Padmaavat review: A magnificently vacuous saga
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat is visually stunning but its super-stylised frames don't make up for the empty core.
Oh, you Karni Sena activists, save your firearms. You don't need to burn down theatres playing Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat. The legend of Padmavati that lives in your minds is left untarnished by the director.
Now that the history and legend can rest easy, can we talk cinema?
The extravagantly mounted Padmaavat is disappointingly numb. Its visual richness, with every frame charted like paintings, don't add up to give that wholesome whole. If Bhansali were a chef, Padmaavat is his laboriously made 'exotic' dish, with ingredients plucked from history, tossed in fiction, garnished in opulence, and served with elaborate pomposity.
It is its pompousness that takes away the soul of Padmaavat.
Centered mainly on three characters - Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), the Sultan of Delhi, Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the king of Mewar, and his wife Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) - the film, at nearly three hours is vintage Bhansali in its stylisation. The colour palettes, costumes and breathtakingly crafted frames by cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee hook you into its period setting.
There are two parallel tracks to start with: the rise of Alauddin, a cold-blooded, power-hungry maniac to the throne, and the chance encounter of Ratan Singh with Padmavati, whom he takes to his palace as the queen. Over then to the fable that 16th century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi wrote of how a banished courtesan at the Mewar court squeaks to Alauddin of this astonishingly beautiful queen, and gets him to mount a war against the kingdom.
What follows are palace sleights, lavishly mounted war-sets, triumphs, and defeats, and a searing, brilliantly-shot climax (reminiscent of Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala), when the women of Mewar - led by Padmavati - recourse to a traditional practice to maintain their honour.
We would expect this history-book synopsis to be taken to an entirely new level by Bhansali. But Padmaavat fails to build an engaging narrative. Everything is retold and reiterated, more so about Rajput valour. Songs serving no purpose are squeezed in, and a captivating thread that should have held together the film goes for a toss.
The male characters are unidimensional; Alauddin is utterly barbaric; and Ratan is righteousness incarnate. The layering comes out in Padmavati and in Mehrunisa (Aditya Rao Haidari), Alauddin's wife.
Ranveer delivers a totally uninhibited act, his body language befitting an egomaniac. Thoroughly ethereal, Deepika, however, is not taxed as a performer, and Shahid maintains his gravitas. Jim Sarbh, as Aladdin's salve, is more stereotype while Aditi makes a mark - and stands out for her controlled act.
The songs by Bhansali (for all its classical bravura) are a let-down, and Alauddin bursting into the Khalibali dance is unintentionally hilarious. I made a mistake watching the film on 3D; the visual grandiose that the trailer offered in standard format was lost in its 3D avatar.
While it is easy to write-off Padmaavat for its lag and apparent emptiness, let us desist from looking at the film for political rightness, gender equations and social norms. After all, it is only the visual telling of a fable set centuries ago.
In threatening Bhansali and in mocking him, the Karni Sena activists and the savage movie-critics are no better than Alauddin imposing he alone is right.
We need grandiose dreamers in cinema. Sometimes they awe, at times they disappoint. But their dreams give us wings to fly into distant lands and tales forgotten.
Starring: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor
Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Now playing at theatres in the UAE