I watched “Padmaavat,” and then ran away as fast as I could. That’s not even an exaggeration – typically, when a movie ends, I hang around waiting for the titles to roll, in hopes of some extra footage or bonus song. This time, before the last scene faded, I had sprung up from my comfy recliner, grabbed my bag, and rushed for the nearest green exit sign.
Why this visceral reaction? Thinking about it on my haphazard drive home (sorry, nearby drivers), I realized it was because of the choking helplessness I felt throughout. Even as ornate ghaghras swished and massive jewelry jangled (so hot to wear in the desert heat), every scene brought doom closer. As always, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has done an extraordinary job of bringing history to life, and then as a history buff myself, I felt like I was actually part of the proceedings. (No, it wasn’t 3D, but thank you for asking.)
I know this has been unfortunately true in the past, and can be true in the present, too, but it was the helplessness of every woman that stood out to me. The first wife (Anupriya Goenka), who has to watch mutely as her husband, Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), brings home his second wife Padmavati (Deepika Padukone); Queen Padmavati, who watches as her well-meaning but ultimately clueless husband bungle up every chance of winning in the name of principles against a completely unprincipled enemy; the enemy’s wife (Aditi Rao Hydari), who thought she was marrying a warrior but later realized Alauddin (Ranveer Singh) had only unbridled greed and bloodlust over everything else; the other proud princesses he captured as prisoners, and finally, the scores of women whose only option was to jump into a huge fire to avert the dishonor they believed lay ahead.
Ultimately, “Padmaavat” rankles because what we have been told since childhood – that good always wins – does not happen. Although the queen makes a pretty speech about the might of the righteous before the afore-mentioned fire, it’s putting sindoor on the sacrificial goat. No matter how prettily packaged, these women were forced into Jauhar, lacking any other means of defending themselves.
Everything else in this movie is black and white — the blindingly white Rajputs versus the unrelentingly black Khiljis – and the ending, likely against the maker’s intention, is too. There is the attempt to present the women’s sacrifice as a victory against the enemy’s intentions, but ultimately, all the women, and their men, die. It might be great to be thought of as immortal 700 years later, but at that moment, the supposedly good side lost, and everyone was helpless to prevent it.
Would it have better prepared us, as the grimacing audience clutching our armrests, to have had the movie called “Khilji?” It is a Ranveer Singh reel throughout, with a well-dressed queen, a king who speaks only in hyperbole, and some other good souls sprinkled in to help move to the next cinematographic wonder. The eunuch-slave (Jim Sarbh), who eventually functioned as sultan himself after Khilji’s death 13 years post-Chittor, is confined to lusty longing and a song that got me to LOL.
As a side note, the Rajputana kerfuffle against the release of the movie seems unwarranted. Rajputs are presented as honorable above everything else, which to me, felt like testosterone frequently overcame pragmatism. Going by the recent antics of the Karni Sena, they still have the same mindset, so if anything, I hope they don’t overly align with the movie after its release, and start thinking of Jauhar as yet another reason to justify honor killings. Just what we don’t need.
Parting thought – if you are going to make any lavish spectacle, why not pick one that lets viewers walk away satisfied?