Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone-starrer Padmaavat has been the center of controversy for months now. While India’s right-wing nationalists riled up to save the honour and dignity of the fictional Queen Padmavati, it’s the Muslim community that feels offended at the portrayal of Alauddin Khilji as a heartless, cold-blooded, warheaded Sultan, now that the film has released.
Many people called out Padmaavat for misrepresenting Muslims or historical inaccuracies. But when you go watch the film, one thing you need to remember is that it’s based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 16th century poem of the same title. While you eat your nachos and sip on juice, remember: at no point in the film does the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali claim it to be a documentary or a perfect representation of history. The film isn't supposed to be a history lesson, but rather a visual portrait of a fictitious epic poem.
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Padmaavat revolves around Rani Padmavati (Deepika), the princess of Singhal known for her extraordinary beauty. She becomes the wife of Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid), the Rajput ruler of Chittor. After a deceitful Brahmin is exiled, he exacts revenge by telling Khilji (Ranveer) about the divine beauty of Rani Padmavati and encouraging him to attack Chittor.
But how dare Bhansali show Khilji, a Mulim ruler, as a warmonger who would attack a fort just to capture a Hindu queen? It’s funny that those pointing fingers forget that the earliest historical proof of Padmavati’s existence is in the fictitious poem the film is based on. So, it’s more than likely that Padmavati didn’t exist (though this is still disputed). However, Khilji did raid Chittor in 1303 (two centuries before the poem was written), as he did countless other cities in search of loot, army and possessions.
Padmaavat, therefore, doesn’t set up false expectations and then disappoint. It merely narrates an epic tale of war and love, beauty and madness. It’s not the film-maker who fiddles with history, but the critics of the film.
But once you step into the world of Padmaavat (the film) without any preconceived notions, you are in for perfect storytelling, grand sets and costumes, and memorable performances. There could not have been a better choice for Padmavati than Deepika. She embodies her character with so much ease and grace. While the queen was known for her beauty, she was also a strong-willed protector of the realm with a good command at war strategy. The actor’s effortless portrayal shows shades of all her emotions: she stands up for the kingdom when needed, supports the king in time of crisis and shows restrained vulnerability and fear when he goes to war.
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Ranveer shows a never-before-seen side of himself as Khilji. Every expression, mannerism, and dialogue depicts his madness in full form. While many may dub him the ‘Indian Khal Drogo’ (from Game of Thrones) as criticism, it may actually be a compliment. Khilji is a madman focused on possessing the ultimate, priceless beauty that is Rani Padmavati.
He outshines the comparisons and criticism that the historical Khilji was a sane man who worked for social welfare and market reforms (he did it as a power move to maintain a large army under his control, to raid cities and collect loot). The interpretation of the character brought out layers that perhaps not many other Bollywood actors would have done. Ranveer’s Khilji carries an air of ruthless aggression, appropriately timed with his signature mischief; he is the master of controlled chaos and doesn’t lose sight of his goal.
It’s strangely relatable how Khilji chases a fantasy, an idol, an image – the beauty of a woman he has never fully laid eyes on. And while the divinity of the idea may be lost to some, it was quite perceptible upon a closer look.
A man of principles, Shahid as Singh carries the Rajput pride and goes to every possible measure to protect it. But even then, the actor has limited room. He is merely a side-piece while the other two leads run the show. Even a performer of Shahid’s magnitude couldn’t do much with said role.
More than anything, it’s the director whose transition and maturation as a film-maker is evident in the film. Of course, Sanjay has always been a master of his craft and a true auteur (if one may use the term). In Padmaavat, every frame and every visual bares his signature in big, bold letters and you cannot forget that.
To some, Sanjay’s recent films may feel like glorified Star Plus dramas but they are not. It’s only him who can balance the melodrama with epic tales and not tip over and make it feel forced. From Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to Black, Guzaarish and now Padmaavat, it’s to his credit that after all these years, his style and flavour of drama still works and that’s because he has subtly changed and refined it throughout.
In Padmaavat, Sanjay is in no rush to finish the story. He takes time to build the world and the characters and does so tactfully until the very last frame of the film (which is sure to make your jaw drop). Besides, you will find characters not just existing in their safe space, but rather in the royal background, trying to use words to one-up each other, whether be it for love or animosity. It’s a war of words and Sanjay understands that.
Visually, Padmaavat reminds you of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and the visual poetry of Italian master Paolo Sorrentino. An abundance of beauty, music and madness, and Sanjay has nearly perfected the recipe of the great Indian saga. His recent fascination with Indian mythology and history is in full swing. He keeps reverting to the same tropes and carves out similar, yet distinctive stories. Like Bajirao Mastani, here’s a love triangle (sort of) with a unique angle, set across a historical backdrop. But with Padmaavat, Sanjay has declared himself the master of epic tragedies.
Verdict: Padmaavat may not be the history lesson you expect, but its all-encompassing experience will overwhelm you and not leave you until the very end.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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