Padmaavat, with Deepika Padukone playing the valorous Queen Padmavati of Chittor, finally releases on Friday with a gender swap in its title from the original Padmavati to Padmaavat. From a film on periods (Padman) being pushed to a February release by its lead actor, Akshay Kumar, to give the period drama that is Padmaavat more theatre play due to the fiscally debilitating off-screen histrionics around it, the ongoing PMS (Padmavati Movie Stress) hasn’t abated just as yet.
I saw the film on Tuesday evening at journalist and author, Shobhaa De’s screening in Mumbai. 120 minutes into the film, I simply couldn’t fathom why the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali would even call his film Padmavati in the first place; he very well could have called it Khilji as it’s a glorified, and almost one-directional ode to Alauddin Khilji’s insatiable lust for immortality, battle and sex. And, his relentless desire to possess Queen Padmavati of course. The film highlights the Rajput and Kshatriya codes of honour and living in a manner most celebratory, Bhansali’s chandeliers, diyas and picturesque frames notwithstanding. In no way does it demean Indian culture and its customs, and no Indian will be affronted with the film. Though Bhansali does seem to unnecessarily lionise Khilji beyond his omnipresent pillaging fame.
As the antagonist Khilji, Ranveer Singh looks menacing and monstrous physically, but his wavering accent that switches from Arabian to contemporary Hindi to Afghan, along with an inept enunciation of the language of his Sultanate, makes it difficult to believe he’s a 14th century imperial Sultan. Singh’s performance is flamboyant, loud and open to interpretation sexually, but he is not convincing as an erstwhile ruler or wannabe Alexander the Great in the making in the least. And, as for the costumery, when Singh ascends the throne of his slain uncle, Jalaluddin Khilji (Raza Murad) he wears heeled boots with the royal regalia on his person! Sure, high-heeled boots for men were in use as early at the 10th century for equestrian sports, but it seems highly unlikely that Khilji would have had access to those during his time in India.
Shahid Kapoor as Maharawal Ratan Singh of Mewar is ineffectual in the film. But in his regal dhoti/lungi, he makes for an exquisite kohl-eyed, eight pack ab-fab model that Calvin Klein needs to add to its brand new Kardashian spread immediately! As Queen Padmavati’s paramour and subsequent husband, he is rather rigid and impassive, which is very unlike Kapoor’s able celluloid skills. Padukone is flawlessly beautiful (more so in 3D) serene and poised in every single frame, looking as cinematically desirable as she possibly can, but Kapoor meets her stellar, restrained performance with a face bereft of any emotion, romantic or otherwise. There are no subtle layers or nuances to his performance as a royal in command and especially so in the intimate scenes with Padukone. And no one does the neck quite like Shah Rukh Khan, in Khan’s own words. The only time Kapoor shines in the film is during his duel in the desert with the lust-lorn Sultan. His quiet resolve and aggressive battle moves speak volumes here.
Padmaavat plays on Khilji’s self-serving megalomania and his obsession with Padmavati’s beauty. Padmavati is his unattainable dream in the film till Padukone takes on her role as queen in the last hour of the film’s screen time. In effect, the film is a take on Khilji and his obsession with her luminous beauty that is a mere catalyst to his narcissistic lust. The battle scenes are reminiscent of Troy (2004) as is the story line pertaining to the quest and conquest of a beautiful woman. The dialogues are rife with varying language styles – in some scenes, Kapoor says waqt in a Rajasthani accent when the word samay would have worked just as well for his character. The Ghoomar song is basic, nothing extra really. It is just another well-choreographed Bollywood number and incomparable to the greats Bhansali has orchestrated in the past in films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002). But then, who knows what the uncut version of the song looked like! The film is based on the legend of Khilji and Padmavati, assuming everyone is aware of this historical obsession, and that does not suffice for 180 odd minutes on film. The screenplay does not offer any backstory to Khilji’s temperament or his dynasty’s reign, or take cinematic licence with Maharawal’s and Padmavati’s romantic interludes or add more authenticity to the time period the film is set in, besides heavily embroidered clothes and Bhansali-esque sets. Language, both verbal and body, is terribly askew in the film.
Padukone is the only actor who stays in character, in language and poise, and costume throughout Padmavati-turned-Padmaavat’s over three hour runtime. It is her aura and acting prowess that Padmaavat will be remembered for, not to mention also taking home the highest fee for any Indian actress to date for the film. And just for that, I am glad the film was named after her central character, with or without an “I”.
Did I like the film? Well, let’s just say I was forced into a massive historical throwback and it’s not even Thursday yet!
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