This is a tricky one, on the one hand there is so much in it that I really want to go through step by step and make sure I don’t miss anything. On the other hand, there isn’t enough in it (and I don’t want to spend so much time) for me to do a “real” scene by scene, shot by shot, style discussion. So I’m gonna do kind of a half one. Sort of like I did for Bajirao. Go through everything that happened, but not in super detail. (no spoiler review is here)
We start with an Ostrich. In the court of Julaludin Khilji/Raza Murad. The ostrich comes in, followed by Ranveer, much less interesting than the ostrich. On purpose. Ranveer here is styled as an average young man, shortish hair, clean shaven open face, plain black shirt. Some scars on his face and a little dust, but that is the extent of his character touches. Meanwhile, Raza Murad is made up with wig, beard, jowls, elaborate embroidered and furred clothes and hat.
Ranveer explains that Raza sent him to get a feather for his daughter Aditi Rao Hydari, and so Ranveer has brought the entire bird. Raza is so impressed by this, he offers anything Ranveer wants in return, and Ranveer asks for Raza’s “life”, that is, his daughter. Aditi is listening, and in response to this she looks wide-eyed and giggles. And I go “oh right! Bhansali women! Always lovely, always love obsessed, tend to giggle a lot while wearing elaborate costumes”.
(Aditi is great casting for the role, such a naturally delicate face)
In the next scene, Aditi is dressed up Persian/Turkish style with elaborate gold chains around her face and so on enjoying her wedding banquet, but Ranveer is missing. One of the old bearded men goes looking for him, and finds him in big fancy embroidered clothing making out with a random (willing) woman in the hallway. He tries to remonstrate with Ranveer, and in return Ranveer stabs him, and then turns to grab the woman again with his bloodied hands and have sex with her possibly not consensually any more. Before going to join the wedding dance in crazed glory, flashing his bloodied hands as he dances. And a woman goes and speaks to Aditi, clearly telling her what has just happened in the hallway, Aditi looks horrified.
This is a great anti-hero introduction! Starting with him as a seemingly average hardly noticed or remembered young man. He does one great(ish) act, bringing in the ostrich, and is able to marry the daughter of a powerful man. But after he has achieved that first bit of power, his true character begins to be revealed. Power has unlocked cruelty and desire and madness. And the first to fully realize this is his new young wife, now tied to him.
(He seems a little crazy, but in a youthful boyish way, like this. It is only later that his true nature is revealed, and yet Ranveer’s performance ties that charming young man together with the manic older man we see later)
If only it weren’t surrounded by troubling aspects. Ranveer and Aditi, I have no issues. But Raza I do. There is no reason for Aditi’s father to be presented as also a slave to bodily desires, gorging himself on good ever time we see him, covered in fur and long hair like an animal. 30 years ago there would be no reason for him not to be presented that way, but there have been 30 years of Hindutva propoganda specifically describing Muslims as innately uncontrolled and desirous, and this presentation falls within that.
I want to draw a clear line. Ranveer’s presentation is, to me, simply presenting this one particular person. And it doesn’t go far beyond the historical reality, simply takes the darkest view of it. It is the court surrounding him where the details have been filled in by images borrowed from RSS recruitment material. Raza being the most glaring example.
And Aditi is the best exception. Sensitive, intelligent, kind, and devout in the best possible way. She also falls, partially, within the stereotype of the sensitive Muslim woman tragically surrounded by cruel Muslim men. But, again to me, she feels like a reasonable real character, a good interesting character, the woman who truly fell in love with the “fake” Ranveer, the simple carefree young man he pretended to be, and then suffered for years for that mistake in judgement. If Ranveer had been the same, and the court around him had been more neutral, then Aditi’s supremely “good” Muslim would have balanced his supremely “bad” Muslim, making it clear that Ranveer’s evil came from within, not his society. But instead the society surrounding them titled towards cruelty already.
