Padmaavat review: A not-so-historical masterpiece

Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone-starrer Padmaavat has been the center of controversy for months now. While India’s right-wing nationalists riled up to save the honor and dignity of queen Padmavati’s image, now that the film has released, it’s the Muslim community which feels offended at the portrayal of Alauddin Khilji as a heartless, cold-blooded, warheaded Sultan.

Many people call out Padmaavat for misrepresenting Muslims or historical inaccuracies. But when you go watch the film, one thing you need to remember is that it’s based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 16th century epic poem of the same title. While you eat your nachos and sip on your juice, remember: at no point in the film does filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali claim it to be a documentary or a perfect representation of history.

Of course, when one is dealing with a large subject involving socio-political and cultural climate of the bygone era. However, the film isn’t supposed to be a history lesson, but rather a visual portrait of a fictitious epic poem.

Padmaavat revolves around Padmavati (Deepika), the princess of Singhal kingdom known for her extraordinary beauty, who becomes the wife of Ratan Sen (Shahid Kapoor), the Rajput ruler of Chittor. After a deceitful Brahmin is exiled, he exacts revenge by telling Khilji (Ranveer Singh) about the divine beauty of Padmavati and riling him up to attack Chittor.

But how dare Bhansali show Khilji, a Mulims ruler, as a warmonger who would attack a fort to capture a Hindu wife? It’s funny that those pointing fingers forget that the earliest historical proof of Padmavati’s existence is in the fictitious poem the film is based on. So, it’s more than likely that Padmavati didn’t exist (though this is still disputed). However, Khilji did raid Chittor in 1303 (two centuries before the poem was written) as he did countless other cities in search of loot and army and possessions.

Padmaavat, therefore, doesn’t set up false expectations and then disappoint. It merely narrates an epic tale of war and love and beauty and madness. It’s not the filmmaker who fiddles with history, but the critics of the film.

But once you step into the world of the film without any preconceived notions, you are in for a ride full of perfect storytelling, grand sets and costumes, and memorable performances. There could not have been a better choice for Padmatavi than Deepika. She embodies her character with so much ease and grace. While Padmavati was known for her beauty, she was also a strong-willed protector of the realm and had good command at war strategy. The actress’ effortless portrayal of the queen shows shades of all her emotions: she stands up for the kingdom when needed, supports the king in time of crisis, and shows restrained vulnerability and fear when he goes to war.

Ranveer shows his never-before-seen side as Khilji. Every expression, mannerism, and dialogue show his madness in full form. While many may dub him as the ‘Indian Khal Drogo’ (from Game of Thrones) as a criticism, it may actually be a compliment. He is a madman focused on possessing the ultimate, priceless beauty. He outshines the comparisons and criticism that the historical Khilji was a sane man who worked for social welfare and market reforms (he did it as a power move to maintain a large army under his control for raiding cities and collecting loot). The actor’s interpretation of the character brought out layers that perhaps not many other Bollywood actors would have done. For Ranveer’s Khilji carries a certain air of ruthless aggression, appropriately timed with his signature mischief; he is the master of controlled chaos and doesn’t lose sight of his goal.

It’s strangely relatable how he chases a fantasy, an idol, an image – the beauty of a woman he has never fully laid eyes on. And while the divinity of the idea may be lost to some, it was quite perceptible upon a closer look.

A man of principles, Shahid as Ratan Sen carries the Rajput pride and goes to every possible measure to protect it. But even then, the actor has limited room to work with. He is merely a side-show where Deepika and Ranveer steal the show. Even a performer of Shahid’s magnitude couldn’t do much with the role.

More than anything, it’s Bhansali whose transition and maturation as a director is evident in the film. Of course, he has always been a master of his craft and a true auteur (if one may use the term). Here, every frame of the film, every visual that imprints itself in our mind has the Bhansali’s signature in big, bold letters and you won’t forget that.

To some, Bhansali’s recent films may feel like glorified Star Plus soaps but they are not. It’s only him who can balance the melodrama with epic tales and not tip over and make it feel forced. From Dil De Chukey Sanam to Black to Guzaarish and now Padmaavat, it’s to his credit that after all these years, his style and flavor of drama still works and that’s because he has subtly changed and refined it throughout.

In Padmaavat, He’s not in a rush to finish the story. He takes time to build up the world and the characters and he builds it up tactfully until the very last frame of the film (which is sure to make your jaw drop). Besides, you will find characters not just existing in their safe space, but rather in the royal background, trying to use words to one-up each other, whether be it for love or animosity. It’s a war of words and Bhansali understands it.

Visually, Padmaavat reminds you of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and the visual poetry of Italian master Paolo Sorrentino. An abundance of beauty, poetry, music and madness, and Bhansali has nearly perfected the recipe of the great Indian saga. Bhansali’s recent fascination with Indian mythological or historical characters is in full swing. He keeps going back to the same tropes and elements and carves out similar yet distinctly interesting stories. Like Bajirao Mastani, here’s a love triangle (sort of) with a unique angle, set across a historical backdrop. With Padmaavat, Bhansali has declared himself the master of epic tragedies.

Verdict: Padmaavat may not be the history lesson you expect, but its all-encompassing experience will overwhelm and not leave you until the very end.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.


Note: This review was originally published in The Express Tribune. It’s only been re-published on Film N’ Chips for archival purposes.

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