It is now nearly a week since Padmavat has been in the theaters, the importance of subject matter as well as the controversies manufactured and otherwise in leading up to its release, has driven extensive discussions around it. From coffee table discussions, to workplace cafeterias to media led hyperbole on TV and the frenzy on social media, the movie has had its fair share of attention and then some more.
Despite all the attention, noise and strife on Padmavat, there is marked gap in one specific dimension of debate spectrum. There is no largely positive review of Padmavat by vocal members of the nationalistic pro-Indian demographic which favors a robust military approach, in short the demographic often misidentified as right wing by the application of western thought models by the left wing copycats 19th century European colonial schools.
This is intriguing on many counts, for one, given the copious amount of material put out in these arguments, one would expect a simple laws of statistics to ensure that all angles are at least covered given purely the expected random dispersion of viewpoints and probability. Nevertheless, the “jitne moonh utni baaten” (as many view points as there are people) did not manage to give a solid thumbs up for Padmavat, which is especially strange given that the movie is after all, about the pride and honor of the children of mother India, as enshrined by people of Mewar, probably the highest practitioners of that culture anywhere in India. So what explains this lack of favor by the right minded people in media towards the movie, even as the Indian public at large, seems to have so far favored it ?
There is of course the possibility that it is because the movie really isn’t very good. Occam’s razor is inevitably the correct approach in most such cases, and there is no particular reason to believe that it is not the case here. The problem here though is that the nationalist Indian approach towards a movie being good or not good is expected to be driven by more than just whether a film is an example of fine movie craftsmanship. In addition, there is ample reason to believe that the movie is well made, bookmyshow.com ratings, a real crowd sourced indicator of a film’s attractiveness, gives Padmavat 83%, with one lac 25 thousand ratings given. In addition, a number of movie critics have given the movie rave reviews and even rotten tomatoes has it marked at 73%.
Clearly it’s not that bad a movie to be disliked or ignored. The only possible explanation there then can be that Padmavat does not do a good job of representing a historical context and a Bharatiya ethos despite being on very same topic. This appears to be the reason that most staunch right wing folks seem to present to explain their dissatisfaction with the movie. Strangely though, many other Indians, possibly not as erudite, but no less patriotic seem to think the movie did not do a bad job. If that is not enough, we have the ultimate stamp of approval of the film being well moored to Indian values by the greatest custodians of the hate for India and masters of self-loathing, the Indian leftist brigade. There are predictable and typically hypocritical rants from this quarter against the movie being parochial, regressive, etc etc etc. So if there was any reason to doubt the movie’s bona fides, the emerging hate rants against it should put those to rest.
So, what does that leave us with ? Why does not a single voice of strong support for Padmavat emerge from within those who naturally celebrate these historical epics ? Simply put, the reason quite likely is distrust that this demographic has for Bollywood in general given its past history of mocking and running down Indian culture and values and specifically, making a complete hash of history even in the hands of “well intentioned” film makers like Ashutosh Gowarikar. Where it ends up creating the fantasy of Jodha-Akbar with a fictional Akbar being nothing like the real one.
In addition the lack of support by Rajputs for Padmavat as it was being put together, again based on the fears of misrepresentation of history that is typical of “secular” Hindi cinema got the collective nationalist’s back up. Lack of transparency by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the swirling rumor mills added to mess, and opinions unfortunately hardened before the movie made its way to general viewership.
Post the release, there has been significant lessening of hostility against Padmavat, nevertheless, it will take time and effort to negate a lot of past bad blood. This review therefore attempts to relook at the movie from the perspective of someone who is deeply rooted in the ethos of our country, venerates the house of Mewar and in general belongs to the school of thought which holds that a true, honest telling of Indian history by Indians without the leftist corruption of the narrative is critical to the survival of Indian nation, but this departs from other such perspectives in that the reviewer considers the movie to be an exceptional piece of cinema, well-crafted and nourishing to the Indian narrative. Be aware though that reading ahead would be a spoiler of sorts.
Let’s tackle the easy parts first. There has been no disagreement amongst any quarter on the sheer scope and grandeur of the film, be it the sweeping coverage of Indian subcontinent, from Afghanistan to Delhi, to Mewar to Sri Lanka or the authenticity and scale of the historical monuments that act as the backdrop of the story. The costumes are lush and the camera work spectacular. The sound track of music is incredibly fabulous and builds the mood perfectly. Technically even the worst critic admits to Padmavat being visual and an aural delight. That there has been painstaking research is clearly seen in the retelling of dresses, architecture, weaponry. There are no Troy like moments of wrist watch in a war scene. This part the movie gets right, and actually builds towards the overall historical feel of the period drama. Which then leads us to the trickier bits, of how accurate the movie is to the subject matter.
The historicity of Padmavat and the accuracy of the depicted events to the known events of history as we are aware of them are often the heart of criticism of such a piece, and the historicity is central to making sure that the correctness of the narrative is preserved. This is particularly complicated since there is no one agreed on version of history specifically around Padmavati as a person, so if we were to examine the historical accuracy, which version do we take as being correct ? However this is not really as a vexing issue as has been made by the court historians of Nehruvian times.
