Cast: Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Tanvi Azmi, Vaibbhav Tatwawdi, Mahesh manjrekar, Milind Soman, Ayush Tandon, Raza Murad, Aditya Pancholi
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Rating: 2 stars
Can something be overwhelming in parts and be completely underwhelming overall? Can something dazzle, impress and yet leave you cold? Yes. And lately these conflicting emotions have found a home sweet home — Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s not one but many attempts at a magnum opus. His obsessive and relentless pursuit of a certain kind of fabricated, contrived perfection is now, increasingly, at the expense of the people whose story they are meant to be a setting for. One set after another, Bhansali creates perfect, opulent and disturbingly symmetrical worlds with shimmering diyas or diamonds. He then picks groomed and chiselled people and places them in these settings, resplendent in insanely extravagant clothes, not so much to inhabit and live in them, but to pose with their backs arched.
Frame after frame of this laboured exquisiteness is emotionally exhausting to watch. There is so much melodrama already in Bhansali’s painstaking conjuring of the grand and glamorous that he seems to think there isn’t much room or need for drama. Some operatic shots, dance moves, gestures and dialogue baazi are enough. In yoga, or any other difficult bodily pursuit, when you are pushing beyond your limits and trying to achieve that pose, that contortion to that perfection, a good instructor will tell you, “Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.” Sanjay Leela Bhansali, it seems, forgets to say that to his actors. In fact, I think he forgets to breathe himself. So consumed and spent and in awe he is of his own breathtaking creations of wood and plaster and razzle dazzle, that he has little energy left to engineer some drama. That’s why his films now remain glamorous vignettes for costume and jewellery designers and lifestyle stores to sell you and me a piece of his creation. You’ll admire, recall and even covet his flouncy skirts with those impossibly perfect pleats, that zardozi blouse and dupatta, that gorgeous nose pin. But you’ll forget the story and the people. Because so did Bhansali.
We’ve come to expect a certain scale and gorgeousness from Bhansali. He certainly has a unique cinematic narrative. A vision and an imagination of a scale that’s matched in daring and detail by few. Only Kamal Amrohi and K. Asif come to mind. But earlier, in not so grand settings, he could also tell a story, of people, and their love and frustrations. They were interesting, living, breathing people. People we still remember, with emotion. Bhansali, of course, is telling the same two stories still. There’s the story of Black and Guzarish, about man and his losing battle with his body and fate, and from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to Devdas to Ram Leela, the story of impossible love. Sachcha pyaar is never kamyab in the world of Bhansali. Lovers hardly ever live happily ever after. There is always tragedy. But earlier, his star-crossed lovers used to crackle, shine, and at times drive us insane with grief.
All his films follow the same trajectory: Man meets woman. In a second there’s love. This is followed by a tense scene, the first expression of love. This scene is fraught with sexual tension and written in double entendres that are classy and poetic. It used to be taut with passion so strong and powerful that there was and still is some urge to touch, hurt the other. It’s that kind of strong, crazy love he likes. And then there are the set pieces he loves which have, over the years, become Sanjay Leela Bhansali tropes: dancing with diyas, a public announcement of passion, two women connecting over their love for the same man and participating in a strange menage a trois. And, an angry mother figure. Bajirao Mastani has all that and some more from his past. Its story arc is the same, with some historicity in long frocks thrown in.
Peshwa Bajirao Ballar (Ranveer Singh), 1700-1740, is the Maratha Peshwa of Chhatrapati Shahu Raje Bhosle (Mahesh Manjrekar). Though a Chitpawan Brahmin, he is a great warrior with “cheete ki chaal, baaz ki nazar”, and is on the battlefield helping expand the Maratha empire, often fighting and defeating the Mughals. He plans to conquer Delhi. Bajirao is married to Kashi (Priyanka Chopra), who lives in Shaniwarwada Palace in Pune with his widowed mother, Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi). While en route to another battle, Mastani (Deepika Padukone), the daughter of king Chatrasal of Bundelkhand, comes to ask for his help as their kingdom is under attack. Mastani is the king’s daughter from his Muslim wife. Impressed with Mastani, Bajirao helps thwart the attack and is repaid for his help. Along with the gifts of gratitude from Bundelkhand arrive, in a palanquin that’s colour coordinated with her dress, Mastani at his palace in Pune. She is insane with love for him.
But she is a Muslim and is stopped in her tracks by widowed mother who is both threatening and powerful. Mother dear leaves no stone unturned to humiliate the pretty princess while the sad first wife looks on teary-eyed. Let’s just say what follows is the story of the Kaneez, Jille Ilahi and Shekhu that rocked the Mughaliya Saltanat in circa 1960. Only difference is that here they also play baby-baby in the midst of much talk about a Muslim woman maligning Hindu Peshwa, Maratha blood lines and family tree and boring discourse about dharma from angry brahmins. Bajirao’s son Nana, who is not introduced at all in the film, arrives to clinch the long argument in pious Hinduism’s favour.
For a high-strung love story, Bajirao Mastani had a lot going for it. The story is very interesting. And Ranveer and Deepika’s chemistry is not just crackling, but has that sublime thing that on-screen amar prems are made of. In fact, in her opening scene, Deepika’s Mastani is so fierce, real and dramatic that she doesn’t just make the scene sparkle, but adds kinetic energy to the film. In those few minutes she seems to be the film’s raison d’être. But, very soon, love make her kooky. Quite literally. Sure, we are told that Mastani is, true to her name, mast in her own dhun. But she just ceases to be real. So dizzy is Deepika’s Mastani on love that she’s completely disconnected with what’s happening to her. She has strange reactions to things that happen and are said. She’s like a traumatised apparition skulking in the outhouse, waiting for her love.
Apart from the fact that Mastani is like a stoned Sufi smoking the love pipe, she speaks only in highfalutin and hyperbole. There’s only dialogue baazi and some sher-o-shayari. And it doesn’t help that all the while Deepika is so perfectly poised and Parisian in scenes that are beauteous and stunning. All this made Priyanka Chopra look and feel better than she actually is. Priyanka is good as the silently suffering but stoic wife, but is made more real and compelling because she’s up against Deepika’s plastic perfection. Tanvi Azmi is scarily dark and disturbing and, shockingly, Milind Soman is not bad. The film’s supporting cast, in fact, is very effective. The film is shot beautifully, lovingly. And whether domestic or in the battlefield, the scenes are populous.
Bajirao Mastani has some great scenes that are strong on emotion, drama, intrigue, suspense. But almost as a matter of routine we are distracted by the opulence of a mirror room, the perfect shots of diyas, and find ourselves lost and breathless in the gorgeous pleats of a lehnga. It thrills, moves, impresses, but more than that it exhausts and frustrates. The only compelling reason to watch Bajirao Mastani is Ranveer Singh. His Bajirao controls and commands the film’s battle scenes with his whip-like sword and his dialogue, with a tinge-of-Marathi pronunciation, give the film depth.
He is controlled and not show-offy in displaying this frustrating complexity — of a great, legendary warrior unable to safeguard the woman he loves. It leads to a kind of madness that’s almost an obscene dare to all in confronting him, but his economy of emotion and give the film dimensions of an epic. Thankfully, in the film’s last scene he’s not disturbed by some symmetrical splendour and nor are we distracted by beauty that’s lyrical and overflowing. But, sadly, too many diyas have gone on in perfect formations before for the film to be saved. I wish Bhansali had told the art department to go breathe for a few days and let his actors do some acting. That would have made this grand opulence worth remembering for more than just a few dresses and nose pins.
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