(part 2 here)
So, I just finished a 7 part summary of Dilwale, with images, references to film history, star personas, the director’s previous work, the deeper meaning of certain lines and acting choices, and what it all might mean in terms of the careers of the stars. Read it! I had a lot of fun with it!
In contrast, Bajirao, eh. I’m guessing I can knock this thing out in like 3 parts. There just isn’t as much there to talk about. I mean, it’s pretty? If you want just the high points, I already put up a bullet point version of the plot. If you want details, and political-historical-social analysis, keep reading. And if you actually really liked this movie, DO NOT READ. I basically rip it to shreds. And if you haven’t seen the movie, PLEASE READ. If you are like me, you will have a lot more fun reading this than you would watching the picture.
So, let me look back at my bullet points. Right! The first thing I saw, was horses. I came in 20 minutes late, after getting stuck in traffic, having the ticket machine reject one credit card and then eat the tickets I bought with the second one. These should have been signs that this movie was not going to be for me. And I wasn’t that excited to begin with, Dilwale I was there opening night, with 7 friends, in my nicest dress, hair done, make-up, and jewelry (I ALWAYS dress up for Shahrukh). Bajirao, I’m stumbling in to a weekend matinee after it’s been out two weeks, in sweatpants and a day old braid.
And then I come in 20 minutes late, and I actually missed stuff! As I said in another post, this is basically unIndian! If the movie was truly meant to be watched in the theater (as Indian films usually are), then nothing should have happened in the first 20 minutes, just fun filler. So right away, I am feeling unwelcome and incorrect, and also like I really should have just waited until it was streaming on Eros Now to hate-watch it while answering emails (like I did for Ram-Leela).
So, right, horses! Dips and Ranveer are riding horses, both in full armor, in profile, and making lovey eyes at each other. And Dips has HER HAIR DOWN!!! This is so infuriating! I mean, it’s always infuriating when actresses are forced to have pretty pretty hair in jobs in which it would be impractical (I just finished a re-watch of the first few seasons of ER, and as the quality goes down, the practicality of the female character’s hair does as well. You’re in an ER! Wear a ponytail!). But in this case, it is particularly infuriating, because it tells us what the director’s priorities for this character are going to be.
First, she is allowed to be a warrior, only so long as she is still super pretty and romantic while doing war stuff (I understand I missed her intro, where her hair was hidden by the helmet, allowing for a dramatic reveal. But that just makes this worse, we know previously she had practical hair, but now that she is in luuuuuurv, it is all down and flowy).
Second, this is a social statement. In India, traditionally, unmarried women have their hair down and loose, or braided. Only married women wear it in a bun, and only dirty rotten feminazis cut it short (“short-haired women” is actually a slur conservative politicians use). Through out the film (Spoilers!), Deepika will continue to have her hair mostly down, and long, while Piggy Chops (Nickname Piggy Chops comes from here. I use it not as an insult, but just like I use Dips, because it is an accepted nickname which is easier to spell/type) always has hers up. Which tells you what the true attitude and politics of the filmmaker are towards the validity of Dips’ character’s marriage. And her feminism.
So, right, battle. Next bullet point in my notes, “flags”. I found this really really disturbing. They are going into battle under a saffron flag, while the “enemy” fights under a green one. Okay, maybe this is historically accurate, but I don’t care about history, I care about the present day, where mobs under saffron flags carry swords and kill people, claiming that they owe their true allegiance to the green flag of Pakistan.
(notice that the Aamir effigy’s head is wrapped in a green flag. I’m not going to put up pictures of the actual riots, because they are way too much of a downer for a Monday!)
Anyway in the film, the saffron flags kill all those horrible people under the green flags! Woo! Including the head bad guy, who is on an elephant directing his troops, instead of down there in the muck like our good saffron flag leader (Muslim rulers=effete and elitist and cowardly). Bajirao, in that cool thing from the trailer, has his men create step stools by holding up their shields, so he can climb up to the height of the elephant and knock down the head green flag guy with his big fwippy sword. Woo, the Hindu common man knocking down the elitist Muslims! That’s right, put them right in the dirt, below our heels, where they belong!