Meanwhile, in Sringhal/Sri Lanka, beautiful perfect Deepika is running through a perfect CGI forest aiming at a perfect CGI deer. It’s a lovely fairy tale kind of look to it, very Bahubali, and then at the end of her chase, she shoots an arrow, and spins with the camera to reveal Shahid Kapoor struck and pinned to a tree. Deepika takes him to a Buddhist temple (ASOKA! WOOT! Brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka! Well, his son did. Aryan should totally play that role someday, right?) for treatment, then learns he is a royal guest of her royal father. Naturally, they fall in love. In the middle of which, Shahid says he came for pearls and flashes back to why. His first wife was angry with him for giving away a pearl necklace that was a wedding gift to her and insisted on him getting a replacement, even if the pearls were only available in Sri Lanka.
Now, this is interesting! First, my friend that I saw the film with didn’t realize this woman was his wife. Which was partly because she didn’t realize plural marriage was so common among Hindu royalty, but also because the film doesn’t make it super super super super super clear that she is his first wife. I can kind of understand why, after all Bhansali just did that plot in Bajirao, why go back to the “a man torn between two women” well? And it also makes sense as a character moment. I sort of love this introduction to their marriage. They are still going through the motions, but there is no natural understanding between them. He didn’t think she would care about the necklace, she doesn’t understand his need to give elaborate gifts to a guest, but he is doing his job as a husband, he is willing to go all the way to Sri Lanka just to make her feel better. But the marriage is clearly already dying, his falling in love with another woman was not a huge betrayal but rather inevitable. However, I do feel like just a slight change, seeing Shahid ever touch his first wife in a way that made it clear they were husband and wife rather than brother and sister, would make it more obvious that Shahid is human and has the same human desires as anyone else instead of making him appear far beyond such things in his pretty perfect fairy tale love.
(It also would have given Anupriya more to do. She kind of stole the show in the few scenes she was given, and she was very good in Tiger Zinda Hai, I wish she had more scenes in this)
Oh, and Deepika of course is overcome with joy at his proposal and offer to take him back with him to Mewar, because she is a Bhansali woman and they all just want to be with the man they love, no consideration of their own life and needs and desires.
They arrive in Chittor, the grand fort/royal city. Anupriya Goenka, Shahid’s first wife, resentfully welcomes Deepika, and we learn that Deepika was beloved of everybody etc. etc. And we see her hanging out with her ladies, giggling and talking about boys (again, Bhansali women, never talk politics or anything else interesting). They are joking about her first “Ghoomar” dance, which will be witnessed by her husband but no other man.
This is, again, a very very nice small character moment. The first of many times when we see how Deepika is slowly being turned from a Sri Lankan to a Rajput. Her clothes have already changed, heavy red saris instead of light flowing Kameez. And now she is learning of their tradition of the Ghoomar dance, eager to learn it and to do it well. This is her character journey, going from the outsider to the one who is more noble and dedicated than anyone else. From the modern political side of things, a few small tweaks to how this story is presented, and it could have been a glorious statement of national identity as something that is learned, not inborn. But instead, Dips’ journey is still there in these moments, but it is overshadowed by Ranveer and Shahid and the immigrant-to-local journey is hidden.
Meanwhile, back in the north, Raza considers going against the Delhi Sultanate, but is concerned because whoever holds Delhi will be expected to drive back the Mongols. But Ranveer declares the Mongols are not a concern. I like that we never see the Delhi Sultanate they are talking about. It is left open that the Sultanate they depose is run by decent reasonable men. It is only Raza and Ranveer and their followers (excepting Aditi) who are on this edge of violence and madness.
Ranveer does drive back the Mongols, but we don’t see it. Instead we see him looking at the battlefield, then a lot of dust, then Ranveer riding into the dust and out again holding a Mongol head on a spear. This was the first moment that made me go “Wait, what did they spend 1.9 billion Rupees ON?????”
I don’t actually mind being cheated of the battle, in fact I think it was a brilliant creative choice, to keep the focus on the character of Ranveer rather than be distracted by the big battles. But truly, there are no set pieces here that are any larger than what we saw in Bajirao, or Devdas even. And yet the budget is SO MUCH higher! It kind of makes me think about the theory that part of the reason the controversy and release were handled so shoddily was because of a tax scam, trying to make sure the film took a lose. It just seems like there must have been a lot of money hidden in it somewhere, because it certainly didn’t show onscreen.
(Nothing in this film comes even close to this song. Also, happy birthday again Kavita!)
