Based on the Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem, the new film of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Padmaavat is a glorious tale of courageous people, for whom the honour is more important than death. In contrast to The Cloud Door (1994, Mani Kaul) – the previous adaptation of the poem, which concentrated mainly on the erotic aspect of love between a beautiful princess and a king from the far away kingdom, and as such which shows the beauty of the shringara, the Bhansali’s version of the story is a pure example of the classical veera rasa. #Author
When the medium becomes controversy
By Tatiana Szurlej
Even though she is not a Rajput princess, Padmavati seems to understand the Rajput’s ethos more than the first wife of Ratan Singh, who doesn’t seem to be an important part of his life. It is then the second queen, who prepares her husband for the battle, who saves king’s life and who finally decides to die in the fire in sake of not only her honour, but the honour of her husband and the whole clan. The viewer may wonder why the brave king Ratan Singh did not kill his enemy, when he had a chance, or why he remains extremely fair, even after realising that his opponent is an evil person, who will do everything to win. The answer is simple – because the hero of the epic story does not do anything which should become a flaw on his honour. The main problem with the Padmaavat controversy lays in the fact that some people try to see a historical account in it, instead of immersing themselves in a world of epic tales in which queens are extremely beautiful and noble, kings brave and honourable, and enemies ready to start a war to win a woman, whom they had never seen. It is not a coincidence that filmmakers refer to the Ramayana and Mahabharata in their film. If we don’t question the fact that Hanuman, who was able to burn the whole Lanka left Sita there instead of saving her for Rama, or that Pandavas had to kill Kauravas in the fratricidal war, why do we treat the story presented by Bhansali as a historical account? Of course, it is always hard not to compare the story, whose heroes are the historical figures with real events, and not to accuse the filmmaker of inaccuracies, but the very way in which the story of Queen Padmavati is presented on the screen should be enough for everybody to believe that the director was never interested in historical facts. It could be perhaps easier for the audience to accept the film if Bhansali decides to bring some unusual elements of the poem of Jayasi to his work, which, like the talking parrot would make the film less “real”, and easier to accept without comparing it to historical texts.
Like in many stories of a similar genre, the division between the good and evil is quite simple in the film. The spectators follow the presented events from the Rajput’s point of view, Alauddin Khilji is then no more than a barbaric villain for them. This fact is announced already almost at the beginning of the film, in the scene of the Khilji’s dance during his wedding, in which the hero shows a palm with a blood mark on it as a clear sign of his wickedness. Interestingly, a similar gesture appears in a scene of a ghoomar dance performed by the Queen Padmavati, whose palm adorned with henna looks exactly like the one of Sultan. From this small but evident announcement the viewer knows whose struggle will be presented on the screen. Even if Sultan meets the King on the battlefield, the real war takes place between him and Padmavati, and they are the protagonists of the film.
The savagery of the Sultan is visible in almost every aspect of his life, from his debauchery, through his cruelty till very clothes he wears, food he chooses and the way he eats. Comparing to him, Ratan Singh appears as a righteous king and a well-mannered man. Alauddin Khilji is dangerous and unpredictable, Ratan Singh noble. Since it is always difficult to play a flawless person, it is then no surprise in the fact that the most interesting hero, and the best performance of the film is the creation of Alauddin Khilji. However, even if his task was more difficult, Shahid Kapoor could still make more effort and bring some life to his Ratan Singh, whose greatness should appear in something more than just speeches about the Rajput’s honour. In fact, it is hard to believe in love between Padmavati and Ratan Singh, not only because there is no much chemistry between Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor, but first of all because we don’t know much about the King’s personality, and he remains just a paper character. On the contrary, in spite of his cruelty, and madness, there is still a strange charm in the character of Alauddin Khilji, who except of being the most evil character of the film is at the same time the most funny one, however never becoming ridiculous. Shahid Kapoor tried probably not to copy the creation of Ranveer Singh, but he seems completely lost, without any idea how to build his character on the screen to make him memorable.
Bhansali explores artistically the fact that most of viewers of his film are familiar with the presented story, and know the end of the tale. This approach is visible especially in an intensive presence of fire on the screen, attracting attention of the audience especially in those scenes, which take place in Chittor, but not only there. Apart of the final sequence of the Queen’s jauhar, there are few other scenes in which the fire is not a merely more or less visible background, but a significant element, being a kind of dialogue with the audience, and it’s knowledge of the end of the story. One of such scenes is the one in which Alauddin Khilji burns historical notes which don’t mention his name. That moment seems to be just an another act of madness of the Sultan, but confronted with the final death of Queen Padmavati shows that apart of the power of destroy, the fire can also create a legend.
