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.