And then, battle over, Dips and Ranveer find each other in the battlefield, surrounded by their falling enemies, her unmarried hair flying in her face, and make more love eyes at each other. Suddenly! A green-flag enemy comes at Ranveer from behind (tricky, that’s what those green-flag people are!). Dips rushes forward to save him, and gets hit (also, not respecting of women! Unlike us good saffron flag types!). Ranveer kills the guy, and then rushes over to pick Dips up in his arms, lifts her onto his horse, and personally carries her back to the safety of the palace. Okay, that’s a pretty cool shot.
(I know I hit the stereotype button pretty hard there, but when you have constant shots of the green flags versus the saffron flags, that’s where my mind, and the minds of most audience members, I think, are going to go. It’s like saying, in America, that the Confederate flag is just historical. Sure, it has a historical meaning, but it also has a contemporary meaning, and those two can’t really be separated.)
So, next bullet point, “Water-fountain”. By which I mean, we see Ranveer cleaning up after battle in an anteroom of the palace, and I am sure it is some historical accurate water source, but it really looks just like the water fountain in the hallway of my elementary school. Is it possible they filmed this whole thing at Butler elementary? Were there elephants hiding the swing sets? Probably not.
So, at the water fountain, he asks about the condition of Dips, post romantic wound, and is told that she is romantically wounded (so, painful, but not life-threatening or unattractive). Cut to Dips, lying (laying?) in her chamber, looking artistically weakened. So, big loose white clothes and a sort of delicate flopping on her bed. Her handmaidens giggle about, all “oo, he’s so handsome! Let’s not talk about how we were just saved from a siege in a terrible battle where hundreds died because we are girls and don’t think about things like that! Or really think about anything at all!” And then Ranveer shows up! Giggle giggle giggle! He asks to enter, and Dips makes him wait until she gives permission, and then immediately gives it. Because when checking on the health condition of someone who saved your life on the battlefield, the most important thing is coy flirtation.
Dips gives her handmaidens permission to disperse. And Ranveer comes in. He insists on seeing the injury for himself, and she turns her back and loosens her robe so he can look at the big red slash that highlights the elegant line of her back (Dips has a really long torso, doesn’t she?). He pulls out his dagger, heats it in a flame, and then presses against the wound. Okay, I feel like there is a metaphor here? What could it be? She has a gaping red hole, he has a hot pointy thing that is going in it? Sanjay Leela Bhansali, you are just too subtle for me!
Metaphorical virginity taken, he leaves immediately. Just like a man! But he still has chance to see her again, because her father insists that she perform for The Men that night to celebrate Holi. Which she does, and it is very pretty and on a stone pavilion with big thrones at one end with big fans. Its one of those sets (and there are many of them over the course of this film), that we only see once and which must have taken thousands of rupees, and thousands of man hours, to create. And I don’t think it was worth it. I mean, they are all very pretty, but SLB could have gotten the same effect by re-using the same sets over and over again. It just feels like expense for expenses sake, and I don’t know why people keep giving him the money to waste.
So, song, “red-hands” is in my notes. Dips keeps moving her hands and showing that the palms are red, and so do her handmaidens/back-up dancers. It is Holi, so that makes sense. But I’m also getting a kind of dirty handjob vibe from it, possibly just as an after effect of that metaphorical sex scene. But I am also getting sort of a vibe that they wanted to use the courtesan hand decoration style, but couldn’t because this is all Hindu-Hindu-Hindu, and that would be Muslim-Muslim-Muslim. Oh, also, I am reminded again that Dips has really really big hands. I noticed it in “Ajab Si” in Om Shanti Om, and I can’t unsee it. I mean, they are pretty and graceful hands, but they are huge!)
(as you can see here, a traditional courtesan hand decoration would be the fingers painted red all on both sides, and a big red circle in the center of the palm. It kind of looks like they did a really bad job putting on red nail polish, but once you get used to it, it is actually a cool way of highlighting hand movements during a performance.)
Post dance, Dips and her head handmaiden are talking while she looks in the mirror. You know, about politics and trade treaties and religion and literature and stuff. No, of course not! It’s about boys. Ranveer has asked for some post-dinner Paan to be brought to him in his chamber, and the handmaiden suggests that Dips does it as an excuse to see him again. Dips points out that she doesn’t need an excuse, because she is “married to his dagger”. I think this is a really explicit euphemism to tell the audience that they had real sex, not just metaphorical. But then she pulls out an actual dagger (still not a euphemism), and explains that he gave it to her, and in their local custom, that means they are now married! Head handmaiden points out that he may not be aware of their local custom. Dips argues that doesn’t matter, she considers them married.
