The new Padmaavat is the most accomplished of the immensely popular movies to reach us from Yashraj graduate Sanjay Leela Bhansali - outclassing his 2002 take on Devdas and Black, his 2007 version of The Miracle Worker.
Padmaavat arrives on a wave of free publicity about riots caused in its home market. The faithful object to showing the Hindu queen enticing a Muslim Sultan, with the makers claiming, defensively, they are sourcing a 1540 poem. There is a succession of disclaimers on the front of the print. The copy we see has Deepika Padukone’s Princess Padmavati’s bare abdomen visible - blink and you’ll miss it - instead of being digitised over as it is in some markets.
As it’s not my windows they are breaking, it would have been nice to think that we are back to disputes about material of substance rather than drivel like Je vous salue Marie or Ken Park. Time was our own censors banned Easy Rider or A bout de souffle or Night of the Hunter or Walter Huston in Kongo. That was worth taking to the streets. However this one proves to be another controversy that doesn’t export - think Carnal Knowledge, Death of a Princess or La Religieuse. When I saw Padmaavat in the large George St. auditorium it drew five well behaved (apathetic) people.
Padmaavat is more complex and more challenging than Bansali’s other films, and better - an extraordinary mix of elements - Salome, Helen of Troy, Mehboob Kahn, Jon Hall's Arabian Nights and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The makers’ motives and their sympathies are too distant from us to assess but the film itself is something anyone with an interest in movies or politics or movies and politics needs to see.
Star Ranveer Singh’s Allauddin Khilji is at first rather winning, showing up at court with the tame (digital) ostrich as his courtship gift for the daughter of the bloated Khilji Sultan, who only asked for a feather. This is going to be a film that deals in excess. However, the groom begins as he means to go, making out with a court lady on his wedding day and offing the associate who finds him at it. The wedding dance with the swirling skirts of the girl dancers is a set piece particularly nicely edited.
Singh’s Khilji Sultan Alauddin meanwhile uses his new gauze wrapped slave to off the former ruler’s ministers and has him share his bath.
|Deepika Padukone, Padmaavat
|Shahid Kapoor, Padmaavat
Their perfect union is impaired only by his scornful number one wife and the fact that the court scholar is found peeping at their bedroom activities and banished.
The evil Khilji emperor decides to swallow the Rajputs when the disaffected scholar turns up, telling about the unparalleled beauty of Queen Padmavati. He’s cautioned, rather winningly, that she better be as good as he says. Abandoned by the craven neighbour kingdoms, Kapoor relies on the walls of Chittorgarh fort which have always withstood invaders. His archers put down a shower of arrows inhibiting any closer approach and, when a Khilji token force charges, they fall into the concealed pits that surround the fort. Fire arrows wreak havoc in the besieging enemy’s tent city - and scare Singh’s cage birds.
During the siege Kapoor cracks hardy, celebrating Holi the festival of Colors, with the enemy at the gates, while Alauddin keeps his lot enthused by breaking the back of a wrestler opponent. To end the impasse, Kapoor sends a scroll of conditions which Singh accepts without considering, entering the Fort alone and joining his opponent but put off when his longed for glimpse of the queen is obliterated by smoke and curtains.
About now the film makes the most striking of its many U-turns introduced by a great, athletic, near monochrome dance number performed by Singh and his followers with their long black robes and staves. With Kapoor in the enemy dungeons, Queen Padukone takes charge and proves to be the smartest one the Rajputs have got. Her courtiers are wowed by her skills.
The rescue is a terrific action scene and settles any doubt about the wisdom of sitting through the two hours and forty four minutes.
Well of course Singh is real mad and, despite a failed attempt on his life, sets out with a bigger army and siege machines that launch incendiaries. This forces the outnumbered Rajputs from the fort and the two armies face off with their leaders going to it in (soso) single combat, where the consort slave cheats by using his long bow to take down Kapoor.
The elaborately grubby historical/mythological imagery at first registers less flamboyant than Bahubali ( S. S. Rajmouli, India, 2015) the elephants don’t show up here till the end, though we do have elaborate sky line rider troops and scenes like the lone horseman waiting outside the dust cloud raised by his followers battling their opponents before he charges, emerging with his rival’s severed head.
The sting is in the tail, with the Rajput women in their red saris following their queen to the blazing (digital) funeral pyre. It’s Hindu ritual "jauhar," not sati/suti the producers rush to tell us - death before dishonor. Even from Sydney Australia it’s possible to feel an unease about invoking that practice, still remembered by living people.
Padmaavat is a high end glimpse of Indian, or more particularly Hindi, film making at what appears to be its most evolved and imposing. It would be a pity to miss it, even if they are not offering a 3D Imax copy.