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Film Review-Bajirao Mastani

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Sanjay Leela Bhansali returns with another visual spectacle that wilfully takes liberties with the past that it depicts. But it does manage to engage even as it exhausts.

Devdas onwards some elements have been a given in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s filmi universe. Especially, that he will place an intimate love story on a larger-than-life canvas and turn it into a grand, melodramatic spectacle. So he is unapologetic about wallowing in visual excess in his latest outing, Bajirao Mastani, as well. He also makes it amply clear in the disclaimer at the very start that though based on N.S. Inamdar’s Rau, his love triangle — of Peshwa Bajirao I, his first wife Kashi and second wife Mastani — is not a historically accurate narrative but one which takes liberties with the period, the setting and the story. Here Bajirao’s political battles, conquests and courtroom intrigues remain a mere backdrop to the more significant matters of heart.

In the Bhansali tradition, Bajirao Mastani does scream opulence; what with those fountains, chandeliers and drapes, and the headgears and jewellery that seem to weigh the actors down. There are many nods to Raja Ravi Varma kitsch with some scenes seeming straight out of his art. The extravagant setting is backed by a stylised operatic narrative, song ‘n dance set-pieces, declamatory dialogue, and emotions that are forever heightened. Crowds are in perfect geometry even as feelings are carefully choreographed. Notice how well Bajirao’s teardrop is orchestrated in the scene where he blows the lamps off and bids a sad farewell to his betrayed first wife Kashibai. One dramatic confrontation follows another. In fact, the confrontations, the argumentative characters, their high-strung interactions, and emotions are relentless. There is not a moment of silence. Even when there is, the pounding background music takes over.

But Bajirao Mastani gets more ambitious with what it intends to do. There is the Holi song which seems straight out of Pakeezah. There is the obvious nod to Mughal-E-Azam (Deewani Mastani, beautifully staged in the Aina mahal, hall of mirrors, a throwback to Pyaar kiya to darna kya). There are the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon inspired leaps and jumps in the combats and the 300: Rise Of An Empire like battle scenes.

Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra, Tanvi Azmi
Run time: 158 minutes
Bottomline: Bajirao’s political battles, conquests and courtroom intrigues remain a mere backdrop to the more significant matters of heart.

Wish Bhansali had kept the film less protracted and gone a little easy on the excess, especially in the overwrought climax, because there is something in Bajirao Mastani that reaches out and keeps you intensely engaged even as it wears you down. The Hindu-Muslim love angle could have been done with more depth and layer than mere talk of politics of colour — kesariya (saffron) and hara (green) — but is timely and relevant in the way it takes on religion and orthodoxy. The dialogue might be old-worldly (ishq, ibadat …) but the actors mouthing them are in great form. They help the passion and poignancy reach out. Ranveer Singh is charismatic and charming complete with the Marathi inflection in his lingo and those electric moves in Malhari (who cares whether Peshwas danced or not). Vulnerable yet macho, funny and flamboyant, his chemistry with Deepika holds well when they spar passionately. Deepika smoulders and looks radiant, as usual, but it is Priyanka, disappointingly absent from the first half, who is disarmingly warm and dignified in the second.

Some of the more interesting Bhansali tropes add to the film’s impact and appeal. The female bonding over a man in Devdas’s Dola re dola re becomes Pinga here. But it’s the trajectory and transformation of the two women that is worth noting. While Mastani starts all desire and defiance, she eventually turns docile in love. On the other hand, the docile and domesticated Kashibai accepts Mastani on her own terms even as she berates her husband. Her pride and dignity intact, she comes into her own when she loses out on love. While there is a strange passivity in Mastani’s fiery persona, there is strong resolve and cussedness in Kashi’s seeming passivity.

Lastly, it’s interesting how Bhansali is the closest ally women have in Bollywood when it comes to the female gaze. It’s not the coy, bashful one of the Charulata kind but that of the blatant voyeur. Be it the towel-wrapped Ranbir Kapoor in Saawariya or the glisteningly-oiled Ranveer Singh, all rippling muscles as he bathes away in a scene here, it’s the male body that is stared at and celebrated through the heroine, and, in turn, the filmmaker’s eye view. We are certainly not complaining.

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