In one of the earlier scenes in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's magnificent Padmaavat, originally titled Padmavati, Ranveer Singh's sociopathic tyrant, Alauddin Khijli, is about to make love to his wife, the compellingly docile Mehrunisa, played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Aditi Rao Hydari.
He brags about a cold-blooded murder he's just committed, before pointing at the crown he's fraudulently inherited. He takes it off and places it on the head of his wife, from where it slips down to cover her eyes, blinding her. Khilji then erotically kisses her face – in this case, the crown itself.
If there's one moment that defines the character, played with astute brilliance by Ranveer Singh, it's this. His loyalty is towards power, and he does not care for the means he utilizes to get it. His clinical narcissism is most evident when he's admiring himself in large mirrors held by women who encircle him.
For him, Padmavati, played by Deepika Padukone with restrained elegance, is yet another conquest, a reward he wants to give himself, like a knick-knack, or honorary titles. He disguises this lustful quest for the gorgeous queen by characterizing it with a shade of romantic love but this is yet another form of self-deception, just like his contradicting acts of suppressing and endorsing his bisexuality.
Which brings us to Jim Sarbh – a pretty boy who belongs to the other side of the hyper-toxic-masculinity spectrum, which Khilji encapsulates. When Sarbh's Malik Kafur is unveiled to Khilji, it's love and lust at first sight. Bhansali doesn't conceal their sweltering liaison with subtlety, instead, he reveals it with unambiguous gesticulation, including a scene with suggested oral sex between the two men that is shown, according to my reading, only through a cathartic orgasm.
Khilji's destructive masculinity is offset by the practiced gentleness of Kafur, who shifts emotions with chameleonic splendor. His expressions change, from tender to terrifying, the minute Khilji expresses his desires for Padmavati and it appears that he could be instrumental in sabotaging their ill-fated encounter.
The Khilji-Kafur encounter is worth applauding as a non-heteronormative romance, even if suggested, doesn't have much of a precedence in mainstream Hindi cinema as situations such as these usually border on caricature depictions (in Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho and many Sajid Khan films).
If not used to infuse comic relief, sexually fluid characters, in Hindi films, are usually shown as people grappling with the 'issue' or the effect it has on their immediate family members (Aligarh, Kapoor and Sons). Bhansali subverts that stereotype by showing Khilji's bisexuality as an inconsequential, everyday part of his persona, something that he doesn't resist or question but embraces and is at ease with.
To give Hindi cinema one its few queer villains, one who's aggressively masculine and in pursuit of a reigning beauty, is some sort of a major breakthrough.
To give Hindi cinema one its few queer villains, one who's aggressively masculine and in pursuit of a reigning beauty, is some sort of a major breakthrough, one that we should wildly applaud. While we did have Ashutosh Rana in Sangharsh and Prashant Narayan in Murder2, in their case, the makers basically latched on the 'scary-transgender' trope, without giving many nuances to the character.
For a mainstream hero like Ranveer Singh to play it without any reservations (don't forget, this is an industry where heroes rejected Fawad Khan's role in Kapoor and Sons because the character is gay), is quite commendable and he delivers a performance of a lifetime. He still has miles to go in his career but it'll take a while for him to top this performance. Singh digs into the role, relishes and savors the raging, explosive madness of Khilji and comes out as one of the most memorable villains ever, and the first queer villain in Hindi cinema who isn't necessarily effeminate or affected by his sexuality.
And he has great lines.
Actually, there's a great deal of memorable dialogue in the film as Bhansali's got a fine dialogue writer in Prakash Kapadia and a phenomenal director of photography in Sudeep Chatterjee. Unlike their previous films, Chatterjee and Bhansali light their frames with a color palette that's minimalistic, as compared to Bhansali standards. There isn't a rush of color but soft, golden-hued visual elegance for the Rajput dynasty and a mix of charcoal black and overcast grey for the Khiljis.
Where Bhansali flounders is not in the assembling of the film but in its religion and gender politics.
Khilji is represented as an overtly demonic Muslim villain whereas Raja Rawal Ratan Singh is the eternally good Hindu king. Of course, Padmavati, can't have any trace of affection for Khilji, or for that matter, any other man, while what she can be is Ratan Singh's blissfully happy second wife. It's entirely possible that after being consumed by Padmavati's beauty to the point of boredom, Ratan Singh would've found yet another beautiful woman, leaving Padmavati in the same position as his bitter first wife.
While Padukone and Kapoor (who is a bit too stiff and robotic) share an effortlessly beautiful chemistry — there are some wordless scenes where emotions are evoked solely through the couple's eyes, scenes that bear testimony to Bhansali's directorial triumphs — it's also true that Padmavati and Ratan Singh's love story is rooted in barbaric patriarchal values and there isn't a single character that questions that.
There are situations in which Deepika's character fully exploits the agency granted to her by virtue of being queen, including taking some key political and strategic calls, her ultimate decisions reflect how men controlled, oppressed, and decided the rules for women.
True, it's a film set in a certain period, but the film in itself isn't a product of that time. The film's characters can be regressive, the lens with which we're looking at them, shouldn't be.
Sadly, in the case of Padmaavat, it feels like Bhansali internalized the idea of a queen saving her king's honor and dignity to the point that the idea of jauhar (mass-immolation) feels and comes across as deeply romantic. This is problematic especially because the film is being marketed as a 'story of Rajput pride and valor.' To show that jauhar existed as an accepted social norm at one point in time is one thing. To glorify and romanticize it as an act of essential sacrifice is a misstep on a slippery slope, one where watertight writing and accurate treatment should have ideally weaponized the screenplay by not allowing it to fall into a celebratory territory. It's as bad as making a film about slavery and then depicting the oppression of Black people as an act of courage. (Before you say that self-immolation or even sati was voluntary, there isn't concrete proof that it was. In most cases, it was forced.)
Nevertheless, the film is a luxuriously-mounted, visually resplendent work of art that holds and sustains your attention for the most part of its over 2 hours 30-minutes running time.
It reveals Bhansali's directorial prowess and further solidifies the acting credentials of both, Padukone and Singh while exhibiting the yet-unexplored acting finesse of a gifted performer, Jim Sarbh.
Ultimately, Padmaavat is a tragic tale sourced from romanticized Rajasthani folklore and if you can keep your modern, gender-conscious lens momentarily aside, hard as it is, you might actually enjoy it.
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