Okay, I said earlier that I don’t like this movie because it is un-Indian. But the whole “our obscure local custom means we are married!” thing is super super Indian filmi! From the classy films like Parineeta, to the massy films like Chennai Express, to the sexy classics like Beta.
(sexy! Thank goodness he blessed her in front of her whole village, so now they are married! You know it’s real, because now she has her hair up)
So, Dips goes along the corridors of Butler elementary (probably not), to the room where Ranveer is staying. He is sitting up, snoring, but snaps awake and grabs his sword a moment before she comes into the room. Okay, that’s a cool “always a warrior!” character moment. Anyway, she stands at the entrance and sexily offers him paan. And then comes into the sleeping chamber. He’s all “I will leave in the morning and never return.” She’s all “I don’t care! At least we have this night!” That’s not a male fantasy AT ALL.
So, next morning, he’s leaving, while hundreds of people throw flowers under his horses feet, etc. etc. If I were living in this kingdom, I would be so angry about having to do that. My brother just died in battle! I want to have the funeral and figure out the estate and grieve in peace! But nooooooooo, I have to dress up and go stand on the city walls and throw rose petals and put a brave face on it all! So, yeah, he leaves. But Dips isn’t there!
Handmaiden finds her in her rooms, poking at fabric with a needle. Lace-making? And then they have a conversation about her craft project, and how she likes to feel she is contributing to the household with the work of her hands, and what design she is using, and so on. No, of course not! They talk about boys! (giggle giggle). Handmaiden points out Dips didn’t go to say good-bye, Dips points out that that leaves her more open for a further communication, and means the interlude is not fully ended. Women, with their psychological game playing!
So, back to Ranveer. He is arriving in his kingdom, more petals before his path. I’m getting worried about the agricultural policies of these kingdoms. “No, we can’t use those fields for wheat, we need more roses! What if there is a sudden visit from a hot guy? We must always be prepared! The people can starve, so long as there are still enough citizens left to throw roses as needed!”
And, Piggy Chops! All married looking! Hair up, jewelry on (including Mangalsutra), sari wearing. She and her handmaidens are preparing puja trays to greet Ranveer (she’s Hindu, you know). Ranveer arrives, giggle giggle, she goes to greet him. Because even when your husband has returned from war, it is important to be flighty and flirty and not imply that a woman’s mind ever turns to thoughts beyond sex. So yeah, giggle giggle, let’s go look at our bed-chamber!
So, apparently this is a new palace that was built in his absence? I don’t know who supervised it. Do you think Piggy Chops was smart enough to look at architects’ plans and arrange comfortable air flow and logical spaces for the hundreds of inhabitants ranging from servants to potential royal guests? Naaaaaah. There must have been a man about somewhere who did all that, and then just surprised her with the results, so she could jump up and down and clap her little hands in delight.
For just a moment, in the bed-chamber, Piggy dares to mention that it is kind of hard when he goes off to war, and she wishes he wouldn’t. And then she immediately apologizes for ever daring to express a thought that isn’t somehow procreative sex related. And lets him put his hand on her head while she takes off his armor so they can have sex in the new bed and make more boy children.
And then the scene that made the historian in me rise up in anger. Post-procreational sex, Ranveer and his son are being taken on a full tour of the new palace. Oh how nice, now that he has had sex, I guess he has time to be a father and a ruler! Good to know his priorities are in order. Anyway, his steward is showing him the fancy new performance space they made, all lined with mirrors, which is “as good as the Mughals”. Okay, I get that the underlying message her is “As good as Mughal-E-Azam, that classic of Indian cinema which had the big dance number in a mirrored hall”. And first, no, this is not as good as Mughal-E-Azam.
(notice how, in Mughal-E-Azam, you actually have sympathy for the characters. That’s one of those subtle signs of a good movie you learn about in grad school)
But secondly, the other message is “See, our Hindu Maharashtrian Empire was just as wealthy and powerful and artistic as the Mughals!” Which is just not true! AT ALL!!!! The Mughal Empire was one of the top 5 empires in the history of the world! It’s up there with the British, the Zulus, and the Romans. Massive territory, massive artistic and scholarly advances, massive administrative advances (tax codes, law codes, that fun stuff), and also massive military advances. The Maharashtrian kingdom was great, and we should talk about it and make movies about it, but it is ludicrous to pretend it is on the same level as the Mughals.
