Sanjay Leela Bhansali is something of a polarising filmmaker. While his lavish, extravagant style and immaculate attention to detail are undeniable, the common complaint is that it comes at the cost of a genuinely engaging storyline. Well, if he was accused of that before, then Padmaavat takes things to a whole new level of all-style-no-substance.
Given the deafening hype and controversy surrounding the film, to call it underwhelming would be a seismic understatement. It’s simply SLB’s most uninteresting, lifeless and uninspired work to date. An engaging narrative and interesting, three-dimensional characters are sacrificed at the altar of staggering visuals and so-called ‘powerful moments’, more so than any of his previous films. He appears to have quite literally lost the plot on this one. On the upside, you do tend to appreciate and enjoy the sumptuous costumes and towering sets more than ever before because that’s quite simply all you really have to grab on to and stay invested.
Apart from the severe lack of dramatic zest, it’s pretty startling how little you care about any of the film’s characters, not to mention the spectacularly tepid chemistry between them. Padmaavat’s characters are almost Disney-like in how simplistic and watered down they are with very little going on beneath the surface. They also couldn’t be more black and white if they tried. As the film repeatedly reminds us with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the Rajputs and particularly Shahid Kapoor’s Ratan Singh is beyond virtuous and just really really really good while Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji is really really really bad. There’s little more to it. Suffice to say it’s a far cry from the more complex, multi-dimensional grey characters of Bajirao Mastani, a film which feels like a masterpiece in comparison. At least that held your attention.
The outcry against the film is also hilariously ironic given Padmaavat’s singular mission appears to be to glorify the hell out of the Rajput community. All that said, I’m not entirely sure whether what we see on screen is the same as what was first intended, or a result of desperate last-minute re-tampering and re-editing to appease the outraged. I’d pay good money to know the answer to that.
As the forced and unnecessary opening voice over narration spoonfeeds tells us, the film follows the rise to power of tyrannical dictator-like figure Alauddin Khilji and his quest to claim the Queen Padmavati. Despite having never met her, mere description of her beauty leads the psycho-in-need-of-an-obsession to lay siege on the kingdom of her and husband, King Ratan Singh.
The film boasts of a number of strong performers all of whom desperately try their best to make an impact but fail across the board in rising above severely underwritten, one-note characters. So much so that there isn’t a single stand out performance on offer here.
As the apparently vicious and evil with a capital E Khilji, Ranveer Singh is repetitive and uninteresting. More a failure of character than performance, Singh tries his best with his formidable screen presence but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before as he quickly falls from despicable to dull. I think at this point the Ranveer-SLB duo has run its course and we’ve seen all it has to offer.
Similarly, despite playing the title role, a permanently teary-eyed Deepika Padukone has very little to do and is entirely wasted here. She’s more of a model than actor here given Padmavati’s entire character centres on looking pretty and resplendent in heavy costumes and jewellery. Though she is given a bit more to do in the film’s second half, hers is undoubtedly the most underwritten of the lot.
Shahid Kapoor is in much the same boat. While similar to his turn in Rangoon, he is once again steadfast and reliable and arguably the most enjoyable to watch of the three, he also essays the film’s most annoying character (and it’s a tough competition). His Ratan Singh frequently dances the line between character and cartoon whose sole purpose is to be perfect and virtuous and glorify the Rajput community. He is so stuck in his naive honour and usool and general Rajput-ness that he throws all sense of logic out the window despite being given multiple opportunities (I counted 4) to save himself, his wife and his kingdom and end Khilji.
By way of the wider cast, while he does well here as Khilji’s erotically devoted right hand, Jim Sarbh’s issues with diction severely limit the kinds of roles he can take on. He also leads one of the film’s worst scenes in which he jarringly breaks into song to serenade Khilji, a fine testament to how sorely lacking SLB’s album is. By contrast, the most affecting performance comes from Aditi Rao Hydari in her supporting turn as Khilji’s wife, which shares similar shades to Bajirao’s Kashi played by Priyanka Chopra.
Padmaavat is also interestingly SLB’s most regressive film to date in how it blindly glorifies the Rajput community, it’s depiction of Muslims, treatment of women as objects, and how it goes out of its way to celebrate the practice of Jauhar (the Hindu custom of suicide by women to avoid capture, enslavement and rape). Suffice to say its not exactly passing any Bechdel tests anytime soon.
Perhaps my biggest issue of Padmaavat is SLB’s spectacular laziness in getting his hands dirty and offering up any form of worthwhile action or battle sequences, even with a story like this which demands it. His priorities are always being devoted to the opulent vision and visual poetry of it. Even though, the entire story is quite literally about conquering, bloodshed and clashing armies, all we get is one small skirmish, an overlong, visibly choreographed showdown between Khilji and Ratan Singh and some catapults. This movie deserves the award for most-armies-no-warfare. In a post-Baahubali world, if you set out to tell a period epic about warring kingdoms, this just won’t do. Special nod also to Prakash Kapadia’s repetitive dialogue which is nothing short of a drinking game considering the number of times it throws words like usool, Rajput and talwar at us.
In the end, Padmaavat is little more than 2 hours of fanciful costumes, lingering visuals and a largely exhausting experience. While you cannot deny the painstaking work put into the back drops, texture and detailing, I wish the same amount of effort was put into script and story. For something that’s considered SLB’s grand magnum opus that he’s been nurturing and dreaming about for years, this story, the audience, and these characters deserve far better, I’m going with two and a half stars.