We go back to Mewar at this point to check in on Dips and the gang. She meets the wise Brahmin of the kingdom, the king’s chief adviser, whose character name and actor I cannot find! So I will call him “Brahmin”. He asks her a series of questions which reveal both her wisdom, and his. And gives her his blessing. It is all very Hindu and respectful and so on. Which just makes the twist later that much more interesting.
And then, “Ghoomar”! By the way, I’ve seen comments and stuff online about “I wish I had seen the uncut version of the film” or whatever. This IS the uncut version!!!!!! I know that not just because I watch movies incredibly closely and I could not find an odd moment in it to indicate a cut, no line of dialogue that refers to something we didn’t see, no storyline left hanging. It’s possible, even probable, that there was something Bhansali shot and ended up not using, but I am almost positive this is the final director’s cut that we are seeing right now. It is very different from, for instance, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Which was clearly missing scenes. And the DVD release revealed that yes, it was. Not many, but about 5 minutes of screen time cut to remove Fawad Khan, which made the plot feel kind of more whole somehow. The only blatant obvious change is the awkward CGI covering up Deepika’s torso in Ghoomar. That’s the only change, no more than (for instance) what was done to the “Choli Ke Peeche” number in Khalnayak. A slight addition of modesty, making her performance slightly less sexual. That’s it, that’s the only change to the content of the film.
(This is the edited version, you can see the sort of awkward red effect on Dips’ torso. Also, another moment in Dips’ journey of becoming more Rajput than the Rajput’s by birth)
And then we go back up north! Where Raza is learning that after his latest successful battle with the Mongol’s, Ranveer didn’t even bother to come back and give Raza tribute right away, returning to his own stronghold first. Which leads to a fascinating confrontation between them, and the introduction of my favorite character/performer!
Raza arrives and declares he has brought a gift, a slave. It seems like it might be a job, because the slave is veiled in white silk, as though it is a beautiful woman, but is revealed to be Jim Sarbh, a man. Who declares that he will do anything Ranveer wants. And Ranveer casually asks him to kill the two guards holding him. And then turns back to Raza to thank him for the gift, and Raza asks about the new red jewel he is wearing. Ranveer resists giving it to him, Raza grabs it and tries to snap the chain, Ranveer pulls away, Raza snaps it anyway. And then Jim Sarbh kills the two guards, as asked, and Ranveer grabs Raza in an embrace and kills him.
Oh! I forgot a thing! We see Ranveer just before this “celebrating” his victory by throwing pearls on a woman standing in chains holding two torches, clearly being punished. She is the princess of his recently conquered territory and is refusing to bow to him. This might be a reference to Aluaddin’s third wife, Hindu princess of a conquered territory. Her child became Aluaddin’s successor. Again, a sign that the historical Aluaddin was a brutal conqueror, but not a religious maniac, his religion was separate from that to the point that even his own wife was not necessarily forced to convert and his half-Hindu son was his successor. And again, in terms of Ranveer’s role in this film, I don’t necessarily need for that information to be added. His villainy in particular is clearly just something that is driving him. But I would like for something to indicate that there were Hindus in the greater society around him and they were just as good or bad as the Muslims.
This tiny scene of Ranveer with his maybe second wife does establish him as a sado-masochist. And not one of the good ones who do it with mutual consent and just for fun, but one of the bad ones who can only enjoy themselves when the other party is not enjoying themselves. We had hints of this in his early scenes, but this moment confirms it. In a very nice PG13 kind of way, there is no needless rape or titillating sexual images, but it is clear that this character enjoys seeing women afraid of him and is frustrated by this particular woman refusing to show fear. Oh, and there is the tiny beautiful narrative construction moment of Ranveer using pearls as an attack, a weapon, while for Shahid and Deepika, pearls were what brought them together in the first place. It’s the little things like that which I appreciate, and make me realize how much better constructed this film is versus Bhansali’s last few films.
(Pearls! Are they usually a symbol of sexytimes, or is it just this song that makes me think that?)
