TL;DR – A fascinating but also a quite difficult film, great acting, but only one-dimensional characters, with a very mixed ending
Score – 3 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – No
So back in 2017, I pushed myself to go see more non-western films and while it was a laudable goal, it didn’t pan out as much as I would have liked. Well, 2018 is a new year, and so let’s take another stab at this, and well there was no better place to start than with one of the most controversial films I have seen since maybe The Interview (see review). A leading politician in India demanded people assault the director, sets have been burnt down, death threats have been made, even riots at screenings and well some people have really got to understand what the Streisand Effect is. Now before we get into the film review proper I did want to preface this review with a couple of provisos, for better or worse I am approaching this film as an outsider, as I am a white guy who is not a practitioner of any of the religions depicted nor a decedent of any of the ethnic groups in this film. Now this means that I am likely missing a lot of the historical and cultural contexts that the film is using as shorthand. But also, I have no particular want to see one side viewed in a certain way, so impartial external observer and what not. So let’s dive into probably one of the more interesting films I have seen recently, for good and bad reasons.
So to set the scene, it is the 13th century in the subcontinent and forces across the land are starting to come together and crash into each other. In Afghanistan, a local lord Jalaluddin Khiji (Raza Murad) is preparing to seize control of the Sultanate at Delhi and take it for himself. Well on top of that Jalaluddin has a very ambitious nephew Alauddin (Ranveer Singh) who not only helps him seize the throne, but takes his daughter Mehrunisa (Aditi Rao Hydari) as his bride, oh and cheats on her on their wedding night, and then proves his military proficiency by stopping the Mongol invasions of India. Well, it should be no surprise what happens next as Alauddin leads Jalaluddin into a trap and seizes the throne for himself. Further south the King of Rajput Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) has travelled all the way to Singala (modern Sri Lanka) to obtain some pearls for his first wife Nagmati (Anupriya Goenka) when he accidentally wounded by Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) who was hunting a deer, after he recovers they fall in love and are married and return to Chittor. Well through some duplicitous ruminations of a treacherous priest these two kingdoms are thrust on a collision course and no good came come of that.
In the production side of the film, there are some very interesting aspects that I want to take a moment to look at. First the costumes, now I said not an expert on Indian culture but what I can say if the detail in some of those costumes were exquisite. Now you can see the extent of the costuming needed in this film by looking at the end credits, but the beading, dyeing, embroidering, and everything must have been an extraordinary undertaking. The sets when they were filming on location were as beautiful as you would expect. When they were created there was a lot of blending of practical and CGI elements that mostly works. Indeed, you can tell that a lot this film is created digitally, but that is fine because it is mostly used for big wide shots, or inserting animals into the film, but sometimes the quality is not quite there. Which is amplified when they reuse the same shot in the film. As well as this, while I wasn’t aware that the film was available in 3D it is soon clear that there was a 3D conversion added to the film as there are a number of insert shots that only exist to make the price of 3D glasses worthwhile.
When it comes to the acting and the characters, I have to say that the actors were giving everything to their roles. You can see it in the passion that they give to the screen, the intensity of their performances. It is just a pity that all of the characters are so one-dimensional that these fascinating performances are almost lost. Take Alauddin, there is such fire to Ranveer’s performance, but his one role is to be the bad guy in the film, there is no subtly to his character at all. On the flip side, Maharawal Ratan Singh was similar with his character verging on bland with honour being his only motivating characteristic. The only character which had some complexity was Padmavati which showed a range of motivations and emotions, and this is a shame because I wish there were more characters like that, but at least it provides some more complexity to the film. All of this is not a deal breaker for the film because as I said the actors are giving their all and adapting historical literature to modern audiences is not easy, but I just wish that there was more there, or at least more to get us through the almost 3 hours run time.
Not this, of course, flows into the story and because we are talking about the story just some caution that there may be some [SPOILERS] in this section. Much like the characters, the story is also quite straightforward, but then also overly complicated creating a weird juxtaposition. So there is moments when you can tell that they are trying to squeeze characters entire backstory into a sentence before they kill them just because they were important in the original epic and then moments when the focus on this one facet of the film that they drag it out. As I mentioned this film is nearly 3 hours long and well a lot of that extra run time really didn’t need to be there. You can see this in how some sub-plots really felt like they were cut to the bone, yet others were blown up to almost outstay their welcome. For example, there is this running issue between Nagmati and Padmavati, which yes is there in the original epic, but here in a movie only feels like it is there to pad out a runtime that is already too long. The same could be said with Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), Alauddin’s loyal general/servant/slave, there is a lot of time put in the ‘are they/ are they not’ a couple which could have been interesting, but mostly it just played for laughs. Now in the screening I went to I have to say that on this front the film was successful, leading to a rapturous response from the theatre, but it always felt like these scenes were in there not because they were trying to say something, but at best for cheap laughs and worst to belittle the characters because of their alleged orientation.
While watching this film I could not help thinking back to Lord of the Rings because there are a lot of similarities between the films. So yes there are the superficial similarities like the traitorous servant that really should have been killed or at least imprisoned, or how Maharawal Ratan Singh is good at those soliloquies, or the siege of a mountain city in the climax of the film. However, more deeply, they are both large historical-ish epics that were a literary nightmare to adapt. Here Padmaavat feels like they had the three films spaced out but then had to condense things down into one very long film and they didn’t quite get it right. There are subplots that should have been cut that are there, there are characters that should have been cut or consolidated, and a bit more thought needed into how the film is structured. It just feels like this should have been split out into septate films, or a bit more work done to the consolidation of the material. Now, this is not even getting into the ending which was kind of spoilt by one of the several warning put at the start of the film with regards to the practice of Jauher and Sati. All throughout the film it does feel like the only characters with any sense are the women, the men spend the whole film destroying themselves over notions of honour or ownership. There are several times when Maharawal Ratan Singh could have and should have killed Alauddin which would have saved his kingdom, and time after time he didn’t, and then he is surprised how it ended up. Well, all of this leads to the final moments of the film, and frankly I’m still not sure how I feel about them, the statement they are trying to make, and the confronting visuals they both elude too but also don’t show. So it is clear that the women have agency over their actions and the alternative of what happens after a city is conquered by the enemy would be just as awful, if not worse. However, the glorification of practices like this has done and continues to do tremendous harm, it is framed in a very particular way which is unsettling, and the reason it was happening in the first place was because the men were [REDACTED]. So yer, it is difficult to try and approach it, which is hard because it is the last scene in the film.
In the end, do we recommend Padmaavat? Well, maybe, more like a hard sort of. This is an Indian historical story and we need more non-western narratives in our films and the actors are really giving it their all. However, it is far too long, and the story is muddled in places and the ending is difficult to parse. So this may interest you, you may want to go see what all the fuss is about, but it is not a film that everyone will enjoy, or even like. Though all things being said, it might be worth watching for the dance numbers alone.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Padmaavat
Directed by – Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Written by – Sanjay Leela Bhansali & Prakash Kapadia
Based on – Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi
Music/Songs by – Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sanchit Balhara & A M Turaz
Cinematography by – Sudeep Chatterjee
Edited by – Jayant Jadhar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali & Akiv Ali
Starring – Deepika Padukone, Anupriya Goenka, Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jim Sarbh, Raza Murad, Sharhaan Singh, Manjit Singh & Padmavati Rao
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: na