigner’s blood, particularly since Mastani is Muslim, and she deliberately humiliates Mastani at every opportunity. Radhabai is an interesting character with a little more depth that just a standard outraged matriarch and Tanvi Azmi is excellent as the embittered widow who feels she is fighting for her family’s honour. She is ably supported in her machinations by Bajirao’s younger brother Chimaji Appa (Vaibbhav Tatwawdi) and his eldest son with Kashibai, Nana (Ayush Tandon). Her outrage and vehement opposition to Mastani is perfectly vindictive and beautifully balanced by her warm relationship with Kashibai and her devotion to her son.

Ranveer Singh does a fantastic job as Bajirao to the extent that I don’t actually like his character much – impressive when I usually love every character he portrays. Here he is consumed by desire and mostly oblivious to the pain he causes others, making him too arrogant to be a completely likeable character. Bajirao is certainly a fearless warrior, but Ranveer gives him a compassionate side and also allows glimpses of insecurity through his relationship with Mastani.  However he doesn’t see the contempt with which his family views Mastani and seems oblivious to the threats against her life. He is more concerned with his role as Peshwar until he lets his desire for Mastani overcome his sense of duty and allows his obsession with her to rule his life. Ranveer shows little of the swagger and attitude from Kil Dil and Gunday, but transforms himself into an eighteenth century warrior with plenty of imperial remoteness and stately reserve, which may partly explain the lack of warmth in his relationships. Unfortunately Bhansali doesn’t show many battles, and in the few fight scenes Ranveer mainly sits on a horse and swings his curling sword, although he does manage a few good grimaces as he rides to battle. Maybe I watch too many SI films but I was disappointed at the lack of battle scenes and would have loved more action rather than the relatively bloodless clashes here.

As Mastani, Deepika is mesmerizing when she snarls her way through battle but she becomes flat and lifeless once she transforms into the love of Bajirao’s life, losing all her sparkle.  I find Bhansali’s depiction of Mastani in love as insipid and overly compliant. Where did all her passion go? There is definite chemistry between Ranveer and Deepika, but there appears to be little joy in the relationship and I’m not sure that smouldering looks and declarations of’ acceptance’ are enough to explain why Mastani submits to the many indignities heaped on her admittedly capable shoulders. A love that is strong enough to withstand such determined and murderous opposition should be grand, overwhelming and all-encompassing, but that just doesn’t come across in the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani, and that is the most disappointing aspect of the film.

The best of the main leads is undoubtedly Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao’s first wife. She has the passion and joy in her relationship with Bajirao that is lacking in his relationship with Mastani and gets to show all her rage and humiliation when she discovers Bajirao’s infidelity. Priyanka is brilliant here in a perfectly nuanced performance that gives her the opportunity to show passion, despair, hate and compassion and she gets it right every time. Kashibai is the more interesting character and with grace and beauty Priyanka makes the most of the opportunity given to her in a faultless depiction of a betrayed wife.  She gets to dance too, and if Pinga doesn’t quite reach the choreographic heights of Dola Re Dola, Priyanka and Deepika are both beautiful dancers and look absolutely stunning too.

I didn’t know the story of the warrior Bajirao and his second wife Mastani before watching the film, and I’m not sure that I know much more about them afterwards either.  Bhansali takes moments from Bajirao’s life (although for a film about a great martial leader there are few glimpses of this side of his character) and intersperses them with behind the scenes action in his household, but the narrative jumps hours, days and then years without any clear indication, resulting in a disjointed timeline. Each scene is individually good, but doesn’t always totally gel with the preceding or subsequent action, while the lack of passion and joy in the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani is disappointing. However the opulent sets and overall grandeur of Bajirao Mastani are of the overall high quality expected from Sanjay Leela Bhansali and ensure that the film is worth watching even if it’s not as engaging as I would have liked. I’d recommend watching for the visual impact and for the excellent performances from all the cast, especially Ranveer and Priyanka.

Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela

ram-leela-poster

Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela* is mostly what I expected from Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It’s visually lush, with opulent sets, stunning landscapes, gorgeous costumes and lovely people to wear them. The movie opens with a looong stream of credits for Bhansali (producer, writer, director, editor, music director) including acknowledgement that Ram-Leela is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Knowing the story and probable ending in advance raises the question – will the journey be worth it? Well, yes. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself entertained and interested most of the time.

Ram gives Ranveer Singh the opportunity to play both the prancing peacock and the traumatised young man who has been immersed in violence all his life. He makes a Rajnikanth-esque entrance, and springs straight into Tattad Tattad.

The choreography is disappointing – a friend calls it the Dandruff Song because of all the hairography. But based on audience reaction, they got the amount of shirtless shimmying about right. And his chest-oiler must have been working overtime, yet they were not named in the end credits which seems a sad oversight. Ram is obsessed with sex, with enjoying his life (especially sex) and has a cunning plan to take revenge on the enemy Sanedas (by having sex with their womenfolk). He admits that his thinking apparatus may be located in his pants. But Ram is also the one voice asking whether his side, the Rajadaris, should try to stop the cycle of killing. He is a mercurial creature, a natural leader but one with an unpopular message. I really liked Ranveer’s energy, his slightly self-mocking delivery of the deliberately cheesy lines, and his passionate sincerity when he confronted Leela.

