Well then, Bhansali finally has a historical to his name. And I finally have the credit of watching a Bhansali movie on screen – and also kind of liking it. To me, it is not a great movie. But for sure it is a good movie – and far better than the messy, hotchpotch of a movie called Jodhaa Akbar where history and anything pre-fixed to the word ‘story’ went for a toss and the stardom of Aishwarya and Hrithik took over.
The good thing about this film is that Bhansali has at least made an attempt to restrain himself and not get carried away with his indulgences: And this is reflected in how the characters here speak. He has them delivering dialogues in a comparatively controlled-fashion even when they seem to be emotionally mighty weighty. It is actually remarkable and pretty ironic that it is Bhansali who has managed to do that!! Not one character here contorts his or her facial muscles—remember that lady contorting her eye-lashes into a snaky spaghetti in Devdas at the death-scene of Devdas’ father?—and is alarmingly controlled displaying respect to the times and historicity associated with these characters. Acting ‘wild’ might be good when making Spartacus or Nero but not here and it is great fun to see every character respecting the manner in which speech conveyed emotions at that point in time – however light or heavy.
I haven’t read Inamdar’s RAUU [am curious to read it now after this movie] and hence cannot really comment on the ‘escapades’ of Bhansali with available historical records. [Inamdar’s book itself is called a ‘novel.’]. But yes, he makes it clear that he IS on home-ground when it comes to the tag-line of the movie: BAJIRAO MASTANI: The love-story of a warrior. It is a cue to the audience to just treat history as any other story but to treat this movie as THE love story. Coming to the ‘filmy’ part, Bajirao’s introduction is a smart ode to Asif’s that iconic romantic/erotic gesture from Mughal-E-Azam. He used the feather to accentuate the eroticism between Salim and Anarkali. Here, Bhansali uses the feather to display Bajirao’s ‘shastra’ skills! The dismantling of its roots symbolically represents the cutting off of roots of the Mughal Sultanate in Dilli for Bajirao. From here on, the film progresses to show Bajirao’s non-adherence to ‘established’ norms, be they war strategies, his ‘impulses’ on religion, marriage, or relationships.
If there’s one front where Bhansali delivers as he promises, it is the visual arc and narrative of this movie. He painstakingly provides glimpses of the Maratha architecture. ‘Shanivaar Vaada’, the fort of Shahu Maharaj and the Mastani Mahal are truly unique in the sense that one does not relapse into a déjà-vu regarding the depiction of generic ‘palaces’. He has captured the architecture to be quite distinct from what the Indian audiences are used to when it comes to capturing lives of royalty. The ‘Aaina Mahal’ is a distraction—stunning of course—and serves nothing but an endorsement of visual superiority of Bhansali’s imagination. The battle scenes are minimal but do not appear as ludicrous as that of Jodhaa Akbar [the battle-scenes there looked as though kids in 2nd grade were rushing and jostling against one another to lay their hands on Hershey’s chocolates]. The aerial views of battle-grounds are well-shot and do convey visually a sense of ‘largeness’ of the impact and import of the battles.
Bhansali loses it in the final act when he goes all out to his pet obsession – man losing a woman and vice-versa to societal blocks – and resorts to a Romeo and Juliet transference. He literally makes Rao’s death a direct cause of the failure of a ‘love’ story. Yes, it is visually stunning to see Rao thrash his free-flowing sword in the face of an imagined enemy carrying ‘black’ flags [a smart move again to not color the flags ‘green’]. But beyond a point, visuals can only stun you — not move you. And this, alas, Bhansali has yet to learn.
