Qalandar on BAJIRAO MASTANI (Hindi; 2015)
There are really two films in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani: the first is a rather crude period film, recycling the nationalist tropes familiar to us since the beginnings of colonized nationalism in the nineteenth century, and indifferent to advances in historiography over the last half-century. And understandably so, given the different aims of the two: the rewards of academic historiography — the greater understanding afforded by appreciation of nuance, context, and complication — are more ambiguous, and less accessible to those who merely seek the affirmation of identities (new and old) offered by fables about virtuous/manly/vigorous Hindus/Muslims/us/them waging righteous war against their polar opposites, savage/effete/treacherous/feeble/dastardly Muslims/Hindus/them/us. Bajirao Mastani‘s approach to the historical material is squarely a product of the latter. The issue here is not that mythical beast, “historical accuracy” — the tedious debate around that phrase simply enables filmmakers and audiences to deflect the real question, namely, the sort of cramped, exclusionary vision that is almost reflexively enshrined in this film. One would never know from this film that the Maratha state under Baji Rao Ballad once allied with the Nizam against the Mughal court in Delhi (for instance, the film prefers to use the one sequence of Maratha-Nizam sarkar diplomacy to paint the absurd spectacle of Bajirao swaggering into Chin Qilich Khan’s tent, threatening and insulting him, in a scene of staggering imbecility and anachronistic macho); or that the first Nizam was at times intimately involved in the politics of succession to the Maratha throne or that, far in the future, an uneasy Mughal-Maratha alliance in the closing decades of the eighteenth century would represent the last time native polities would hold sway in Delhi.
I don’t have any cause to complain that these particular events aren’t depicted in Bajirao Mastani — indeed there’s no great reason why such events should form a large part of this love-story (although there was just as little narrative reason for the inclusion of other sequences, such as the final battle with the Nizam’s son Nasir Jung). The problem is that these omissions and inclusions underscore a deeper falsity, namely that the world evoked in the film is utterly inconsistent with the fluid, shifting political and social alliances (equally irreducible, it must be said, to our more liberal, anachronistic notions of secularism or pluralism) that form part and parcel of any serious engagement with eighteenth century-India. History, simply put, is deeply embarrassing, especially if we seek to use it as mere grist for our own ideological mills (of the Right or the Left). Bajirao Mastani prefers the politics of the familiar, that is to say, the familiarly modern: Hindus line up with Hindus (with the desire to help out a fellow Hindu monarch presented as sufficient justification for diverting an entire army from its original aim), and Muslims are pretty much interchangeable, with the Nizam’s heirs and Rohilla Pathans looking like each other, and in turn very similar to the bearded, mustache-less chaps familiar to us from news footage of the Taliban (the reflex that gives us these representations disturbs me more than deliberate malice would). Bajirao Ballad is a Hindu hero, and the aim of the Maratha state is simple: a Hindu swaraj and polity stretching across all Hindustan. That is, the Peshwai of this film makes sense to those of us brought up to regard the identity politics and communal fault-lines of the 20th and 21st centuries as innate — but seems foreign to India’s complicated 18th century, where any of Maratha, Rajput, Mughal, or Rohilla Pathan might be allied with, or square off against, any of the others at any particular time (indeed terms like “Maratha” and “Mughal” themselves obscure more than they reveal, given the independent factions, sub-states and other “sovereignties” operating under each of those signs — the Nizam, for instance, was nothing if not Mughal, as reflected in the very title the rulers meticulously held on to, a Mughal title for the realm’s principal minister); or where no bond based on “Hinduness” would prevent Maratha forces from pillaging the likes of Jodhpur or Jaipur, or Bengal, no “Muslim” tie would prevent the Rohillas from, in time, blinding the emperor Shah Alam (then the figurehead of a Mughal-Maratha alliance).
