This is a film that overwhelms you with its visual splendour and perfect detailing, but it fails to move you. Welcome to the paradoxical world of Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Bajirao Mastani is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus, a film that he dreamed of for a dozen years with the kind of passionate yearning that is visible in every frame. It is present in the swish of Mastani’s silk angarkha, the whiplash of Bajirao’s sword that draws choreographed arabesques in the air before slashing the enemy, the romantic flicker from hundreds of oil diyas, the rush of a cavalry riding headlong into battle, the top angle shots of a palace’s grandeur, the vastness of the landscape or the confined geometry of an inner courtyard of the Peshwa’s Shaniwarwada . It is an art director’s splendid craft meeting the demands of a perfectionist’s vision, all captured by a sweeping camera ( Sudeep Chatterji) adept at framing panoramic vistas and intimate spaces with equal felicity. Finally, Bhansali’s grandiloquent scale matched the subject – there was a huge mismatch in the earlier films.
There is nothing to complain about in the stunning imagery, one perfect image following another. It is a surfeit of visual pleasure that stuns with its consistency and eye for meticulous detail. But why does the film finally leave you so hollow, famished for emotional satisfaction? Except for Ranveer Singh’s warrior hero’s bravura, the drama of Mastani’s unforgettable entry (it recalls the superb Chinese martial arts epics) and Kashibai’s stoic dignity briefly breaking into rancour, the narrative makes no emotional impact. Bhansali declares before the film starts that his epic makes no claims of historical authenticity. His unevenly paced script, based on N. S. Inamdar’s novel Rau, just glances over the struggle between a rising Maratha power and a crumbling Mughal empire, with the pesky Deccan Nizam popping up to halt Bajirao’s triumphant march across central India. There is a cursory map of India in the beginning but soon, the voiceover tires of reading us lessons about early 18th century Indian history. It is obligatory for any director wanting to capsule the march of unfolding history in a voice over to watch Shatranj Ke Khilari. In his best unseen performance, Amitabh Bachchan’s voice captured the nuances of irony and tragic apathy that afflicted India’s ruling class with modulated inflections and a mastery of diction. Bhansali’s writing comes to life only when Bajirao preens and cuts his rivals down to size. Yes, Kashibai is given a range of emotions and her words have a cutting edge of pathos, betrayed pride and lingering bitterness. In contrast, Mastani’s speech is conventional, as if Bhansali is content to present this beauty at her statuesque best , dousing her initial fire under all the insults piled on her by the inimical Brahmin society of Pune.
It is finally Ranveer Singh’s film, and he delivers his best performance to date with controlled energy – unlike the excessive exuberance of Ramleela. His Bajirao is all bravado, and he swaggers through the film with feline grace. Bajirao is anointed without much ado as the second Peshwa by a rather indolent Chhatrapati, even though it leaves a few other ambitious courtiers fuming at the young warrior’s arrogance and effrontery. In his own words, Bajirao epitomizes cheete ki chaal aur baaz ki nazar. Luckily, Ranveer Singh lives up to his self-description.
Where Bhansali fails is in imparting dramatic impetus and emotional heft to this triangular tale of a man torn between loyalty to a loving, beautiful wife and the sudden passion for the warrior princess who not only reciprocates his love but takes the lead in following him to Pune. After their initial sizzling chemistry, spiced with the eroticism of swordplay (think Jodha Akbar), the legendary lovers pose to show off their lovely costumes, as if waiting for a photographer to capture the static moment. The real intimacy comes through the domesticity of Kashibai lurking around when her husband bathes and he pours a potful of water on her head, before sending her off to bed. Mastani is doomed to face serial humiliation at the hands of the Chitpavan Brahmins who rule the roost and more particularly from Bajirao’s widowed mother, the implacable Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi). Mastani may be royal, but her mother is a Muslim and this makes her fit only to be a dancing girl.
A point here about dance and associating it with a Muslim nautch girl. When Kashibai and the other women dance the Pinga, it is a festive celebration, but as far as Mastani is concerned, all she is fit for is a gift of ghungroos by the Peshwa’s mother, who acts like a dowager queen, despite her shaved head and white sari. Bhansali again has his two heroines in a dance off. In his world, two gorgeous women will assert and claim their power over the man by dancing together – and against each other, it is understood. If we consider a film’s hero as the director’s alter ego, what does it say about male vanity? It flatters the male ego to have two beautiful women fight over him – from Arth down to this latest lavish spectacle. No one asks, is the man is really worth fighting over?
A word about the songs and dances. They are an impediment to the true marriage of spectacle and dramatic emotion. Each is a set piece that really has no place in the narrative flow. It fades out without a link to the next scene that unfolds. Only two songs – Mastani’s dance in the Aina Mahal (this laboured tribute to Mughal e Azam is perfectly colour co-ordinated and choreographed, but you look in vain for Madhubala’s defiance) and the Ganpati arti – justify their presence. The rest is an indulgence in excess, true to Bhansali’s style.
Bajirao’s two wives – he considers Mastani to be his legal wife, whatever the Brahmin high priest says – express their devotion in different ways. Kashibai overcomes her anger and tends to her husband as he slowly dies of fever after being wounded in battle. A shackled Mastani dies at the precise moment Bajirao wades into the river, slaying phantom horse-borne soldiers before dying. Bhansali’s imagination is at his best in the prolonged scene of Bajirao’s fevered fantasy… it is far more haunting, with a hint of surrealism, than the routine grandeur of the earlier scenes. But trust him to mar the poetry with the synchronized predictability of Mastani breathing her last at the same time.
The underlying message that a Brahmin and a devout Muslim can be soul mates has to be underlined again and again verbally – this is a recurring failing of our filmmakers, who underestimate the audience’s ability to understand and appreciate the unspoken. Bhansali’s message is relevant today in the toxic air of competing fundamentalisms, but he could have let the story speak for itself. It is Brahmin intolerance that is far more virulent – in the film and even today, when “cow” has been chosen as the word of the year.