Overly Dramatic Khilji, Bhansali’s ‘Padmaavat’ Fizzles: Ashutosh
Thanks to all the turmoil surrounding the Padmaavat movie, I was anxiously waiting for its release. I wanted to see what was it that had riled the Rajputs up so much that they were willing to kill and die, vandalise buses, cars and attack cinema halls. They had even refused to abide by the orders of the Supreme Court, so much so that some states were hesitant in granting permission for the film release.
It was claimed that history has been distorted and that Rajput pride has been insulted in the name of creative freedom. Rani Padmavati has been shown in a bad light. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the creator of films like Khamoshi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Black, Devdas, Guzaarish, Saawariya, Ram Leela, Bajirao Mastani may have many critics, but I am certainly not one of them.
Bhansali’s Movies Synonymous with Grandeur
Bhansali’s movies never reflect India’s poverty. His films portray pomp, splendour and magnificence. The characters in his films are mostly elites belonging to illustrious families living in opulent surroundings. While the female characters are adorned with stunning jewellery and gaudy costumes, male actors can be seen wearing traditional attire.
These characters live in palaces. Nothing is commonplace. Everything is larger than life. His Black was as grand as Guzaarish with characters having certain flaws even as their stories are extremely painful. Compassion should have been the central theme in these movies but it’s grandiosity that takes over and adds a touch of beauty.
It makes you fall in love with the characters. A paralysed Hrithik Roshan in Guzaarish does not look like someone who needs sympathy. Devdas film by Pramathesh Barua was a tragic tale but in Bhansali’s film, you feel jealous of Devdas, the character who has two beautiful and wealthy women in love with him. In Ram Leela, for instance, even death looks attractive just like violence looks poetic in Tarantino’s movies.
Padmaavat Bereft of Beauty and Love
Bhansali’s speciality is that he is able to find beauty in everything. Love is the centrepiece in his movies as he tries to capture its shades and complexities. In order to define love, he needs a larger-than-life canvas as he explores the notion usually wrapped in different layers of culture.
While Guzaarish gives a sneak peek into the lives of Parsis, Bajirao Mastani is steeped in Marathi culture and Devdas is vibrant with elaborate representation of Bengali tradition. I had hoped that Padmaavat would give us an authentic flavour of Rajasthani culture with a glimpse of Alauddin Khilji’s life and a tale about the Rajput shaan(honour). But I was left disappointed after watching the film. I looked for Bhansali in the movie but couldn’t find him.
In Padmaavat, I could neither see beauty nor bitter sensations of love; even splendour was not enough to sustain the film. In an effort to keep up with the 3D effect, films appear to be overambitious with characters scattered all over the place. The plot moves forward with difficulty and towards the end, the movie itself seems to feel tired. Even Padmavati’s jauhar fails to revive it.
Alauddin Khilji Looks Comical
For the audience, the film is supposed to be about Queen Padmavati, but the focus of the film seems to be Alauddin Khilji. The film starts with Khilji, his brutality, cruelty, lasciviousness and arrogance. He is portrayed as this ambitious individual who has a penchant for unique things and getting hold of such objects is his hobby. His long flowing hair, scars on his face, flowy robes and mannerisms make him look less like a Sultan of Hindustan and more like a villain from a comic book.
It is true that like most medieval kings, Alauddin had also killed his uncle for the sake of getting the throne, but he was not a comic book character as presented by Bhansali.
Though it’s not fashionable these days to talk about Leftist historians, it’s important to note that they had found Khilji to be an able and wise king. He tried to curb alcoholism, banned prostitution, and instituted tax reforms that remained in effect till the 19th century; his land reforms went on to be adopted by the likes of Sher Shah Suri and Akbar the great. It is true that he razed temples and killed Hindus, but according to Amir Khusro, he was hated by orthodox Muslims for being too soft on Hindus.
The original guru of Hindutva Vinayak Damodar Savarkar wrote about him:
Based on this, Alauddin Khilji can be called the greatest ruler of India. The irony is that the same Khilji has been represented by Bhansali as an eccentric and a crazy man. Does the Khilji in the movie seem like he could be the ruler of such a vast empire?
Misrepresentation of Malik Kafur
It is also true that Khilji had a thing for men. Malik Kafur, a eunuch, and Khusro Khan, a man, two supposedly smart men, were rumoured to be his “sex slaves”. The film does not mention Khusro Khan though Malik Kafur has been given enough space. Like Khilji, Bhansali has made Kafur look like a comic book character too.
In reality, he was an intelligent man and a skilled swordsman who played an important role in building the empire. After Alauddin Khilji, he was the most powerful person in the court.
Towards the end of Khilji’s life when he was very ill, the actual task of governance fell on Kafur’s shoulders. But in the film, he looks like a weak caricature resembling a comical character played by Johnny Lever. I don’t think taking liberties with history is inherently bad. Artists should be given creative liberty, but in the pursuit of creating a villain, having such a one-dimensional character not only makes the film weak, it also raises questions about the director’s sense of history.
Padmaavat vs Bajirao Mastani
Similarly, the character of Bajirao Mastani had also been picked from history. In the film, Baji Rao’s character had been fictionalised. Ranveer Singh didn’t do justice as he played the part of Baji Rao, who is considered to be among the greatest army generals in history. He fought in forty wars and lost none, yet was portrayed as a weakling by Bhansali.
However, the film was successful because it worked on many levels. It had love, jealousy, a complex network of relationships, conspiracy, a subject such as Brahminism, Hindu-Muslim conflict and statecraft. So the character of Baji Rao doesn’t look so odd.
Unfortunately, Padmaavat has the madness of one Sultan. Even the character of Padmavati has not been fleshed out well. In Bajirao Mastani, instead of Mastani the character of Baji Rao’s first wife Kashi was hard-hitting. Even Baji Rao’s mother, brother and son were strong characters who add a charming tension to the movie.
In Padmaavat, the character of Padmavati is bedecked with jewellery and costume and left on her own, with neither helping the character’s development in any way. An unnecessary conflict, inspired by old issues, dealt a further blow to the film. The movie fails to encash tension of any kind, in a plot that just seems like ugly theatre.
Advice for Bhansali
It felt as if Bhansali had intentionally dramatised the character of Khilji, hoping that such a move would be enough for the movie to be a box office success. After watching this movie, my suggestion to Bhansali will be to do a course in filmmaking again. He should watch the work of David Lean and see how everlasting characters can be created without being overly dramatic or making them look eccentric.
In Lawrence of Arabia, the desert is as strong a presence on screen as Peter O’Toole, and in Doctor Zhivago, the train speeding through the snow assumes a life of its own.
All this was a result of Lean’s craft and his understanding of it. It’s a futile effort telling Bhansali all this. He is convinced that he is the greatest filmmaker in India, just like Ram Gopal Verma harboured similar delusions some time back. Then he made a film called ‘Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag’. And that was ‘The End’! Quite literally!