Meanwhile, back in Mewar, Shahid and Deepika are having a sweet wholesome marital night of love. Shahid barely touches her, but her hair is down, and things are romantic. And then suddenly Shahid throws his knife and goes to the door because someone is watching them. There is no one there, but there is blood on the knife, he hit someone. And Deepika notices the scent of sandalwood, and reminds him that there is only one person in his kingdom who uses sandalwood. And so the I-don’t-know-the-actor Brahmin is brought in. He protests innocence, but Shahid throws back his drapery to reveal the scar. And declares that for the crime of spying on the Queen in private, he will be thrown in the dungeon. Not executed, because it is wrong to kill a Brahmin. Deepika stops him, says that such a poison should not stay in the kingdom, and suggests banishment instead. The Brahmin leaves, which threats to destroy them all.
I find this Brahmin character so FASCINATING!!!! In the best possible way. He is inconsistent in a way that you can keep puzzling and puzzling over, but doesn’t feel like just a poorly written character. He is wise and has some minor mystical powers, enough to read people and see some details of their past. But he is also petty. He desires the Queen, enough to spy on her. And he wants revenge for disrespect, just like anyone else.
The Brahmin-Shahid-Deepika interaction is very Puranic, in the best possible way. Hindu stories are rife with lessons on the balance of power, on the struggle to always choose the right path, on the conflict of human desire versus duty. A Brahmin who is wise and powerful, but also weak and petty. A King who is trying to do his duty to the Brahmin as he is trained, but also protect his kingdom. A wise queen who sees an alternative option. There is a wonderful theme here of the ultimate corruption of all religious figures, the abuse of power through the respect they have forced others to give them, and so on and so on. Only, again like Deepika’s assimilation story, it is a little hidden under the other themes that are dominating the film as it is in this moment of release.
(Amrish Puri plays a magnificent evil Brahmin/witch doctor type.)
And now we have the parallel version of this same story in Ranveer’s kingdom. Ranveer is now Sultan of Delhi. And he takes his crown to bed with him with Aditi, who is (understandably) a bit uninterested and reluctant considering that he just killed her father. There is also a brilliant moment here where Ranveer suggests an alternative view of the murder. That the Sultan was aging an weak, needed new blood, Sultan’s are always created this way, and so on and so on. Another theme! Through out the film there are moments of questioning history. Ranveer provides the alternative version here, later he will actually be burning historical texts. It’s not that Bhansali is presenting the “true” version of events, he is being careful to show us how history is manipulated, there is no “true” version necessarily. The scene ends with Ranveer putting the crown on Aditi’s head, pulling it down over her eyes. And then noticing music playing and calling for Jim Sarbh, who has been listening and watching outside the chamber. Jim runs away and then back as though he was coming from farther and gets Ranveer’s order to find the flute player and have him brought before him the next day.
Deepika and Aditi are both wives being slowly covered in their husband’s identity rather than their own. Jim Sarbh and the Brahmin are both advisers eager for more power and respect from the one they serve, and driven by inappropriate desires to eavesdrop on their private chambers. Aditi and Anupriya are both first wives who have grown farther and farther apart from their husbands. There are all kinds of pairings carefully arranged in the script to make us see how all of these people are essentially the same except for one being “good” and one being “bad”. Or rather, being varying shades of grey.
The next day The Brahmin is brought before Ranveer, of course it was him playing the flute. He reads details of Ranveer’s life, that the red jewel now in his crown was important and so on. He has real Brahmin powers, this is not presented as trickery. It adds to the fairy tale/magical realism feel of the film. But then he lies (possibly), telling Ranveer that the beautiful Queen of Padmavat will be what makes him the ruler of the whole world, he must conquer her.
This is the central argument of the film, that Ranveer possessing, or even seeing, Deepika will somehow be more-bad than what he has already done to other women. It is left open as to whether that is because she really will make him ruler of the world, or because Ranveer believes that. This is not simply desire, this is a goal he sets for himself to achieve. Failure is more than disappointment, it breaks him entirely. Perhaps possessing her would not have been some magical tool to unlock the world, but certainly FAILING to possess her makes him weak.
And I’ll stop there! I think I am about a quarter into the film, which is pretty good, should be done with the whole film in just a couple more posts. Oh, and don’t worry, I’ll deal more with Jim Sarbh’s character in later parts.