When talking of historical accuracy of troubled times, it is not necessary to nail down every detail in exactness for history to be known. This is a fallacy that has been saddled on us by professional tenure seeking historians of ideological bent rather than research. What is needed to be known, is the broad strokes of history, with details filling in the outline if possible, but the key is to understand the overall framework. Holding the overall story hostage to the details and arguing that we cannot really know historical events unless each detail is known is essentially an easy stratagem to whitewash and deny history.
So we have meta narratives being spun on how Islamist genocidal zeal of barbaric Turkic tribes can actually not be talked about till we know the detail of whether a Khilji first attacked Chittor and then asked about Padmini, or first knew about Padmini and then attacked Chittor or was it wealth he wanted or women or was he generally a demon ? This hair splitting is entirely irrelevant to the fact that Khilji was a genocidal maniac of Islamist persuasion who left a trail of loot, rape and genocide in the wake of his horde and Chittor was one of his foremost challenges. That is the historical arc, the rest is human drama.
So how does Padmavat do against that ? The movie actually does surprisingly well.
The broad themes and timelines and events that are captured in the movie are accurate and there is little to disagree with them. While from a story perspective Padmavat relies heavily on the poem of the same name by Malik Mohamed Jayasi, the movies add context on the poem from history. While Rani Padmavati steps in from pages of the poem, Khilji is the Turkik tribesman of Amir Khusro’s pages. The chronicles of his murderous path to the Sultanate of Delhi and loot and sack of Deogiri is from the pages of history. Malik Kafur is from pages of history. The internecine conflict amongst the Khilji’s is from the pages of history. The siege of Chittorgarh is from those annals.
In broad strokes Padmavat does get the outline of history as we know it right and even the naysayers would find it hard to fault the overall historical correctness. In coming to details, as expected there is interpolation, while the tale has by and large kept to the text of Padmavat, it has taken minor liberties with the same to keep it relevant, for example, the characters do not speak in avadhi. There are further interpolations when the stories talk about Khilji, again that is not unexpected, as there are no dramatic novels on him. The key while examining the interpolations though is whether they take away from the historical arcs or are consistent with the known parts of history, and there the movie does an fantastic job. To take a very visible example, the way different characters eat, is very consistent with the known food habits and civilities or absence thereof in documented culture. Khilji’s love of a travelling menagerie is also in keeping with known habits of Turko-Mongol tribals of the period. In taking such an view, one has to agree that the layers of creation do not detract from history but keep to it largely while making some concessions for commercial cinema.
Yet a movie is not merely a collection of nuts and bolts, any creative endeavor really works when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is this intangible which makes for an experience. While one can discuss the nose, the palate and the finish of a fine drink, and talk about how oakey or what kind of body it has, those methods of deconstruction are nothing if the taste does not come together well as an enjoyable mouthfeel.
Quite similarly the test for Padmavat being good or great is what are the feelings that a viewer experiences through the period of watching and then carries with them as it ends. It is here that the movie surpasses itself. This is a layered movie, with some of its best moments expressed through brilliant subtleties. At the surface, this is historical period drama, a spectacle of clashing Kings and resplendent queens. Of beautiful princesses in chains, and jewelry to die for and indeed in this case, with. It is a fantasy journey into the past and at the same time retelling of the story of eternal India at its core.
Though Padmavat is an out and out morality play, this is not something immediately obvious expect for one direct allusion by Maharani Padmavati in an impassioned speech, but it is essentially a fight of good over evil. The reason why it’s not obvious is because Ranveer’s telling of Khilji is the larger than life figure. The second Sikandar, THE WINNER of the world, because as we know “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar”. Khilji is dashing man of invite ravenous appetite who wins, at any cost, he wins. Our typical idea of a morality play involves making the good guy win, and winner being the good guy, hardly would apply here. It is here that the subtle devices come into play.
The victory of Rajputs is not the simple physical victory, sweetly deserved as that would be. It is a victory of spirit and unflinching devotion to an ideology greater than self. It is a victory of the steel of human spirit which looks into the face of certain death and laughs with carefree gay abandon.
This is the clash of forces of light and darkness, expect that these Rohirrim trapped in helm’s deep do not despair, even when their fate is sealed even before the first orc armies moved. These real life Rohirrim sing and play like the elves, celebrating life, before embracing an glorious death, as in life lived is the death, of proud brows of undiminished honor and undying light worn lightly on unbent heads. Khilji can own the stones, but he can never win against this, for he does not have the civilizational heritage that has shaped the Sun’s children. This is the victory that Major Shaitan Singh would later win at Chushul and the Sikhs at Saragarhi and Lt Arun Khetrapal at Basantar. This is the feel of Padmavat, of celebration of life and love under the dire shadows of inevitable doom, the ever-present menace coloring nearly every frame from the very start, but achieving nothing more in the end than throwing into sharper relief the shining fire of the white clad Rajputra. The fire which at the end the bodies will be one with, a choice of changing of old clothes observed with the same fervor that the holiest festival is.
Padmavat has some brilliant performances, notably an incredibly understated power play by Shahid Kapoor. The scene where he asks Khiliji’s messenger to read the message again is a marvel of how acting is about expressions, tonality and delivery and not filling out the louder parts. This is a movie to watch carefully and soak in, and anyone who tells you that it’s a slow plodding movie, in any half, to them you can sigh in disappointment, as Rawal Ratan Singh did on not being able find a worthy opponent even till the end.