VOD Review: Padmaavat
Padmaavat feels like Bollywood’s answer to The Ten Commandments. It takes the Golden Age of Hollywood sword and sandal film and cranks it up to 11. Both the good aspects and the bad.
Watching Padmaavat felt like taking an HD trip back to the 1950’s. This film shares so many similarities to the Hollywood epics of the time, like Cleopatra or Ben Hur. It is a sweeping tale of romance, intrigue, and war. It has lavish sets and sumptuous costumes. Unfortunately Padmaavat also suffers from epic extravagance: the runtime is bloated, the characters are paper-thin, and the narrative is clunky. While it is impossible to overlook it’s Hollywood cousins it is also distinctly Bollywood, which provides it’s own positives and negatives.
In the 13th century, the Khilji Dynasty has swept into India assuming the title of Sultan of Delhi. Prince Allaudin Khilji is a ruthless warrior with a lust for anything precious; be it land, jewels, or women. When he discovers that the Rajput King of Mewar’s wife Padmavati possesses exceptional beauty, he embarks to make her his.
Wandering in the Desert
As a western viewer, the narrative in Padmaavat kept reminding me of the Bible. Not just the 50’s movies based on the Old Testament, but the actual written works in the OT as well. Padmaavat likes to tell, not show, when it comes to its characters. The characters announce what they are all about, or are described to you by other characters in the same way the Bible might have told you exactly what you needed to know about the character of Samson, David, or Pharaoh. Allaudin tells the audience early and often that precious things are his raison d’etre, and the courtesans of Mewar gush about how skilled in the arts of war Padmavati is. This despite our first encounter with her being a hunt where she misses her first two arrows badly and nearly kills a man with the third.
This leads to one note characters, who are given very plot friendly motivations and abilities. I could have been fine with that had the film been using this to expedite the story; instead the story meanders for 2 hours and 40 minutes. This meandering also felt biblical: every time one side of the conflict has the other where it wants them they turn heel and walk away from victory. It felt like the interactions with Moses and Pharaoh, where the story is set to wrap up until God hardens someone’s heart just to keep the drama going. Both sides commit this, but the Rajput King is the worst offender. His unwillingness to seize victory due to pride was almost Shakespearean; he was a walking tragic flaw.
The weak characterization and wishy-washy plot mars a movie that otherwise improves upon the other aspect of a biblical epic: the awe factor.
Set-Pieces that Shine Like the Sun
Padmaavat might set a new standard for how beautiful a sword and sandal epic can be. The sets are glorious, a mixture of amazing architecture and colorful decorations. The costumes are mesmerizing. The use of light and color really make everything pop. It takes that characteristic Bollywood extravagance and creates something delightful with it. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bollywood film without song and dance numbers. While they are a mixed bag, the first big song “Ghoomar” is magnificent: both appropriate to the story and dazzling in its choreography.
The other aspect of a distinctly Bollywood epic that Padmaavat nails is the chemistry between our two tragic lovers. Neil discussed the trend in Bollywood films for actors to be very… “expressive” with their eyes. I’ve seen a decent number of Bollywood films and music videos where the two leads try to stare at each other like they are enraptured, only for it to come off as comic or leering. Not here. Deepika Padukone (Padmavati) and Shahid Kapoor (Rajput King Ratan Singh) get “the stare” right; they take turns looking at each other like an angel had just descended in front of them. They sell an under-written love story with a chemistry that scintillates; I wish this film had spent more time with their courtship.
Which brings me to the Bollywood aspects that don’t work…
Less Swords, More Sandals
One thing we’ve noticed from a fair number of Bollywood/Tollywood films is a lack of restraint. In both Baaghi 2 and Raja the Great, the directors seemed unwilling or unable to self-censor; the results are films that feel disjointed, bloated, and incoherent. While not as bad as those, Padmaavat is meandering. It seeks to fill the gaps in the plot with typical Bollywood filler: songs that don’t fit the mood, random acts of beefcake, and side-plots that feel abandoned as soon as the story proper gets back in the groove. These moments stick out like sore thumbs due to another directorial decision: this epic war movie wants nothing to do with battle sequences.
Almost every time someone draws a sword the story cuts away to something else. Compared to other recent epics like Baahubali 1 & 2, Padmaavat feels… boring. It rushes past the courtship of Padmavati and Ratan Singh to get to the confrontation between the Khiljis and the Mewar; it then doesn’t pay you off with satisfying action. Like a George R. R. Martin book, Padmaavat is way more interested with feasting and heraldry than with tactics and engagements.
The final aspect to note about Padmaavat is that while it was one of the most expensive movies ever made in India, it nearly got shelved. There was controversy over the depiction of the Khilji Sultanate: many accused the film of ignoring the historical reputation of Allaudin and his father Jalallaudin just so they could have mustache-twirling Muslim baddies. Allaudin’s right hand man also inflamed critics: Malik Kufar is shown often lusting after his King. While I thought it was actually progressive to show an openly gay man in a position of power and trust critics thought it was just another jab at the Muslim ruler meant to show Allaudin as depraved.
Finally, we have the ending of the film. It’s not much of a spoiler: Padmaavat had to address the finale of the film in a long disclaimer at the beginning of the movie just to have it aired. Padmavati invokes a ritual called Sati on the eve of the final battle; it is a ritual where the women immolate themselves should their men die/lose the battle. It was a practice that was eventually banned; and its inclusion was upsetting to many. I could understand it’s inclusion, as it was in the source material… until the camera panned in on a pregnant woman and a young child in the procession. It served no purpose, was pretty cringy, and highlighted that this ritual was a bit of selfishness on the Queen’s part that didn’t have the common woman’s interests in regard at all.
It hammered home an underlying theme of the film that I just can’t get behind. Both Ratan Singh and Padmavati were so obsessed with their “dignity” that they made decisions that constantly brought harm to their people. Padmaavat ended up just being about 3 selfish nobles making their respective citizens miserable just to satisfy their own egos.
It’s a shame Padmaavat wasn’t a better film. Because it surely is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen. Unfortunately splendor and extravagance oft go hand in hand. In a perfect world Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali gets another crack at an epic; this time with a firm screenwriter and producer to reign him in. I’d also love to see more from Padukone and Kapoor, they know how to work a camera. But today is not that day, and Padmaavat is not that film.