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.

Advertisements

Udta Punjab

udta-punjab-poster

After a very wordy anti-drugs and pro-Punjab disclaimer riddled with spelling and grammar errors which may or may not indicate its sincerity, Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab opens with an intense, crass, loud and proud drug anthem.

Visually strong and often confronting, Rajeev Ravi’s high impact imagery is balanced with scenes of delicate loveliness. The take seems to be that Punjab is turning into a place with the morals of a Mexico or, ahem, Goa. Packages of heroin are making their way across the border nightly, and dubious shipments of pharmaceuticals are waved past by police. We see a young girl, one of many out of state workers coming to labour on farms. The divide between the worlds of privilege and subsistence is evident, and the film doesn’t shy away from the gory, violent, consequences of disrupting the status quo. It’s powerful stuff, and quite gripping. Unfortunately the second half revolves around unnecessary and unconvincing romance just when the main plot should have been in laser sharp focus to bring it all together.

Tommy Singh (Shahid Kapoor) takes the sex, drugs, and rock n roll mantra to heart. Sartaj (Diljit Dosanjh) is a mid-rank cop with flexible morals, happy to overlook the drugs as long as he gets his cut. Dr Preet Sahni (Kareena Kapoor Khan) specialises in treating addicts and wants to cut the problem off at the source. The nameless girl finds a package in the fields, and thinks she can make some fast money. The film shows the close but not quite intersecting paths characters take, passing each other without a blink or occupying the same space at different times. There is definitely a pervasive feeling that some lives are held cheap and existence for many people has become the wait for death. The sense of connection and community, what affects one will affect many, is clearly drawn out.

Sartaj’s brother Balli ODs on the drug that Sartaj had waved through a checkpoint. In the blink of an eye Sartaj becomes a crusader for justice and decides to help Preet take on the system. The girl is forced into prostitution and drug dependency, and one of the men she has to service is Sartaj’s boss. Tommy attempts to get cleaned up but his own friends get him using again, and fans have no interest in a more honest, introspective star. They want their bad boy back. After a near riot, Tommy runs away and encounters the girl, now also a fugitive. Sartaj falls for Preet, Tommy falls for the girl. All for love and love for all. Apparently all you need is a girlfriend and you will immediately develop moral fibre and a resistance to highly addictive substances. Poor Balli is locked in a treatment cell and all but forgotten, with no magical insta-love to rescue him.

I’m sure Shahid wasn’t at a loss for examples for playing a coked up celebrity. Tommy comes across as a very naughty boy, not a complex or dangerous man in the grip of addiction. Is it bad that in one of his meltdowns I found the elaborate toilet lid more compelling than the dialogue? He thinks rapping about his cock is HILARIOUS. When he ends up in jail, two young boys in the cell perform one of his hits before quietly admitting they killed their mother because she wouldn’t give them money for drugs. Shahid shows Tommy’s growing fear and uncertainty as he realises he is in serious trouble and tries to get off the gear. It’s when Shahid reverts to his bunny-teeth boy in love shtick that he seems most comfortable, and yet nothing made much sense. How can such a famous man with a memorably bad haircut travel across country with no money and not be recognised, even when wearing one of his own crew t-shirts? And what about the girl, who we are expected to believe could fully and easily recover from the trauma of being a sex slave and a drug addict just because Tommy likes her. And don’t mention the ballad.

Alia Bhatt’s performance is excellent, and reminded me a little of her role in Highway. She has minimal dialogue as the Bihari farm girl and even less as a sex slave. Her character is smart and strong, but the brutality of her life with the drug barons is overwhelming and Alia lets her expressive eyes go dull. The girl doesn’t ever give up on herself though. It’s a little disappointing that Chaubey seems to think Tommy is the cure for her, and sad for her that she will acquire a manchild for her troubles. And I could have slapped someone for the oh so clever name they reveal at the end of the film. I was half expecting her birthday to be on April 20th.

Kareena’s approach to Preet is less makeup = Serious Lady Doctor, plus coquettish hair tossing and simpering. Unfortunately her lightweight characterisation exposes her weaknesses when compared to the rest of the cast, and then her character turns stupid. In a film about the social cost of drugs, should a scene where Sartaj is accidentally injected with the same drug that nearly killed his brother be turned into comedy? And should Preet and Sartaj be all awkward about the dopey flirting and forget the medical issue of someone having ingested a highly addictive drug made in a shed who knows where with who knows what chemicals and being stuck with a needle that may have had someone else’s blood in it and so exposing the injectee to Hepatitis or HIV? No. Why would a doctor worry about that? It’s a shame as Preet had potential to be interesting and she certainly had the only fully operational moral compass.

I’ve sat through the trailer for Sardarji a few times now so having Diljit Dosanjh actually in the film I had gone to see was almost disorienting. He delivers a competent performance, and tries to generate some one-sided chemistry with Kareena. His character in some ways is the most complex, although the film moves on too quickly from moments of epiphany, self-loathing, and despair in favour of simplistic love and revenge.

The large supporting cast is good but while I recognised some familiar faces, I couldn’t put names to everyone. I took a violent dislike to one of the girl’s captors in particular, and wanted to get my Tight Slap Administrator gloves on with some of Tommy’s cousins. The production values are high, and I can appreciate the effort and care given to the visual design and soundtrack. Amit Trivedi has gone beyond his usual tweedly guitars and tried to extend Tommy’s character through his featured songs.