In that sense Bhansali’s film is a huge disappointment — its Hindu-Muslim love story is shorn of any political implications (beyond the soft target of Brahmin caste orthodoxy, always easy to skewer now that it is safely “past”; even here there is a missed opportunity, with the film oblivious to the ebbing promise of Shivaji’s populist swarajya, subsumed in a generation or two by the Peshwas’ Brahmin dominance), and firmly grounded in the personal. Bhansali’s Baji Rao is simply a headstrong lover, his passion for Mastani not seen as having any political implication for the state (it is seen as having religious implications for the state’s claim to uphold a Brahminical order). It is certainly the director’s prerogative to make that film, but it does make the tale less interesting to me, and more akin to a “straight” love story, dressed up in the past’s borrowed finery. In this, Bajirao Mastani is not the equal of Jodha-Akbar, which, although more at home in the world of saas-bahu serials and Amar Chitra Katha than the blood and sweat of genuine historical epic, knew enough to represent the Jodha-Akbar alliance as bearing profound political implications. The “love story” was Bollywood, but the meaning of the wider symbolism, of Akbar’s re-casting of the Mughal state from a Turkic monarchy to an Indian sultanate with the Rajputs firmly ensconced as one of its pillars, was sophisticated, and to my mind profoundly correct.
Luckily for the viewer, there’s a second film here, easily Bhansali’s most dynamic and engaging. And that film — markedly more cinematic and enjoyable than the likes of Jodha-Akbar — is worth going to the cinema for; it’s driven by an excellent performance by Ranveer Singh, a worthy supporting cast (ranging from Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao’s first wife Kashi; Tanvi Azmi as the matriarch Radhabai; Yatin Karyekar’s upholder of Brahmin orthodoxy, Krishna Bhatt (in the context of an aborted meal he hisses “ye Peshwai hai to Mughlai kya buree thee?!”, a clever reference not just to the enemy Empire but to the cuisine as well); to a dignified Milind Soman as Ambani Pant; a delightfully dissipated Mahesh Manjrekar as the Maratha king Shahu, and the woefully under-used villainy of Aditya Pancholi’s Panth Prathinidi), and some darn enjoyable dialoguebaazi by Prakash Kapadia, the sort that crackles across the screen all too infrequently these days. It’s this second film that meant I was engaged throughout the nearly two hour-and-forty-minute-run-time (at least until Bhansali dredged up his inner Devdas one more time in the film’s interminable closing portions) — no mean feat these days, when even masala movies often rush past anything that might discomfit multiplex viewers, striving to present hits-and-giggles cinema in under two-and-a-half hours; the more self-consciously Hollywoody films barely squeak past two.
Against such a backdrop, it’s hard not to respect the uncompromising nature of Bhansali’s vision, which simply demands more (time, attention) from his audience in a film like Bajirao Mastani. And if in the past this uncompromising vision has often resulted in fantastic, inert spectacles devoid of any life, Bhansali’s involvement with masala like Rowdy Rathore seems to have energized him: while his last directorial effort, Ras-Leela, was wretched, it wasn’t so for the same reason that Devdas and (most extreme of all) Saawariya were terrible; Ras-Leela was energetic (perhaps a first for this director), but little else. In Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali seems to have found the right balance: the visuals are less showy, the dialogs possessed of velocity and zing (perhaps a deliberate nod to the Hindi film historicals of decades ago, with Mughal-e-Azam the grand-daddy of them all), and all this anchored in the right hero, giving what has to be the best performance of his young career.
As Bollywood’s Bajirao Ballad, Ranveer Singh was a pleasant surprise, essaying the role with a near-permanent twinkle and impish charm, his insouciance easily bettering the earnestness of Shah Rukh Khan in Asoka or Hrithik in Jodha-Akbar (the latter a performance I had quite liked at the time). Unlike those colleagues, Ranveer isn’t weighed down by the role, and acquits himself creditably. Even his toned body doesn’t seem like as much of a distraction here, and I didn’t find it an irritating intrusion of the 21st century gym into the world of this film. I can cite no principled basis for my view that Ranveer avoids this Hrithik-effect, and will simply note that he was persuasive, and made me believe that he could be the warrior of Maratha legend. [Bajirao’s famed intelligence was less convincing in its Bollywood avatar: with the exception of the battle in Bundelkhand early on in the film, Ranveer’s Bajirao prefers to bellow into battle, often by his lonesome, than to actually, um, plan anything; this is a pity, because a more subtle director would have harnessed the actor’s innate slyness to greater effect. Stated differently, Ranveer Singh might well be the right actor to play the precocious Chanakya of the Maratha court, although, ironically, the role as written is that of a “mere” warrior. Bhansali would have been better off siding with Odysseus rather than Achilles.] To be sure, the performance isn’t flawless — Ranveer seemed uneven to me in the drunk scenes (an inconsistency mirrored in the writing), and was upstaged more than once by the polish of Milind Soman and Tanvi Azmi, or the sheer fun Mahesh Manjrekar brought to the table — but nevertheless, Ranveer’s has to be one of the most enjoyable lead male performances of 2015, and a cut above what his peers seem to be capable of.