Ram Leela Deepika

Deepika Padukone looks stunning and she has also crafted a good performance. This story is very familiar and requires logic suspension which means that the chemistry has to glide over any plotholes. I’ve often felt she struggled to show warmth with some co-stars, not so here. Sparks fly from Leela’s first sight of Ram in a rain of colours at Holi to the verbal sparring as they trade rhyming couplets. Leela is as interested in pursuing this relationship as he is, and she is not afraid to initiate intimacy or sort him out when he misbehaves. She also seems a bit smarter than Ram, and more cognisant of long term consequences. Deepika is convincing throughout, whether playing the giddy Leela falling in lust, dancing her heart out, or as the saddened serious young woman confined by the past.

The minor roles are interesting, especially the key female characters. Supriya Pathak is impressive as Baa, Leela’s mother and the leader of the Sanedas. Ultimately she is the one who will have to decide for the future, and she is a powerful, brooding presence. Richa Chadda plays another of her smart women in a regressive male dominated world (think Fukrey, Gangs of Wasseypur) and she is excellent as Leela’s sister-in-law Raseela. Barkha Bisht plays Ram’s sister-in-law Kesar, and she is equally good. The sisters-in-law give voice to the emotions of both sides. Both are widowed in the same stupid macho incident, and both women remain integral to the story long after their husbands are gone. Sharad Kelkar and Gulshan Devaiah round out the more significant male support roles. I was delighted to see Raza Murad as the Sarpanch even though his role was largely to provide ‘As you know Bob …” exposition. Abhimanyu Singh’s career mystifies me. He’s a terrible actor. He even overacts when he is supposed to be dead! And seeing Priyanka Chopra’s lacklustre item number made me grateful Deepika got the lead.

Ram-Leela Holi

The costumes are not just gorgeous, they reveal something about the characters. Leela wears a modern lehenga but the underskirt is a traditional patterned fabric. Kesar’s dark shawl signifies her position, but it’s lined with a light patterned fabric. Baa wears masses of ostentatiously heavy jewellery, showing her wealth and the strength to hold on to it.

ram leela guns everyhwere

Ram wears floral shirts edged with multi-coloured mini pom-poms and his holster is brightly embroidered. And there are guns EVERYWHERE. Like Leela, he carries his heritage with him. Many of the dances are garba style (showing off the excellent costumes) and most centre around religious celebrations (more colourful folkloric costumes). Everyone lives in old style houses but all the ladies whip out phones to film Ram strutting his stuff.  There is a sense of the ‘modern’ world invading this village where families have feuded for 500 years.

Ram Leela set design

Despite being less hidebound in their views, it doesn’t take much to make Ram and Leela each accuse each other of being a typical Rajadari or Saneda, just like ‘them’ as things turn sour. You don’t have to scratch the surface too hard to reach the inculcated mistrust and stereotypes. But after a cracking start, Bhansali loses control in the second half where the repetition of crisis and non-resolution becomes a little tedious.

I can’t help comparing this to Sunil Dutt’s stunning Reshma aur Shera and Baz Luhrmann’s excellent Romeo + Juliet, and while I like Ram Leela it comes up well short of both. Dutt expressed the tragedy and beauty of a doomed love in Rajasthan with fewer filmi tricks and greater emotional impact and maturity. Luhrmann stuck closely to Shakespeare and was still playful and original. Bhansali gestures towards Romeo and Juliet, mostly in the balcony scene which he recreated quite closely down to the dialogue. But he refers to iconic scenes in his own films as much as he does Shakespeare. He needs to curb the self-indulgence, and to edit with more eye to the story.

I’d definitely recommend seeing this in a cinema for the beauty and visual impact. The songs alone are worth a look and I had fun guessing which choreographer did which. I expected this to look great, and often that is all I get from Bhansali films as I just don’t connect with them. I didn’t expect Ram-Leela to be quite so entertaining and engaging.

*None of the marketing material or cinema listings here in Australia seem to have been changed so the film is still listed as Ram Leela. 

What? You want to see the colourful embroidery and outfits in detail? Here you go. Because I care.

Ram Leela everyone needs a smartphone

Heather says: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. Sure, I knew it would be beautiful and I’ve been enjoying the soundtrack, but the performances from all the actors put this a notch above the usual SLB film.  Deepika in particular was a revelation and she seems to have been steadily improving with each film.  I used to find her wooden and somewhat tedious, but she really sparkles here in a role that gives her scope to show a number of different emotions as well as the smoking hot chemistry with Ranveer that Temple has mentioned. Phew!  I’ve only seen Ranveer once before and from his initial appearance in  Tattad Tattad I was expecting him to be woeful, but such is not the case.  He rises to the occasion (cough, cough) and is so much better than the 70’s porn star outfits suggest.  His swagger and bravado are just part of his persona and his Ram is full of passion and joy. Best of all though are the support female characters played by Supriya Pathak, Barkha Bisht and Richa Chadda.  As Temple has described, all had meaty roles that allowed them to be real people with varying emotions and motivations which gave more layers to the film.

However, as with every SLB film I’ve seen, Ram Leela could have done with a heavier hand with editing and the last hour had moments where it really did start to drag.  Still – the costumes are sumptuous, the scenery is beautiful and the performances were of a high enough standard that I completely agree with Temple that this is one to see on the big screen.  Ram Leela was much more entertaining than I expected and I thoroughly recommend it as one of the better Hindi films I’ve seen this year.