No soul in this spectacle
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat doesn't play it subtle. Its relentless, compulsive need to make you see shuts out your options to imagine. Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), the ruler of Mewar, describes the Rajput valour in glowing couplets "You can behead him, he'll still fight on. That's a Rajput," he says in one of them. Later, in another scene, Bhansali shows you how these men do it. That's pretty much the tone the filmmaker sets for this retake on Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic poem. Padmaavat is all surface and holds no surprises. At 163 minutes, its indulgence gets cloying, its visual splendour progressively numbing.
If Bhansali has a sense of irony, he would've already reflected on the pre-release clamour of hurt sentiments. This is, in fact, a film that extols the Rajputs; while venerating their honour and moral codes, it vilifies the invader/outsider (Alauddin Khilji, played by Ranveer Singh with manic flamboyance) as a depraved, one-note antagonist.
In terms of the classic good-vs-evil tradition, the absence of sub-text could be a minor grouse but Padmaavat is also short on the one key element which makes these period spectacles work - drama. Ratan Singh's first meeting with Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), the princess of Singhal, is nicely set. Their romance finds an interesting contrast in interspersing segments that build Khilji up as this marauder on the loose. We do get a sense of doom as the Sultan sets out to seize his next big prize, Padmavati herself.
The writing (Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia) lends some early sparkle, especially in portions establishing the new queen's intelligence, that even impresses the rajguru. But by the time Khilji reaches Chittor, that easy playfulness has gone; what we have now are an overdressed king and queen, all stately and poseur-like. It all starts to get rather sterile from here, and part of it comes from Kapoor's very affected performance. Singh, as Khilji, and his scenes with Jim Sarbh - who plays the Sultan's slave - provide some amusement amid all this posturing.
The film pushes its morality and politics in bafflingly simplistic imagery and word-play. The native hero lives and dies with usool, shaan and swabhimaan while the debauched outsider is reviled as the shaitan, the asur. Bhansali does whip up some drama with his staging of the climactic jauhar. But, it's all still, staging and detailing with no perspective to add, no new politics to explore, Padmaavat meanders on in all its designer pomp. It's textbook-tedious, with no footnote to divert.