Oh, and there is also a plot thing in this conversation that I would have missed because I was still so angry at the Mughal comparison, except that Bhansali all but drew big flaming arrows on the screen saying “Plot point here! Remember for later!!!” So, yeah, the performance hall has this thing where if you stand in a certain spot it will activate a mirror which reflects into a pool in Piggy Chop’s rooms, and then if she lowers a cloth just right, she can see whatever is on that particular spot at that moment. What possible purpose could there be in designing such a thing? Beyond to set it up for FUTURE PLOT POINT, PAY ATTENTION HERE!!!
Meanwhile, back in Dips’ kingdom, she is telling her royal father and courtesan mother that she has to travel to Ranveer’s place in Maharashtra and see him again, because she is in “Luuuuurv”. Mom points out that even in her home kingdom, she is not fully accepted, since her mother is Muslim and her father is Hindu and their union isn’t recognized. I realize for the first time, seeing Dips and her mother next to each other, that Dips is always dressed in a very Muslim/Mughal style. Long, loose, layered Churidar. Why? She was raised in a Rajput kingdom, where would she even get clothes like that? Unless she makes them herself, is that what she was working on to distract herself when Ranveer left? I mean, I know why, it’s because she is Muslim-Muslim-Muslim, and exotic, and courtesan-y, whereas Piggy Chops is all Hindu Married Woman. But it is just so blatant!
(this kind of outfit)
Also blatant, this conversation! In response to the argument from her parents that the union may not be recognized, especially since her mother is Muslim, she responds “But my father is Hindu! And I worship both Gods equally.” Okay, two things here. First, thank goodness! I thought this might be an inter-religious romance, but she’s half Hindu! And, as we learn later in this same film, in Hinduism the religion/caste comes from the father. And secondly, isn’t one of the 5 pillars of Islam “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet”? So you can be Hindu and Muslim, but you can’t be Muslim and Hindu, if that makes sense. Hinduism can live in harmony with Islam, but Islam cannot live with Hinduism. So I guess she is Muslim in that she wears exotic outfits and and is “forbidden”, but not so much in other ways. So, yeah, Dips is leaving.
Meanwhile, Ranveer is bathing and maybe thinking about Dips. Piggy Chops is watching from a corner, trying not to interrupt him. He sees her, and laughs at her attempt to respect his privacy and pretend she has a life outside of gazing at him. Then, he goes over and corners her and pours water over her. And then takes her over to the bathing platform and smears cosmetic mud-milk paste over her sexily while they have sex. And I get that milk is all sexy and semen-metaphory (see also: conception of Ram), but you got that stuff in her hair! And on her silk sari, and in the links of her jewelry. It’s just inconsiderate! Also inconsiderate, post-sex, she puts on his helmet (maybe to hide the gunk in her hair?) and pretends to be going to war with him. That’s not the inconsiderate part, the inconsiderate part is that he laughs and laughs in response. A woman! Riding a horse! Going to war! Not like Dips, but like a real woman trying it! You know, a Hindu one!
Speaking of Hindu women, cut to a traditional Hindu widow woman and young man in Maharashtrian court dress cataloging all the treasure sent in gratitude for saving Dips’ kingdom. And, one more thing has come with the treasure! A closed palanquin, from which steps Dips’ herself! Oh my goodness, who saw that coming! Not me, who just saw a scene in which Deepika says “I am going to travel to Bajirao’s kingdom!”
So, yeah, Widow lady says “who dat?” And Deepika says, “I am a princess!” Widow lady is all “oooo-kay, that’s nice, but a little weird!” And Deepika is all, “No no, I am married to your son! See, I have his dagger! Which isn’t a weird thing to say at all!” And widow lady takes a second, and then orders her taken to stay in the courtesan quarters, since she doesn’t actually recognize the validity of a dagger marriage. Doesn’t she realize it is a local custom! (can I say it is a local custom that I am married to Shahrukh because I saw Dilwale 5 times? And then show up on his doorstep and make Gauri take me in?)
