After being muddled in controversy for months, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Padmaavat” finally released in theaters across the world on Jan 25, 2018. The movie is a remarkable cinematic adaptation of the epic poem of the same name written by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. It draws you in almost immediately with its stunning sets, costumes, and imagery. Clocking in at 160 minutes, it’s longer than it needs to be but “Padmaavat” is worth the watch for its trio of actors: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and the especially noteworthy performance by Ranveer Singh.
As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy long magnum opuses, I admit I was actually eager to watch “Padmaavat” to see if it lived up to the hype. Even in its production stages, the movie was met with lots of protests. The Karni Sena and its supporters worried that it would wrongfully depict Queen Padmavati and the Rajput clan. Muslim leaders opposed it because of the apparent misrepresentation of Alauddin Khilji. Protestors were also worried about a possible love scene between Khilji and Padmavati, even though Bhansali and the actors stated from the beginning that there is not a single scene between the two.
The violence incited against “Padmaavat” went well beyond just verbal attacks. There was a bounty on Padukone’s head, Bhansali was physically attacked, and the sets of the movie were burnt down. My desire to watch “Padmavaat” greatly stemmed from my need to make sense of the hatred and violence that shrouded this movie even before its release. I came out of the theater unable to figure a basis for these disturbing actions against the makers of the movie. Nothing about “Padmavaat,” which was earlier called “Padmavati,” made me think it deserved all the negativity it got.
Set in the 13th century, it tells the story of Padmavati (Padukone), the princess of Sinhala and a woman of great beauty and intellect. She falls in love with the Rajput king Maharawal Ratan Singh (Kapoor). The two quickly get married and she becomes his second wife, traveling with him to Mewar. Padmavati is beloved by everyone in his kingdom. The King’s trusted priest, Raghav Chetan, lusts after her, so they banish him.
To seek revenge, the priest goes to Alauddin Khilji (Singh) and tells him tales of Padmavati’s beauty and that he can conquer the world if she’s beside him. Alauddin, a narcisstic madman of sorts, came into power after assassinating his uncle Jalalludin, the ruler of the Khilji dynasty. Alauddin decides he wants to possess the most beautiful woman - Padmavati - without even seeing what she looks like. He declares a war on the Rajputs because they decline his invitation to come to Delhi, which was then under his rule.
For many months, Alauddin and his vast army are stationed outside the unattainable Chittor fort while Padmavati, Ratan Singh, and the rest of the kingdom continue with their lives. hE feigns alliance to seek entry into the kingdom just for a glimpse of Padmavati, which he gets for the briefest of moments. This tempts him further and eventually, he kidnaps Ratan Singh, demanding Padmavati come to Delhi to free him.
It’s here that Padmavati gets to shine with her wit and not just her looks. She’s not just a wife or a Queen, she’s a strategic warrior. The movie climax, a visually captivating one-on-one battle between Khilji and Ratan Singh, culminates with the most-talked-about scene from “Padmaavat;” the mass self-immolation led by Queen Padmavati. In order to avoid being captured, raped, and tortured, the ladies commit jauhar in the palace.
This final and epic scene is the central topic of debate about whether the movie glorifies the act of jauhar by making it such a vital part of the movie. As wonderful as the movie is in its entirety, despite the length, it’s definitely gruesome to watch these capable women voluntarily walking into the fire and ending their lives. In many rural parts of India, Sati is an unfortunate practice that still continues. However, I think the outrage over “Padmaavat” amplifying the sacrifice doesn’t ring true. First of all, it’s important to remember that the movie is set hundreds of years ago. To stick to what they’re depicting, showing the jauhar becomes a crucial part of “Padmaavat.” It doesn’t mean the movie, the actors, or the director are telling us to actually commit any of these acts. With that logic, any violence in any movie should be protested.
Bollywood usually offers us an unnecessary stack of terrible movies; misogynistic movies; movies that depict love poorly by focusing only on obsession and lust; action movies that feature the bravado of an actor and the actress is reduced to an “item song.” I am still to see an outpouring of outrage over these films. If the people want to be angry about something and bring about positive change, please be angry about something that really matters.
When it comes to Bollywood, we tend to worry over fictional movies over real life issues that plague the nation. Instead of focusing on how “Padmavaat” perpetuates female violence, we need to take actions to curb actual violence faced by women in the country. THAT is what we need to create an uproar about.
“Padmavaat,” on the other hand, gives viewers a chance to appreciate how far we’ve come since the 13th century. Yes, there is a long way to go in India when it comes to the security and freedom of women but its leaders like Padmavati whose example we should build on.
As for the movie, its elevated by the brilliant acting. Padukone is flawless as Padmavati, carrying the role with grit and without hesitation. With this movie, she further cements herself as Bollywood’s reigning queen of the moment. Kapoor admittedly has the least meaty role of the three leads as the King but he is poised enough to pull off the strong Rajput-dialogues. The standout is, without a doubt, Singh. It’s not just that his portrayal of Alauddin is dark and villainous but its that he plays the character with astounding viciousness. The mannerisms, expressions, and movements are all nightmare-inducing in a moving, magnificently disturbing way. It’s no wonder the actor went to a therapist post-production.
Aditi Rao Hydari, who plays Khilji’s first wife Mehrunisa, has a small but significant role and she essays it well.Jim Sarbh, who made quite the impact in his debut movie “Neerja,” fails to do the same with “Padmaavat” in his role as Malik Kafur, Alauddin’s right-hand man. He was also in love with his boss. Rumors were that Alauddin reciprocated his feelings. There was early speculation about Alauddin’s bisexuality being a part of the movie but unfortunately, they don’t dwell on it.
My takeaway from the film? Appreciate it for what it is: a true work of art and of fiction because Bhansali never claimed to give us a history lesson as he made this movie. Jayasi wrote his poem 200 years after Khilji’s invasion of Chittor, stating at the end that this is his work of fiction. So, we don’t even truly know if Padmavati existed and if she’s the reason Khilji attacked Chittor in 1303. At the time, he was attempting to conquer several lands and attacked them all in his search for wealth.
Bhansali has more leeway and creative freedom because of this and he has used it to his strength. His direction gives the movie a very poetic flow, as is obvious even with his past films like “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,” “Devdas” and “Bajirao Mastani.” Watch the movie to see how he spins his magic and churns out some of the finest work from his actors. The story is a little simplistic and weak but nevertheless, Bhansali brings his penchant beauty to this film.
For all these reasons, “Padmaavat” is an instant classic.