Direction: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Tanvi Azmi
Right at the start, in a detailed disclaimer, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, states in no uncertain terms, that what we are about to see is but an adaptation of historical events, steered by the storyteller’s imagination. So we know, we are not meant to go hunting for historical accuracy. Ten years in the making, Bhansali’s love affair with the legendary story of Bajirao-Mastani has attained epic proportions. The love shows. SLB’s signatures are intact --- the opulent sets, grandiose costumes, elaborately choreographed war sequences, a lofty music score and at the heart of it all, an intense love story, torn between duty and passion.
The film has its origins in N.S. Inamdar’s widely acclaimed book Rau, a fictional retelling of the life of Peshwa Bajirao and his paramour Mastani, a courtesan who was the daughter of the Raja of Bundelkhand and his Muslim wife. Kashibai, Bajirao’s first wife forms the third wheel of the story. The film hits the ground running, with an intense war sequence unfolding within the first ten minutes, establishing Bajirao’s credentials as a legendary war hero. The romantic track runs parallel to the battlefield. Bajirao and Mastani’s union begins as a politically expedient move --- more of a ‘thank you’ gesture from the Raja of Bundelkhand, after the Peshwa rescues his kingdom from a Mughal invasion. It is when Mastani comes to the medieval Pune of highly orthodox sensibilities, their story shakes the foundation of the unforgiving Chitpavan Brahmin mindset that will never accept a musalman as the Brahmin Peshwa’s wife.
Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone enjoy luxurious screen time and their chemistry oozes out of every frame. But what stays with you is not this delicious ‘forbidden love’, but the intensity of the simmering tension between Bajirao and his first wife Kashi, thanks to the sheer brilliance Priyanka Chopra brings to her act. The film is not meant to be hers --- she’s only the third wheel. Riding on very minimal lines, a strongly etched out character and letting her eyes do the talking for the most part --- PC owns the role of the neglected wife. Her scenes with Ranveer form the tender most core of the film; it’s the triumph of the jilted lover as far as this cinematic retelling goes. History certainly has a different take --- it always remembers the ‘preyasi’ and not the ‘patni’ as Kashi tells Bajirao at one point. In the film, however, the ‘patni’ takes it away.
Deepika as Mastani looks like a dream --- she’s a lover, a warrior, a courtesan and a mother --- all in one. It’s an imposing character on paper, but the actress fails to bring it out to its full strength. Maybe the lines she has to mouth are a little too theatric, or the several abrupt points in the screenplay shortchange her track in the film.
A lot of events continue to unfold in the backdrop of this love triangle, and this is where the screenplay and the editing are at their weakest. The time lapses are not explained, the politics of court are not delved into, conspiracies are hatched, and battles are fought but it all forms an incoherent blur. However, Tanvi Azmi’s superlative rendition of the scheming mother makes the confused politics of Bajirao Mastani bearable. She’s the Supriya Pathak (remember Ram-Leela?) of this film --- a cold-hearted matriarch with layers no one can get to.
The rest of the supporting cast has a few standouts too. Milind Soman as the Peshwa’s chief advisor and friend makes his limited screen time count. Mahesh Manjrekar as Shahu Maharaj and Vaibhav Tatwadi as Bajirao’s grousing younger brother are impressive too.
But in the end, there’s only one man who allows us to ignore every roadblock in this viewing experience. From his beautiful Marathi accent, to his powerful gait, his hypnotic stares, his guilt, his outbursts of helplessness to his war cries --- there is not a shade of Bajirao that Ranveer Singh does not perfect. The way he brings out the valiant commander-in-chief’s two parallel battles --- against the Mughals and against his family --- is cinematic excellence all the way. It’s evident that Bhansali has poured himself into fleshing out this flawed character and Ranveer does justice to every frame.
A melodramatic climax aside, the film is undoubtedly a quality product, Bhansali always ensures that. But what makes it fall just short of excellence is the lack of the journey within. We never get inside the characters, especially Bajirao’s, a man who is caught in the fierce dilemma between the heart and the state. We only see the events unfold on screen one after another. It is Bhansali tipping his jewel-encrusted hat off to an epic love story in Maratha folklore. But a glimpse of the mind would have made the picture complete....