Maybe if you see the film as an allegory this second half works a little better, to a point. The girl is perhaps a representation of salt of the earth Punjab tempted by easy money and being screwed over by the drug cartels and cops, Tommy is the privileged class who can largely avoid consequences, Sartaj is the system that has neglected its duty to protect the people and uphold the law, and Balli is at the end of the line with no one to pass the blame or damage on to. But Chaubey leaves us with the message that all you need is romantic love. And a gun.

I was disappointed by the direction Udta Punjab took after such a powerful start. But I am happy to regard my ticket as a contribution to supporting and encouraging filmmakers’ freedom of artistic expression after all the ridiculous censorship shenanigans.

Haider

Haider

Watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film Haider is a visceral and haunting experience, as the gorgeous detail of the film allows every emotion and each drop of blood to be shown in crystal clarity. The story of treachery in Denmark is transplanted to Kashmir at the height of increased militancy in the area in 1995, but still remains tragedy on a grand scale. Bhardwaj and his co-writer Basharat Peer have successfully adapted the bard’s play into more modern-day India, although the pacing is a little inconsistent in places and at times the Kashmiri issue threatens to overshadow the personal drama. The heart of the film is in the performances, and although Shahid Kapoor is excellent in probably one of the best performances of his career, the real stand-out is Tabu who is completely mesmerising in her role as a conflicted mother to Haider and disloyal wife to Dr Hilal Meer. It is compelling cinema and definitely well worth watching in the theatre to fully appreciate the stunning cinematography and spectacular beauty of Kashmir.

Haider (Shahid Kapoor) is a student, safely studying poetry in Anantnag when he learns that his father has disappeared after providing medical aid to a militant leader. Dr Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) is taken by the army in a truly frightening scene that manages to grasp the sense of hopelessness and terror of a military raid in just a few moments. The grim method of selecting who may go and who is arrested by a balaclava-wearing man in a Jeep is chilling, as is the resignation that makes everyone line up for inspection without any word of complaint. The detail in each frame is incredible, and the performances are very natural, making the film seem almost like a news report direct from the action, rather than a fictional story.

Dr Meer’s family home is also bombed, along with the militant leader still inside, and in a few seconds his wife Ghazala (Tabu) has become a ‘half-widow’ without anywhere to live. As a result, when Haider returns he finds his mother living with his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), and he is instantly suspicious about their relationship. While rejecting his mother, Haider relies heavily on his girlfriend journalist Arshia (Ahraddha Kapoor) and two friends Salman (Sumit Kaul) and Salman (Rajat Bhagat) as he searches for his father. Since up until this point the film is unrelentingly bleak, it’s a real relief when the comedy appears, and Salman and Salman are an excellent counterpoint to the violence and despair elsewhere.

Haider’s search for his father is heart wrenchingly sad, as he is just another one of many who are searching for their own disappeared relatives. However, interspersed with his search are confrontations with his mother and uncle which fuel Haider’s anger and mistrust. The relationship between Haider and Ghazala is wonderfully nuanced and both actors capture the essence of Shakespeare’s characters and their conflicted emotions well. There is a frisson of sexual tension, heightened since Tabu looks way too young to be Shahid’s mother, but mainly the film focuses on Haider’s sense of betrayal when his mother takes up with his father’s killer. Kay Kay Menon is also effortlessly perfect, juggling Khurram’s political ambitions with his desire for Ghazala and bringing more depth to the Shakespearean character of Claudius than I seem to remember from studying the original play at school.

The romance between Haider and Arshia is also nicely developed, and Arshia has a believable character as a journalist and relatively realistic relationships with her brother Liyaqat (Aamir Bashir) and father (Lalit Parimoo). Shraddha Kapoor is good in her role, particularly in her scenes with Shahid and she’s also credible in her despair when she loses the plot after her father dies. Most of the other characters from Shakespeare’s play appear, although the role of the ghost is changed into a fellow prisoner of Dr Meer who is expertly played by Irrfan Khan.  Most impressive is the ‘play within a play’ which in is depicted as a song. The puppets are wonderful, but even just a glimpse of Tabu and Kay Kay Menon in this clip illustrates just how good they both are in conveying their characters.

Haider’s eventual descent into madness is dealt with better than the earlier scenes where Shahid sometimes appears a little too distant. But as the film progresses his emotional shifts and internal struggles are mostly well represented and he does genuinely appear to be a conflicted personality by the end. Many of the famous lines from the original Hamlet appear in Haider’s soliloquies, although they are also inserted into various conversations (and the subtitles don’t really do them justice), and there is even a brief appearance of the skull before the final, and very bloody showdown. This is passion, vengeance, despair and madness writ large and the scope of the film truly feels epic.

Haider impresses with fine attention to detail and excellent performances from the entire cast. However the shift to Kashmir means the military conflict looms large in the story and as a result the original tale of betrayal and treachery occasionally gets a little lost. The pacing is uneven, particularly in the first half, but this allows time for the complexity of the characters to fully develop so isn’t necessarily a flaw with the film. It is a bleak story and be warned that some scenes are definitely not for the squeamish as the body count piles up and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar illustrates just how well snow contrasts with blood. Overall Haider is a well crafted and novel interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and one I definitely recommend watching for excellent performances and a rather different view of Kashmir.