Friday, 2 February 2018

IN THEATRES: Padmaavat

After hearing tale of a queen, Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), whose beauty is without equal, the greedy, bloodthirsty Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) decides that he must possess her as well. Taking his massive army, he lays siege to the Chittor fort where she resides. As the siege continues, Padmavati and her husband, King Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), try to figure out a way out of their predicament...   

I haven't watched an Indian movie in awhile. After watching this, I need to rectify that. A big budget take on Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic poem Padmavat, Padmaavat's production was plagued by controversy last year. Thankfully, it made to the screen.

I heard good things about this movie going in, but I was leery of the 164 minute runtime. It did not matter. This movie is so well-paced and filled with so many great scenes that the time flew by. 

The standout of the cast is Ranveer Singh as the conquerer Sultan Alauddin Khilji. Narcissistic, psychopathic and possessed of a malevolent sense of humour, the movie gets a fresh shot of adrenaline every time he swaggers onscreen.

The movie is great but his performance is really the backbone of the movie. After two-and-a-half hours of being plugged into this man's psyche, and his obsession with Queen Padmavati, it gives the ending a real kick. We get a real sense of his loss, and hence the magnitude of the Queen's sacrifice - her victory - really hits home.

Singh in costume
Playing a man with ambitions to replicate Alexander the Great, Singh is all appetite all the time. And it is awesome, terrifying and hilarious (often all at once).

There are so many weird, wonderful touches to his character. The one scene that is seared into my brain is when a concubine tries to apply perfume before his dinner with Ratan Singh, he snatches the bottle out of her hand, splashes the liquid all over her, than manhandles her so that the scent gets rubbed all over his body. 

Really, this whole review could just be a list of all his scenes. He's so evil, and yet so charismatic and funny that you cannot take your eyes off him.

Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor play Padmavati and Ratan Singh, respectively. He is the honourable king of Mewar, a small independent kingdom located in north-west India (present day). She is his second wife, who he meets after she mistakes him for a deer and shoots him with an arrow.

You might recognise Padukone from her appearance as one of Vin Diesel's crew in the ego-powered xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Playing an iconic character can be a bit thankless, but Padukone does provide a certain steel which works for the film's tragic final scenes. 

If Khilji is all appetite without restraint, Ratan Singh is the polar opposite. Honouring tradition and always ready to restore balance (the reason he meets Padmavati is because he is trying to repair an unintended slight to his first wife).

They are both good, but are basically stuck playing straight men while Singh tears hunks out of the scenery.

As far as the supporting cast go, the most memorable performer is Jim Sarbh. He plays Khilji’s right-hand man Malik Kafur, a man whose loyalty is clearly born of something more than just loyalty to the crown. His desire for his master is just as powerful as the Sultan’s Padmavati, and leads to a musical number which, in content and staging, makes clear that he wishes to take the queen’s place in Khilji's affections.

The queer subtext underpinning their relationship is well-handled, especially for how it feeds into Khilji's narcissism - Kafur's flattery and loyalty are just another possession to him, something that he can use for his own ends. 

Hydari as Mehrunisa, the Sultan's doormat/wife

Aditi Rao Hydari plays the Sultan’s first wife, Mehrunisa, a character who gets the worst of it in the movie: learns her husband is unfaithful on her wedding night; has to watch her husband parade her uncle's decapitated head (he also kills her cousin); and of course, she has to listen to her husband rant on and on about another woman that he has never seen. And then she ends up in jail. What a life.
Her character really highlights the limits imposed on female agency in this movie. All the men are interested in pursuing their own interests, and ignore the women's good advice (like their alternatives to violence). It is a subtle vein of critique running through the movie, that gives it a little more bite and dimension.

The movie's portrayal of the Ranjput characters' philosophy is interesting for similar reasons. The filmmakers are clearly on the side of their sense of honour and tradition, but is also willing to highlight the cost of their adherence to their principles. 

Padmavati questions the king's unwillingness to ambush his enemy when Khilji accepts his offer to dinner at the fort, unarmed. This is later compounded by his belief that the Sultan will treat him likewise when Khilji reciprocates the offer of a meal in his tent.

During the final sequence, when Padmavati and the women of the Chittor fort commit jahuar (mass self-immolation), one shot really stood out: a pregnant woman (head out of frame) holding hands with her daughter as they run down the stairs after the Queen. The movie is constantly juggling between upholding the righteousness of the protagonist's actions, but also highlighting their costs and consequences. I am not familiar with the original text, but I did like the ways in which the filmmakers chose emphasise the true cost of the women's 'noble' act. 

The movie gets very dark, but what really endeared it to me was how it leavened the drama with dollops of dark wit, largely framed around Singh's self-aware performance. The Sultan's musical number 'Khalibali', in which he boasts of how his love for Padmavati has made him 'aloof' from the world's problems ends with him being filled with an assassin's arrows. 

There are only six songs, but apart from  'Khalibali' they do not fit the stereotype of musicals. Co-writer/directer Sanjay Leela Bhansali was also the film's composer, and his integration of the music into the story is so subtle but extremely effective.

From a production standpoint, the movie looks great. I saw it in a traditional 2D screening, but I almost regret not splurging for the IMAX 3D. There are some terrific uses of mobile camerawork, and the hyper-real sound design (the women's defiant screams as they charge into the inferno pursued by a frenzied Khilji, are haunting) is really effective.

Padmaavat is just an all-round great movie. You don't have to be a fan of Indian cinema. It stands on its own legs - and Ranveer Singh's performance is worth the price of a ticket by itself.

Check it out.

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