So, Dips and her poor head handmaiden are in the courtesan quarters. For once, handmaiden is talking about something besides boys. Practical stuff like “our escorts are gone, we are in great danger, and being disrespected by the lady of the house, and these quarters are gross, we should go home.” Deepika, of course, ignores her. Because she knows it is not her proper place to have a conversation with anyone about anything besides True Luuuurv. Instead, she pulls out her sword and starts practicing with it. It looks really cool, especially one shot when she pulls it out of the sheaf above her head, and the camera looks down on her upturned face with the sword overlayed on it. But, what? That’s what the handmaiden’s face says, “What the heck? Sword practice?”. I mean, I get what they were going for, the character is preparing for battle. But maybe make it a little less literal, Bhansali? Because this just makes her look nutty.
And, song! That night, Ranveer has called the performers to entertain him, and Dips has taken the opportunity to leave with the other courtesans to perform. And they back her up perfectly! Did she spend the afternoon making friends and teaching them all the dance steps? Why didn’t we get to see that scene? Is it because it would involve women talking about something besides a man?
So, the song is fine, whatever, I am once again distracted by her loose hair, and her super Muslim-y outfit. For a movie whose supposed thrust is “see! She wasn’t really a courtesan and an unmarried woman, she was a respected wife!”, they sure are making the character look like a courtesan and an unmarried woman. Ranveer is transfixed! Piggy Chops is mildly amused. Song over, Ranveer leaves his throne to walk down to Dips on the dancing floor and hand her paan, which she receives with a silent salaam. Oh how nice and romantical and symbolic! Could she maybe have also said “hey, by the way, your mother stuck me in the courtesan quarters and I risked my life to come here and also I am married to your dagger”? Or maybe instead of giving her paan, he could say “Wait, how are you even here? And why did you come in with the courtesans?” But that wouldn’t have been as romantic.
Cut to, a white purdah tent being moved along through the castle corridors. I am forcibly reminded of how in British crime shows, they always put a tent up around the outdoor crime scenes. Oh how happy I would be if I were watching Scott & Bailey instead of this! Unfortunately, instead of a brutally killed murder victim, it’s Ranveer’s widowed Mom. See, all the traditional trappings of Hindu widowhood do nothing to harness her strength, which has been perverted by lack of a manly presence! We should do even more to isolate widows and remove their toxic presence from society!
So, yeah, she confronts Dips and is all “now that you have danced once, you must dance in public constantly! Why don’t you just go home? If not, here are some dancing bells to wear on your ankle.” Dips is all “truly, being called a sex worker is the greatest insult one can offer a woman, because everyone knows only procreational sex is acceptable and prostitution is always the woman’s fault. But I accept your insult because every torture I suffer in the name of True Lurv just serves to ennoble me further! Abused wives, remember, stay with your husbands even if your mother-in-law tries to kill you, it is the Indian Way.”
And then the next morning, Ranveer is hanging out with his buddies, and they are talking about how the king has called them to consult, and also, how hot was that dance last night! Wink wink, nudge nudge. Ranveer immediately goes all macho and “don’t disrespect my woman!” And then says “welp, no time to check on her well-being and find out why she was acting as a courtesan, I got to go talk to the Emperor! And my big romantic macho gesture was probably more important than actually doing anything boring and tedious.” And I’m just going to leave this video here:
(Not that Ranveer should wear a condom, although it couldn’t hurt, there wasn’t HIV in the 1600s, but they European ambassadors to the Mughal court might have brought in syphilis. No, the point is that there is a difference between being all publicly macho about your woman, and privately considerate)
So, off to the capital! There is a brief scene where Ranveer wants the Emperor to press harder against his enemies, and his cowardly steward protests. And then Ranveer agrees publicly, and once the King has left, privately lays his sword against the cowardly stewards neck and breaks his string of pearls. So I guess this is the “We could have won Vietnam if we really wanted to!” argument? The only reason the Maharashtrian kingdom didn’t wipe all the Muslims out of India is because they just didn’t want to try hard enough?
Also, since breaking a string of pearls is a common symbol for taking virginity, I am getting a bit of a creepy male-on-male rape as a domination technique vibe from this scene. But that is probably just me, and too many re-watches of “Kuch Na Kaho.”
(Wow, Manisha was pretty!)
