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‘Padmaavat’ film review: A saga of love, honour and death as beautiful as it is bloodless

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period drama is powered by a powerful performance by Ranveer Singh.

Death by beauty – it is possible, we are assured by art, fiction and poetry. It is the guiding principle of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s beautiful-looking but bloodless Padmaavat.

Every inch of Bhansali’s 163-minute period drama about the sacking of Chittor is perfectly framed; every character is symmetrically arranged, in coordinated colours; every bauble is of extreme elegance; every line of dialogue is momentous; every wound spurts just enough blood to ensure that it is in perfect balance with all the other elements on the screen.

The screenplay, by Bhansali and Prakash R Kapadia, is also neatly divided into colour-coded opposites – the amber-hued and gleaming Chittor, where reside Hindu Rajput honour, moral rectitude and courage; and the jet-toned and underlit lair of the Afghan-origin Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji, which houses deceit and debauchery.

Through a simplistic and conventional chronicle of domestic calm ruined by foreign invasion, Bhansali explores his pet predilections and gives his current muse, Ranveer Singh, the role of a lifetime. The movie’s working title was Padmavati, after its titular queen, but its most memorable character is Singh’s kohl-eyed degenerate. Singh, acting as much with his body as his face, ensures that his Khijli both repels and attracts.

The twinning of death and beauty has been a recurring element in Bhansali’s films since his debut, Khamoshi (1996), and was evident most recently in his eighteenth-century historical Bajirao Mastani (2015). For Padmaavat, Bhansali travels back four centuries to find a tale through which to spin his familiar preoccupations – impossible beauty, unrequited passion, the valourisation of suffering in the guise of love, the ritualistic celebration of the release from earthly woes.

Padmaavat is based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 1520 epic poem Padmavat, a romanticised account of Khilji’s fourteenth-century conquest of Chittor. The Delhi Sultanate ruler’s motivations are attributed not to the usual expansionist tendencies of the age but to his lust for the queen Padmavati.

Padmavati’s ornamental value is never in doubt. The princess of Singhala catches the eye of visiting Chittor king Ratansen (Shahid Kapoor), and he marries her. He has travelled to Singhala in search of its famed pearls, and he returns with its jewel.

In Chitoor, Padmavati impresses the resident sage Raghav Chetan (Aayam Mehta) with her humility and commitment to Rajput values. But when Ratansen fires Raghav Chetan after an act of insubordination, the sage repairs to Khilji’s palace, where he convinces him that Padmavati is worth the price of an invasion. Khilji (Ranveer Singh) needs no persuasion. I want to possess every beautiful thing in the world, he has already declared.

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Padmaavat (2018).

In any another movie, Khilji would have been a figure of derision. But the utter seriousness with which Bhansali approaches the material allows the increasingly unconvincing plot twists to appear more momentous than they actually are. The complexity of the epic poem that inspired the film stays out of Bhansali’s reach. His veneration of the Rajput moral code includes the glorification of mass suicide – the practice known as jauhar – and there is no room for debate or remorse over the wisdom of such actions.

Despite these drawbacks, this latest work from one of Bollywood’s most skilled craftsmen is always exquisite to look at. Sudeep Chatterjee’s elegant tracking and frontal shots and muted red and amber tones and the magnificent costumes by Rimple, Harpreet Narula and Maxima Basu compete for attention with Ranveer Singh’s magnetic performance.

Bhansali has shed some of the baroque emotion that bedevilled his previous films, especially Devdas and Black. The performances are far less theatrical, even if they remain somewhat mannered. The pantomime quality that made Bhansali’s movies ripe for parody has been scaled back in recent years, and his latest effort is far more tasteful in its recreation of ancient times than such films as Baahubali. Although Padmaavat lacks the leap of imagination that is required to make the centuries-old story relevant for contemporary times, the movie coheres better than some of Bhansali’s previous efforts.

The convolutions in Jayasi’s Padmavat have been evened out to resemble the eternal love triangle, with nods to the Ramayana epic. Ratansen is a Ram-like ideal king, Padmavati is in Sita mould, and Khilji is an obdurate avatar of Ravana.

Whatever tensions there are emerge from the Khilji camp. The usually sparkly Deepika Padukone is as lustrous and lifeless as a precious stone encased in glass, her death foretold by her pallor. Ratansen is equally bland, reduced to a carrier of heavily underlined Rajput values.

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Padmaavat (2018).

In the plush mortician’s parlour that Chittor increasingly comes to resemble, there are few signs of life, but in Khilji’s quarters can be found poetry (the resident bard is Amir Khusrau), rousing music and sex. The conservatism of Bhansali’s approach towards the Rajputs is evened out by the decadence of Khilji’s lair. Khilji’s fashionably shabby clothes provide visual relief from Chittor’s insistent opulence. The wild-haired and ruthless king, with his frequently bared chest, catwalk stride, poor table manners, dalliances with women other than his wife Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), and absence of a conscience, are collectively meant to represent Chitoor’s uncivilised antipode. Yet, if there is anything resembling fun during this dire march towards destruction, it comes from Khilji and his homosexual aide, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh).

Even the most memorable song in the movie doesn’t emerge out of Chittor. In Binte Dil, Kafur mournfully sings of his love for Khilji as the sultan cavorts in his bath tub. Kafur’s longing for Khilji is boldly verbalised rather than hidden, and his eyes dim every time Padmavati is mentioned. The effete Kafur is scornfully described as the king’s consort, and even though the intention might have been besmirch an already-deceitful character, Kafur emerges as a poignant sideshow in this tale of unfulfilled love.

Even Khilji, for all his capitalised vices, demands empathy. Look at the lines on my hand and tell me if there is one representing romance, he asks Kafur. In Bhansali’s clinically ordered world, in which honour resides in the Rajputs and evil in the Khilji camp, the disruptive outsider loses the battle but wins the war.

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Padmaavat (2018).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.