Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat arrives on the big screen with all the pageantry and spectacle one would expect to be lavished on a Bollywood historical epic the sports one of the highest price tag in that country’s film industry’s history. A tale of love, honor and envy, it plays out across its nearly three hour run time with an air of poker-faced solemnity usually reserved for widescreen Hollywood Biblical epics of the 1950s and early 1960s. And the fact that the film’s epic poem roots may be unfamiliar to a majority of western audiences actually plays in the film’s favor.
The film tells the tale of Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) a Rajput queen reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. When Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), a warrior who has helped his uncle conquer half of India and who is fueled by a lust for power and to posses beautiful objects, hears of Padmavati’s beauty, he wants her for his own. It is no matter that she is already married to Rajput ruler Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). Alauddin takes his army and begins an ultimately unsuccessful siege on Chittor, a cliff-side fort where Ratan Singh and his court are. After several months, a truce is declared, which is almost immediately broken when Alauddin captures Ratan Singh, leaving Padmavati to mount a rescue.
Based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem written in 1540, there are still some elements that would feel familiar to western audiences. In broad strokes, portions of the narrative echo the traditional Greek legends of Helen of Troy. In execution, the parts of the siege feel as if they owe a cinematic debt to Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King and it’s siege of the city-fort of Minas Tirith by an orc army.
Bhansali’s film has had a somewhat controversial path to the screen. While still in production, it came under protest from a handful of Hindu sects over concerns that story, which is considered a sacred text by some, would not be presented in a way that they hoped would be respectful. Even if you weren’t aware of the controversy surrounding the film’s release in India, the long disclaimer stating that the film is based off of a work of fiction and that there may be things in the film that are not historically accurate to the time period it is set in would probably have been a good indication that something was up. (The film also apparently makes numerous streamlinings of the original material, jettisoning some plotlines and all supernatural elements.)
If the protesters, primarily Hindus, had just waited until the film was actually released and then seen it for themselves before they got themselves into a lather, they could have saved themselves considerable time and energy. Setting aside any historical inaccuracies the filmmakers may have used to embellish their story, one discovers that the film is quite reverent to its Hindu characters, particularly Ratan Singh and Padmavati. The pair’s actions are always above reproach, and they make certain to inform us on multiple occasions that everything that they do is in accordance with their own honor code. And they make these decisions even when they know that the consequences could negatively impact them in the future.
Of course, paragons of virtue seldom make for interesting characters. And that is a bit of the case here. The trials that the pair go through do hold our attention, especially for those of us not familiar with the original source material and the film’s spectacle and design are strong enough to fuel the film’s dramatic thrust for most of its three-hour running time. Fortunately, when things start to flag, Singh’s energetic but not quite-cartoonish performance as Allaudin steps in to perk things up.
But despite the lack of depth, internal conflict and complexity to the heroes of this tale, they do remain intriguing for their strict adherence to their own code of honor. In this way, they fall into the same category as the cowboys of a John Ford western, the Hong Kong gangsters of one Johnny To’s crime dramas and the samurai of numerous Akira Kurosawa films. And that makes this, despite all its cultural- specific trappings, a story universal enough to cross over to all audiences.