There are some fantastic visuals here that carry the film’s arc forward. And in Hi-fi of today, it is only Bhansali that has this almost-extinct talent of making the visuals talk without words. The Brahmans’ ‘bhojan’ scene; the ‘saptami’ pooja scene; the joint ‘aartis’ praying for the welfare of Rao – these are but just a few of the many, many visual splendors the film offers. In the initial battle scene, after Bajirao strides atop two of his soldiers’ shields and atop the elephant’s trunk and slaughter’s Bangash, he gets down and triumphantly faces Mastani while a ‘saffron’ flag flutters right from across his face: Powerful symbolism here. And when it comes to words and rhymes and shaayari, he is superb too. Krishna Bhatt, the Brahman priest-head – a superb Yatin Karyekar [Kamesh of ‘Shanti’ fame]—thunders about Mastani: ‘Arre ise toh Dargah or Durga ke beech ka pharak bhi nahin pata’. And then Mastani softly ‘thunders’ back: ‘Kesar aur Hare rang ke bare mein toh nahin pata, haan lekin aise log bhe dekhe hain jo rang mein mazhab dekhte hain aur unka zameer ka rang kaala dikhta hain.’ In another scene, Baji Rao makes Brahmans wait but takes his own sweet time to first enjoy Eid feast and then comes to the long-waiting Brahman-feast and brazenly says that he was enjoying Eid feast! Krishna Bhatt is in the background saying ‘Shiva Shiva.’ He then turns back angrily when Chimmaji – Bajirao’s brother – pleads saying the Brahman community cannot insult the Peshwas and retorts, ‘Arre khairat to Masjid mein bhi milta hain’: A fantastic line here, underlining the importance religion as identity and self-worth in those times. Initially, Bajirao thunders to Shahu Maharaj that he won’t rest until ‘Hindu Swaraj’ – note, he doesn’t say ‘Hindu Samrajya’— is established in Hindustaan. Pretty powerful [by powerful I mean ‘unadulterated’] stuff from Bhansali in these ‘intolerant’ times. But then he again tries political correctness with statements from Baji Rao that paraphrased underline that he isn’t against the ‘religion’ of Delhi-rulers but the ‘’dynasty’ – take that Rahul Gandhi— of Mughal Sultanate. Of course, there is no mention of that dreaded phrase, ‘Hindu Pad Paadshahi’. Marxist ‘historians’ would have you believe that this term only originated from Veer Savarkar. But you know the tricks of the trade.
The greatest glory of BM is that Bhansali brings back those grandiose poetry-laden lines to the Hindi screen after a long, lonnnng time. Sample this: ‘Tujhe yaad kar liya hain aayat ki tarah, aab tera zikr hoga ibaadat ki tarah.’ Great! ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ gave folks like me the luxury of dwelling on the Lucknowi ‘tehzeeb’ and this one again gives us the pleasure of going back in time when poetry could be substituted for conversation and conversation for poetry. Another gem: ‘Jab deewaron se jyaada dooriyan dil mein ho jaaye toh chaat nahin tikti.’
Coming to performances, I am in two minds about the glories that Ranveer is getting. He walks dangerously close on that thin red-line separating his inherent ‘taporiness’ to the ‘gravitas’ required of this role. He succeeds most of the times, but also fails almost the same number of times! His personification of Rao comes across more as ‘chichorapan’ than that of a wily war-fox. However, there are some scenes where he does excel: Checkout the scene where he first shows signs of mental imbalance. Priyanka walks out with the meatiest part as a self-suffering ‘legit’ wife. This is author-backed. But to Priyanka’s credit, she does a damn good job. Her first confrontation scene with Deepika’s Mastani is a gem. Also the scene where she comes to offer her saree and other ‘pooja’ paraphernalia to pray for the husband’s longevity is a gem. Watch her when she dismisses Mastani’s rant about ‘dil ka kya kasoor’ scenario right out of the Mastani Mahal window. Great one there! Deepika, however, comes across as the weakest link amongst these three performers. She just couldn’t convince me as a warrior who HAPPENS to be beautiful and musically gifted. There is a lot of lightness to her act and moves that prove to be her undoing.
And PINGA PINGA is the BEST example of Bhansali’s excesses – an absolutely unnecessary, zero value-added song. Just as Bhansali decided to use Madhuri and Aishwarya in Dola Dola, he uses these 2 here. ‘Hey, I got 2 of the hottest heroines of this age. What do I do? Duh, play Ping Pong!!’ And then, you have Ranveer’s Rao trying ultra-hard to speak Marathi-accented Hindi when using words like ‘Kudrat’, ‘Aurat’, ‘pharak’ [instead of ‘farak’]. Surprisingly, all other Marathi-speaking court-members speak in normal Hindi, including Priyanka’s Kashibai! It comes across stagey and emphasized. And go figure, every Marathi-speaking character mentions ‘Poona’, instead of ‘Pune.’ ‘Poona’ is what the Brits would have us believe. Nobody associated to Marathi culture called/calls it Poona.
One of the fantastic, strongly-etched scenes of this movie to me remains that scene between Tanvi Azmi’s Radhabai and Priyanka’s Kashibai where they are stitching a ‘saffron’ cloth. In a rare moment of tenderness, when they are stitching a pretty long yarn of ‘saffron’ they bond with each other saying, ‘Arre Hara rang he seel dete’! And they laugh away hiding beneath years and labyrinths of pain while Tanvi’s Radhabai wipes away a tear.