Deepika Padukone is frustrating. On paper, she has everything going her way in this title role of the Muslim Mastani bewitched by Bajirao: she looks gorgeous in Indian dress, and this film gives her ample opportunity to dazzle viewers, her beauty married to her trademark inability to seem vulgar (yes, even in stuff like the Billoo Barber song); plus, her role is substantial enough (even if it is afflicted by the usual problem Hindi films seem to have with kick-ass female roles: once these women have demonstrated their mettle, they are domesticated by love). But she isn’t a good enough actress to pull it off, leading to a discombobulated effect: she looks the part, and delivers her lines well, but doesn’t seem convincing as the lone woman who suddenly shows up in Pune to stake her claim to Bajirao’s attention. Perhaps one needed old-school Bollywood heft to render plausible a setting this absurd, and Padukone is a product of a different idiom, not just in her affecting naturalness (the sort of thing that stands her in good stead in a role like Piku) but in the urbane ease with which everything seems to come to her — but comfort isn’t always a good thing, and where the role requires her to essay the strange and unfamiliar, Padukone falls back on facility and naturalness. She isn’t bad as Mastani, but isn’t memorable, and her co-stars out-perform her. [A word about the early action sequences though: as in Chandni Chowk to China, Padukone is very good as the warrior, and her introduction scene, with blade at Bajirao’s neck, was worthy of the masala seeti. A pity that Mastani isn’t really seen after the first twenty minutes.]
Oddly enough, although Priyanka Chopra’s Kashi (Bajirao’s first wife) doesn’t have the title role, she has just as much screen-time as Padukone, and does justice to her role. For Bhansali, Kashi’s role is a step forward: all too often his fixation on the way women look and dress, rather than what they say and do, borders on the fetishistic, but Chopra’s Kashi is not in that vein: her normalcy is refreshing (indeed she might be the only character cut from ordinary dimensions in the film), and her expressive face and comfort with desi gesturality means that while Mastani talks a whole lot about her love for Bajirao, it’s Kashi’s sentiments that are more keenly felt. Neither heroine is as impressive as the severe Radhabai: Tanvi Azmi admittedly only has one note to play here, but she does so with great authority and charisma (who would’ve thought the most impressive look in this film would rely on a shaven head and widow’s white sari)?
Ah, the music: perhaps never before in the history of Hindi cinema has a director been so smugly satisfied with his sense of music, with such little reason, as Bhansali appears to be, with one flabby album following another with boring predictability over the course of his career. The music here (credited to Bhansali himself) is no different: I could barely remember a strain even a minute after a song had ended, with the breezy charm of “Pinga” perhaps the only exception. A pity: the lyrics of Siddharth-Garima deserved better music.
The director does much better on the visuals: in Bajirao Mastani the sets and props do not serve as distractions (as in Devdas), nor are they suffocating (as in Black or Saawariya). In both Ras Leela and Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali seems to have belatedly realized that the cinematic is a different animal than the merely visual, and his latest film is his best yet on that front, with the sets and sumptuous dresses at the service of the film, and not the other way around: only after the film did I realize that Bhansali’s Aaina Mahal set was not only his best yet, but might be my favorite Hindi film palace-set of all time. The rest of Shaniwar Wada, the understated court of Chatrapati Shahu, and the battlements of Chhatrasal are also notable (Bhansali’s eye is less sure in battle-scenes, and amidst Indo-Islamic aesthetics — that milieu (e.g. the Nizam’s tent) is rendered hastily, and without imagination (“hey let’s use green!”)). But perhaps most memorable of all is Bhansali’s representation of Maratha court dress: it isn’t easy to make those caps and court dresses seem glamorous to an audience brought up to regard Western lines as normative, and the director doubtless “Europeanizes” a number of male garments (the warriors in particular seem like refugee-knights from the Crusades), but the result is nevertheless deeply impressive, and sets a high bar for other period films. That alone is reason enough to give this film a chance on the big screen: sure, Bhansali’s intellect is not the equal of his eye, but his eye is precious rare indeed.