The structure of the film consists many opposites, which show not only the difference between two fighting worlds representing good and evil, but which also interestingly reflect each other. Apart of the mentioned two scenes with dancing heroes, and the interpretation of the power of fire, the biggest contrast between two enemies is highlighted by the use of colour, with the main difference between the golden, sunny world of Rajputs with green, cold, dark kingdom of the Sultan. Bhansali develops here his earlier idea of almost monochromatic sets, which perfectly reflect the colour of the desert, and subsequent fire, but which are also a perfect background for a very significant red elements, which symbolise passion, and courage. The red colour is similarly contrasted with the cold greenness of the Sultan’s environment, but this time it becomes darker, representing destroy, and death. Similarly with red, the pink colour of the powder which Padmavati applies on the feet of her husband during the Holi festival symbolise love and devotion, while the pink colour of the lotus in hands of Allauddin reflects mainly his defeat. However, one of the most interesting parallel presented in the film is the similarity between Padmavati and Malik Kafur. The Sultan’s intensive relation with Malik Kafur, and his devotion to his master is similar to the relation of Padmavati and Ratan Singh, who, as already mentioned seems to forget about his first wife after second marriage. Similarly, the Sultan doesn’t seem to think much about his wife, not only because of his obsession about Padmavati, but first of all because of Malik Kafur, who is more than a slave to him. The passion of Malik Kafur is visible especially in the love song he sings for his master, in which Alauddin Khilji is clearly shown as an object of the sexual desire. Moreover, Malik Kafur is so sure about his special status, that he is not jealous about Padmavati. Knowing that winning the woman won’t change the feeling of Sultan towards him, he helps his master to win the battle with the King.
The most intriguing element of the film is a very fresh way in which the filmmakers show Padmavati on the screen. Unlike in most Indian films, in Padmaavat it is not the heroine, whose sensual dance brings excitement to the audience. Apart from the very calm and a rather static ghoomar dance, the Queen does not dance, nor does any other woman in the film. On the contrary, the character, who brings the biggest excitement by the physical beauty of his dancing body is Alauddin Khilji, who appears not only in a very suggestive dance in the mentioned song …, but also in a demonic performance in …. song. The wild masculine dance of warriors in the … song is similar to the one of Bajirao Mastani, but this time the performance is not a happy dance of glory, but the scary dance of upcoming destroy, becoming almost a new version of the cosmic tandava dance.
In all that innovative and bold elements presented by Bhansali in his movie the most surprising is the fact, that it is not the homoeroticism (which usually is a problematic theme in Indian cinema), not the new kind of the item object, not even some historical inaccuracies which are the most controversial ones, but the honour of the Queen, which according to the protestants was abused. The clue scene which can explain this objection is the one, which causes all the tragic events, and the final death of the King and Queen. The King’s guru … is caught while he peeps to the King and his wife. The crime is so great that he is banished from the kingdom, because watching the private life of the Queen is a huge crime and sin, and nobody should dare to do that. Interestingly, in a reflected scene, Malik Kafur caught on a similar act is not punished by the Sultan, which shows not only the fact that Sultan doesn’t think about the honour of women, but which also shows his status. The audience receives then a clear message that watching Queen Padmavati is a sinful act. Still, what does the audience do while watching the film? Exactly the same – we all see scenes we should not participate in, as the cinema itself is nothing more than a pleasure of watching somebody’s secrets. The protestants are then just victims of the medium, which power they discovered. We may then say that Padmaavat is a great victory of the cinema, which proved that even today, with all media which surround us it can have such an impact on the audience, that it starts to feel guilty after watching the forbidden world of parda on the screen. The filmmakers carefully inform the audience that they don’t intend to hurt anybody’s feelings, but they can’t do anything with the basic role of the cinema which is to give a pleasure of the forbidden world. However it is worth also to mention all disclaimers which appear before the film. It seems that even after more than a hundred years of the cinema, the viewers are still so naive that it is necessary to remind them that they don’t watch the true. We find then an information here that the film does not encourage Sati. Well, that should be obvious for every sensitive person, but if it’s not, then maybe the audience should be informed as well that the film does not encourage asking for the enemy’s head, starting a war because of a woman or a bigamy. As already explained on the beginning, the film is a heroic tale about the glorious past in which there lived kings who had more than one wife, beheading enemy was a natural behaviour, and jauhar was an act of courage. And all that is presented with a great care and sensibility being, like most films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali a beautiful and breath-taking spectacle.
Tatiana Szurlej is a famous Indologist from Poland. She is a film critic and writes for many popular Indian magazines and blogs. She is a PhD from Poland’s Jagiellonian University on the topic The courtesan figure in Indian popular cinema: Tradition, Stereotype, Manipulation. Currently, she teaches at the European Study Institute, Manipal University, Karnataka.