'Sanjay Leela Bhansali's historical characters behave as though they are already aware of the chapters that will be dedicated to them and the sonnets that will be written in their memory.'
'And yet, they talk relentlessly about making and remaking history.'
'Can anything be more superficial?' asks Sreehari Nair.
Those who could not laugh at the campy pleasures that the Baahubali films delivered may find very little in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat that will sustain their interest.
Even within the world of camp, there are grades; and if there was an innocence about the campy values that Baahubali espoused, it's seriously absent here, in this faux-solemn piece of work that is less a film and more a filmed play.
If the beauty of cinema is in the rhythmic flow of images, Bhansali plunges us into a run of sets.
There's the hellish-looking Khilji-Dynasty Set filled with rotten air and which looks lighted for betrayal to creep in, any moment.
And then there's the Mewar-Dynasty Set of glossy souls, who romance under the watchful eyes of Buddha statues, and who allow the gurgling sounds of water-fountains to punctuate their lines.
I get it, making his settings remote is one excuse for Bhansali to make his characters unlike anybody we may know (though, if this is how humans behaved in the 13th century, then evolution is certainly no myth), but God, how they talk!
We are looking at a period in history when metaphor wasn't a figure of speech -- it was speech.
But don't be unsettled by their overabundance; for the metaphors here are carriers for merely five concepts that are played out on loop: Love, Hurt, Rajputana Pride, Teer, and Nishaana.
If the arrows don't kill you, the exhibition of pride surely will!
I agree that calling Bhansali a 'mad genius' would be like giving blood to a tired staple such as the 'drunkard philosopher', but there's a maniacal quality about the man's continuing pursuit of a single theorem: Of Passion being an all-consuming force.
It is this all-consuming passion that had compelled the Alauddin Khilji of the Malik Muhammad Jayasi poem (the source material for this movie) to lay siege to the Chittor fort of Raja Ratan Singh (here, Shahid Kapoor).
Granted this is yet another stab at Bhansali's pet theorem; how do you still respond to the Ghuroor of a man who says 'Ghuroor' like a dopehead?
Ranveer Singh's Alauddin Khilji, while being the only genuinely interesting aspect of Padmaavat, is high style and no mystery.
Singh plays him like a performer, a man who lives for his excesses -- an Ostrich-for-an-Ostrich-feather man.
The actor is clearly trying to give his character more shadings than his director allows him and in a sequence where he sits burning papers inside a war tent, he seems almost like a ruthless employer disposing off his union's demands.
That Sanjay Leela Bhansali loves to over-scale his characters is no secret, but in gleefully rolling out a character that's already over-scaled, Bhansali forgets to ask his Khilji a fundamental question: Is his quest for Padmavati driven by authentic desires -- lust, power -- or is it simply one of his games?
In the way Bhansali conceives the lout and despite Singh's many flourishes, the whole battle for the Queen feels purely like one of Khilji's games; not a topic that would keep him up at nights, but just something to pass his daytime.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali may think he has created an overflowing beast complete with his fur coats and slobby habits, but such is his Khilji's elaborate celebration of bestiality that Bhansali doesn't prepare him well enough to lose his grace.
In short, the movie's only interesting character feels like a total idiot by the end.
When Khilji sinks, he's just another Hindi film baddie -- all his weird tastes, lifestyle choices, poetries, and pets reduced to sand.
He goes down, not like Phoenix but like an Alabaster bird, and what stays with you are his mechanical chirpings.
Also, for all his show of libido, this Khilji seems more of an Onanist than a real practitioner of sex, and there's more dry humping here than any movie in recent memory -- the film is as asexual as it comes!
There's Jim Sarbh as Malik Kafur, Khilji's general and alleged homosexual lover, sounding like an out-of-breath, sibilant German toy. And since Bhansali is not one to keep his subtexts below the text, he pitches Kafur like the emperor's phallus-conscience -- pointing him toward his natural sexual preference, and rising every time Khilji hints at turning flaccid.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali chooses specific lighting patterns for his women and he often dresses them in colours that reflect the mood of the sequences they appear in -- pivotal moments in red, for example -- but wholeness of conception isn't a standout feature of Bhansali's women.
Deepika Padukone gets an absolute raw deal as the Queen; her performance is submissively overwrought, blandly weighted, and her speeches combined with the leisureliness of the narrative's pacing, can put you in a stupor.
Worst of all, you will be driven by the suspicion if Padukone even does enough to deserve the movie's title.
Shahid Kapoor's Raja Ratan Singh comes off as a split; he has a sweet-faced humility that he must shed every now and then to remind himself of his tough heritage.
To Padukone's credit, she at least looks at her Raja in a way that suggests longing, but Kapoor does not come halfway to meet her.
Bhansali has made this movie with both eyes trained on the audience and he recycles elements which he believes 'worked' in Bajirao Mastani.
Raza Murad's character, for instance, may just have submitted to a change of headgear, and Ranveer Singh gets yet another meth-fuelled, self-congratulatory dance to celebrate his high-point.
Bhansali has never had any interest in the external world, and here again the supporting actors are all scaled down till they are subhuman and acting on their knees.
Aayam Mehta as Raghav Chetan, (the banished court intellectual of the Mewars who feeds Khilji stories of Padmavati's beauty and instigates him to attack Chittor), tries to stand up against the leads, and is soon condensed to just a head.
Finally it is left to the two men, Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khilji -- each with gashes that pop out on their faces -- to stage a one-on-one confrontation, in the toys-for-boys style, for the ownership of Padmavati.
And she reacts like how a Bhansali woman does when asked to choose between the boring and the boorish.
There were two fleeting moments in the movie that had me hooked, primarily because they occurred without any showiness whatsoever.
Before Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khilji meet for the first time, we are parallely taken through scenes of them being decked up: Ratan Singh by Padmavati, and Khilji by Malik Kafur. The mirroring there is both revelatory and kinky, as we are told with a wink who the queen is, and who the begum.
And then there's a passing scene of an old woman doing her version of the Ghoomar song, and someone taunts her into stopping, warning her that that she might sprain her waist.
Why did such a simple sequence stick out in my memory so vividly? Because it was about the only case of behaviour in 163 minutes of Padmaavat's running time; the only time I felt like I could touch the people who were being projected up on screen.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's historical characters behave as though they are already aware of the chapters that will be dedicated to them and the sonnets that will be written in their memory.
And yet, they talk relentlessly about making and remaking history.
Can anything be more superficial?
Their grandiosity notwithstanding, every time I walk out of a Bhansali film, I am overcome by a tremendous urge to watch a rough cut of some picture that's yet to be assembled; a piece of student's cinema; or a sloppy effort at movie-making that doesn't attempt to cover its tracks and instead offers itself generously to the watcher.
Perfection can benumb you even as it overwhelms; Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the towering perfectionist, works only to whet my appetite for imperfection.