If there’s one thing that Padmaavat, earlier titled Padmavati, tells us it’s that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the monarch of grandeur, opulence and splendor. The director’s vision carries forward his legacy of larger-than-life films, so even though the battle is between Rawal Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khilji, it’s Bhansali’s unfazed vision and technical finesse that takes the cake.
If there’s another thing that Padmaavat tells us, it’s that the film is, in fact, meant to uphold the valour, sacrifice and glory of the Rajput’s. And nothing else that has been fed into the minds of viewers over the past few months, courtesy protests by fringe outfit Karni Sena.
It’s 2018, and we’re making movies that are unironically in love with the idea of women burning themselves alive to save their honour. Padmaavat doesn’t see jauhar—the Hindu practice of self-immolation by the women of the losing side in a war—as a particularly gruesome by-product of defeat. Instead, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film spins this horrible fate as nothing less than outright victory.
Jauhar is, of course, historical fact, and no one’s suggesting that a film cannot be made on it. But a film that shies away from the compulsions that must have driven at least some of those deaths, which instead wraps the act in poetry and piety, is a worrying one to encounter in this day and age. I’d assumed Padmaavat would make some sort of warped point about jauhar as an act of female agency: I choose to kill myself rather than be raped and enslaved. Yet, even this choice is denied to the women. In a scene I found grimly amusing, Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) actually has to ask her husband, ruler of Mewar Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), for permission to commit suicide if things go wrong.
The one with the power to make it all go wrong is Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, equal-opportunity lover and all-round psychopath. When Ratan Singh’s exiled former teacher tells him of Padmavati’s beauty and predicts that their futures are linked, Khilji becomes obsessed with her. He travels to Chittor with his army, gets himself an audience with Ratan Singh and demands a glimpse of Padmavati, which he’s granted. After that, it’s only a matter of time before the Rajput men do what they did in most battles—make terrible tactical decisions and die fighting bravely—and Padmavati is forced to choose between fire and a murderous lunatic who makes parrot noises.
Deepika is an epitome of grace and she delivers a knockout performance as a Rani yet again. Her portrayal of Padmavati is all things ethereal and keen. And even though she doesn’t have many dialogues, it’s her eyes that do the talking. Plus, her being a strategist in times of conflict, gives her an edge. Shahid does a controlled act of the righteous king and does full justice to his part. With kohl-ed eyes and an impressive build, he looks the part. But the film only and only belongs to Ranveer Singh. He is in top form and doesn’t bat an eye lid while playing a character so black and honestly, despite being an anti-hero in the film, he actually makes you root for him. He is eclectic and wins every scene he is in. His eccentric moves and dialogue delivery make him an ever-ideal fit for Khilji. As a menacing ruler, who is atrociously self-consumed with the idea of victory and becoming the Sultan and gaining possession of all things exquisite, Khilji’s depiction might raise some eyebrows but as far as performance goes, no one could have done it better than a meat-mincing Ranveer.