Padmaavat (2018): Written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Starring: Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh. Running Time: 163 minutes. Based on the epic poem Padmavat, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
**this review contains some spoilers for the plot of the film**
Padmaavat is the sort of sprawling, epic movie that used to be regular fare for Old Hollywood, but nowadays just doesn’t get made anymore. It fills every shot with sumptuous color and detail, feels seeped in real fantasy world of its own making, and you can practically see every stitch in its meticulous, intricate costumes. The acting style is operatic and grand, with big gestures and overwrought emotions. That the film is a remarkable technical accomplishment and provides a unique cinematic spectacle is beyond debate. Whether or not the substance of the film is worth it- and whether or not these characters belong in the 21st century- is a bit harder to place, and will come down mostly on how target audiences (especially in India) respond to it.
Adapted from the epic poem of the same name, originally written in the 16th century, the story centers around a young Sinhala princess, Padmavati, and the dueling passions she inspires in two powerful kings. One, the cruel and greedy Alauddin, helps his uncle seize the Sultanate in Delhi before murdering him and taking the crown himself. The other, the more principled Ratan Singh, is the Rajput king of nearby Mewar. Ratan Singh and Padmavati meet in her home country as Ratan Singh is on a mission to find rare pearls, and they quickly fall in love.
The conflict between the two is sparked when Ratan Singh expels his head priest, Raghav Chetan, after he discovers him spying on the couple out of lust for Padmavati. Furious, the priest travels to Alauddin’s court, telling him tales of the mystic beauty of Padmavati, and promising him that if he could make Padmavati his wife, he would soon conquer the world. Alauddin marches forth with his army and lay siege to Mewar, demanding to see Padmavati and promising dire consequences on the entire kingdom if they defy him.
This movie ended up becoming (purportedly) the most expensive production in India to date, and it shows. This is a lavish feast for the eyes from the first shot to the last, with the visuals at their most stunning during the films music-and-dance sequences. Consider two with particular thematic resonance; Padmavat’s first dance before Ratan Sing, and Alauddin dancing with his men to express his overwhelming desire for a woman he’s never even seen. Padmavat’s dance is smooth, choreographed, both sensual and gentle, filled with graceful movements and lush, arm colors. Alauddin’s is a mix of cold, almost freezing blues and grays, with harsher, more desperate (and even animalistic) movements, reflecting the more destructive and controlling nature of his desire.
In fact, while the whole cast is solid, Ranveer Singh as Alauddin is the one who shines the most as an enthusiastically sadistic villain. It’s a scenery-chewer of a performance in the classic sense of the word, very nearly matched by Jim Sarbh as Malik, Alauddin’s second-in-command, who is so clearly SUPER gay for his boss it’s actually a little heartbreaking at times. It’s interesting to note that he’s actually the only male character in the entire movie who’s completely clean-shaven, even in the middle of the desert, possibly meant to emphasis his (probable) homosexuality.
The movie feels at first like it could end up being a sausage-fest; Padmavat is revealed in her first scene to be a spectacular hunter and archer, but these skills never really come back into play, and she seems to fade into the background at first as a mere object of desire. However, when Alauddin tricks Ratan and imprisons him, the women step forward and take charge of a drastic effort to free him, and the result is one of the film’s highlights. Alauddin’s first wife, who was opposed to his pursuit of Padmavat from the beginning, makes a key choice here that provides her and Padmavat with a moment that, for me, was one of the film’s most meaningful.
It was this second part of the movie that, in my view, provided the film with some much-needed thematic shading. Ratan Singh makes much of his moral principles, and he is clearly presented as the completely wise and virtuous counterpart to Alauddin, but in true Greek Tragedy fashion, I couldn’t help but feel that that which was supposed to raise him above other men is what actually leads to everything bad that happens to him and his people. He gets several chances to just kill either the priest or Alauddin, and if he had taken a single one of them, all the terrible stuff that follows would never have happened, and perhaps that alone is one of the intended messages of the story.
But we’re getting into controversy territory here, so with this, I think, it’s just about time for the disclaimer; I am a white, Western, Christian male, so my right/ability to judge whether or not the film is….
-insulting or demeaning to Indians, Hindus, or Muslims
-a faithful adaptation of a classical Hindu text (or not)
-OR whether or not this story or these characters are/should be culturally relevant to India today
…..is just about nonexistent. It’s not my place to decide what this film means or should mean to India today. But that’s not to say others haven’t been more than willing to take up the debate in violent ways. A number of radical groups in India- most notably a Rajput group called Karni Sena- have repeatedly sent death threats to the director and many in the cast, have threatened to cut off the nose of the lead actress, and even attacked sets and attempted to destroy props, costumes, and the like. Most recently, a bus full of schoolchildren was attacked on a highway, allegedly in protest of the film (although Karni Sena itself denies involvement). Reactions from local governments have been mixed, at best, and pushes continue for the government to either ban the film outright or severely restrict its distribution.
As I said before, I have no place to comment on how Indians should or should not handle this film and this story in general, but I do think that the idea of a film being worth hurting people over is something a tad more universal, since this sort of thing has happened over and over again throughout the world and is in no way limited to Indian or Hindu culture. So, at the risk of overstepping my bounds as a Western film critic (and please, PLEASE let me know in the comments if I do), I would like to conclude this review by saying the following-
The right to tell or adapt whatever story you want- to have whatever ideological underpinnings or messages or characters you want- is fundamental, no matter how backwards or reprehensible I or other viewers may find them. NO movie, no matter how heinous, justifies violence. No movie should be banned. If the movie is reprehensible, let it be demonstrated through audiences choosing to spend their time and money on other, better films, not because it was arbitrarily pulled from theaters over how people might react.
If the consensus on this movie amongst audiences (Indian or otherwise) ends up being that it pushes an outdated, destructive form of patriarchy, that it’s unduly sexist or anti-Muslim, that it’s a lot of money and effort spent on the wrong character or the wrong story, it needs to be because people sat down, watched the movie from start to finish, and then thought about and debated it, and NOT because some reactionary, sword-wielding lunatics mutilated the filmmakers and terrorized a bus full of kids.