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Padmaavat

Rating: 3.5

January 23, 2018

Cast: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Jim Sarbh, Aditi Rao Hydari, Raza Murad, Anupriya Goenka

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Padmaavat, or the film formerly known as Padmavati, fits nicely within the impressive canon of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. After all, the legend of Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s obsession for the unattainable Queen of Chittor, the wife of Maharawal Ratan Singh, Rani Padmavati, and her preference for death over dishonor, has all the sweep, melodrama, and tragedy that have become Bhansali’s mainstay.

Expectedly he delivers a film that is richly cinematic, but whose story – as it turns out – has little of the emotional complexity that powered his last film Bajirao Mastani. Based on a 16th century poem of the same name by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, Padmaavat is a pretty straightforward tale of a ruthless man’s single-minded pursuit of possibly the most beautiful woman that exists – a woman he is told he cannot have. Except that early on in the film, we’re already aware of his misplaced sense of entitlement. “Allah ki banayi hui har nayaab cheez par Alauddin ka haq hai,” he says.

Ranveer Singh breathes life into the character of the barbaric, power-drunk Alauddin, giving us a villain for the ages. Shrewd, oversexed, unrelenting, and eccentric, his Alauddin is a portrait of menace, and the most compelling character in the film. He plays the part with the sort of grotesque flamboyance that makes it hard to look at anyone or anything else when he’s on the screen. Sporting unkempt waist-length hair, kohl in those piercing eyes, facial scars, and the sex-appeal and swagger of a badboy rockstar, he’s both fascinating and repulsive at once. Alaudddin finds a loyal ally in Malik Gafoor (Jim Sarbh in good form), who indulges his perversities and reveals an equally cruel heart himself. Some of their moments together are pure gold.

In comparison, the romance between Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) and Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), whom he takes as his bride shortly after he falls prey to her beauty and her arrow, is vanilla at best. The couple spends too much time besotted by each other, staring moonily into each other’s eyes, making you almost grateful for Alauddin’s rude interjection when he wages war on Chittor and Ratan Singh in a bid to claim the beauteous queen.

Bhansali stages spectacular war scenes, striking just the right balance between grand scale and intimacy. In one sequence, a cloud of dust fills up the screen when rival armies charge into each other, making it impossible to see what’s going on on the battleground. The image that follows, of a character emerging from the cloud of dust, is all you need to know about the severity of the battle, and it quickly establishes the brutality that the character is capable of.

There is opulence and poetry in virtually every frame of the film, and Bhansali applies the same ‘lavish’ approach to staging the controversial jauhar scene in the climax. It’s a tricky choice, treating that sequence as ‘beautifully’ as he does, given how these customs ought to be viewed today. Particularly ironic, given all the pre-release protests against Bhansali and the film for diminishing Rajput pride. If anything, he’s guilty of ‘prettying up’ a horrific, regressive practice.

Elsewhere too, the film becomes an ode to Rajput honor and valor, with multiple instances of characters bandying on about their values. As Ratan Singh, the virtuous Rajput king, Shahid Kapoor does a lot of posturing in the name of acting – some of it while baring his torso. Deepika Padukone gets a little more to work with, and she’s especially good in the film’s second half when her character slides into the driver’s seat, taking charge and showing the way.

But the film belongs to Ranveer Singh whose delicious performance is its biggest strength. The actor keeps you invested in the film even when it plods on for over two-and-a-half hours. I’m going with three out of five for the film and another half for his extraordinary performance, making it three-and-a-half out of five for Padmaavat.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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