So, domination scene over, celebration time! Let’s bring out the dancing girls! Because we respect high-caste married Hindu women, but everyone else is fair game! And, it’s Dips! Only, instead of dancing, she walks up to the King and lays (lies?) the bangles evil-Widow mother gave her at his feet. And she says she won’t dance, because she’s not like those women who turn to prostitution because they have no other employment options, she’s one of those women who marries a dagger. You know, classy. The king agrees with her, of course, courtesans are just the worst! Except when he orders them to dance for him and has a whole quarter just to house them! But otherwise, yeah, just terrible! Oh, and Ranveer finally manages to speak up and say that she saved his life in battle, so she really is kind of a classy lady. Not classy enough for him to take five minutes on his way out of town and check in on her, but you know, classy enough for him to speak up for in public when it will make him look brave and chivalrous to the adoring crowds.
So, the King asks what Dips wants in gratitude for saving Ranveer’s life, and she replied “Ranveer!” Oh my goodness! How romantic! Or not. The king gets to decide who Ranveer marries? Without asking him? Because Dips is a pretty lady and he figures that’s all he needs to know to know that Ranveer will want her? Also, Dips is all cool with knowing that Ranveer will never make any effort for her himself and it is up to her to make their dagger-marriage work? This is a terrible basis for a relationship! Have they even had a conversation before?
So, dark and stormy night. Ranveer wants to get a boatman to take him across the river, no one will take him. So he offers the magic ring that Piggy Chops gave him, which is supposed to have her prayers for his protection in it (Hindu prayers, so you know they will work). Okay, that’s kind of a cool Shakuntala reference. So, in Shakuntala (fabulous ancient Indian drama, you should really read the English translation, it’s short and available for free on Gutenberg), the Prince marries a forest woman (don’t worry, she’s Kshastriya, so it’s okay), but then loses his ring, which makes him forget her. Terrible things happen and other women try to ensnare him (including his first wife, who he ignores once he gets home. See previous post about commonality of plural marriages in Indian texts). And then he gets his ring back and all is good again and he remembers he loves his forest wife.
On the non-Shakuntala side of things, we have doom-doom-doom beating on the soundtrack, because he is giving up his good Hindu love token to go off and have sex with a Muslim woman (well, not too Muslim, but just Muslim enough). Meanwhile, poor Dips and her handmaiden are struggling to set up for the night in a ruined castle? Is this really where the King sticks his dancing girls? He really doesn’t respect them, does he? Also, the handmaiden is once again raising very reasonable points about the politics (no one respects them here and they are among enemies) and practicalities (it’s raining and there’s no roof) of their situation. Natrually, Dips ignores her and keeps dreaming over Ranveer.
Can I watch a movie about the handmaiden instead? Maybe she worked her way up from servant girl through her wits and loyalty and that’s why she is the only servant who remains with Dips? Maybe she had an unhappy love story back home, and rather than swooning over it, she decides to get over it and get moving by traveling to Pune with Dips? Maybe she falls in love with a handsome guard in Ranveer’s army and they save money and get to know each other’s families and get married once they can afford to buy a farm which will support themselves and their potential children?
Anyway, Ranveer shows up, and Dips leaves poor handmaiden to keep trying to create shelter and sleeping areas, while she and Ranveer get romantically married in the rain, in the presence of all the elements! After all, isn’t marriage more about nature and a vow between two people and all that than any societal constructs? Wait, no it isn’t! Marriage is totally a societal construct! If they just wanted to be married in the eyes of the elements, than what the heck is the difference between her being a wife and her being a courtesan?
Okay, I’m going to stop here, a little before intermission, because I want to have some space to talk about Mughal-E-Azam. Because, hey, they brought it up! Mughal-E-Azam has a very similar plot, powerful warrior falls in passionate love with dancing girl. But the lesson of that film is, giving up everything for love is wrong! I mean, by the end of the film, Prince Salim is going to war for his right to love a dancing girl. Men are dying for him, so he can see his girlfriend. Emperor Akbar, on the other hand, is going to war to teach Salim that he can’t do things like this, that there are more important things in the world, and way more important things to ruling an Empire, than romantic love. And the end of the movie implies that, by finally learning this lesson, Salim became a better ruler. The main goal is to be a better ruler, and a better person, for the improvement of society as a whole. Not to be a more passionate lover for your own selfish enjoyment.