A note on 3D: My local theater only carried Padmaavat in 3D, but I recommend watching the film in 2D, if possible. The 3D effects don’t enhance the experience, and the glasses dull the colors and details of the costumes and sets. 3D also adds a visual distance between the subtitles and the action, for those reliant upon subtitles.
Spoiler warning: Because Padmaavat is based on a centuries-old poem, I will discuss the end of the movie in this review.
Filmmakers can choose to make whatever movies they want. Why, then, would Sanjay Leela Bhansali choose to make Padmaavat? Why now, and why tell the story in this way? What does he want his audience to take away from this story? Even after watching the movie, I can’t answer those questions.
Bhansali’s story follows the parallel paths of two 13th century Indian rulers until they converge: the ambitious Muslim warrior Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) and the milquetoast Rajput king Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor). While ruthless Alauddin fights the Mongols and steals the sultanate of Delhi from his uncle, Ratan Singh searches for some replacement pearls after he gave away his wife Nagmati’s (Anupriya Goenka) favorite necklace.
Ratan Singh is waylaid in the pearl-producing kingdom of Singala (which resembles the Nopon Braidbridge in Noctilum from Xenoblade Chronicles X, for both of you out there who’ll get that reference), when the princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone) accidentally shoots him with an arrow while hunting. They fall in love while he convalesces, and she returns with him to his palace in Chittor as his second wife.
Their trouble begins when the palace priest Raghav Chetan gets busted watching Ratan Singh and Padmavati make out. Banished, Chetan vows to destroy Chittor. He meets Alauddin, telling the sultan — who has an infamous Gollum-like obsession with precious things — that not only is Padmavati the most beautiful woman in the world, but Alauddin needs her in order to fulfill a bogus prophecy that sees him conquer the globe. Alauddin and his army head to Chittor to besiege Ratan Singh’s castle.
This is where things really fall apart for Ratan Singh as a character, at least in the way Bhansali depicts him. Whenever Ratan Singh mentions his “honor”, it signals that he’s about to do something incredibly stupid. On multiple occasions, he either underestimates Alauddin’s capacity for deceit or refuses to kill Alauddin and end the war, citing some mitigating rule of decorum that stays his hand. Whenever Padmavati tells him, “You know it’s a trap, right?” Ratan Singh just smiles and walks right into it.
There comes a point when rigidly adhering to one’s principles is selfish, especially when it means not just your own death but the deaths of everyone you love, the deaths of all the innocent civilians you’ve vowed to protect, and the loss of your entire kingdom.
Then again, none of the characters in Padmaavat are written like real people, only symbols for concepts like honor (Ratan Singh), lust (Alauddin), beauty (Padmavati), treachery (Chetan), jealousy (Nagmati), and bravery (the Rajput fighters Gora and Badal). All the other soldiers and civilians are just there to take up space. What happens to them doesn’t matter. We know as much because the end notes only mention the place of Padmavati’s sacrifice in Rajput lore, with no mention of the hundreds of other women who killed themselves alongside her.
Ah, yes, the ritual suicide for which Padmavati is famous. The movie opens with a note that the film does not intend to endorse “sati,” the practice of women immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. That’s a little hard to believe given the glamorized way Bhansali depicts the mass suicide of the women of Chittor following Ratan Singh’s defeat on the battlefield. Rather than be captured by Alauddin’s army, Bhansali shows Padmavati and the palace women (and girls) resolutely marching to their death in an inferno, defiant tears filling their eyes but refusing to drop. The camera cuts away before we see them burn or hear their anguished screams, preserving their memories as paragons of virtue rather than showing the charred corpses of the terrified victims of male egos run amok.
If Bhansali wanted to dress up Deepika Padukone in elaborate costumes, wasn’t there another ancient Rajput tale he could have picked? One that didn’t make a hero out of a woman for killing herself? Padmavati’s actions — though true to the original poem — don’t even match with her character in the film. As interpreted by Bhansali, Padmavati is a skilled archer and military tactician. Why should we believe that she wouldn’t first try to kill Alauddin herself, rather than follow her husband’s foolish lead and let Alauddin live to besiege another kingdom?
There’s so much more that could have been done with this story, especially since Bhansali appears to have taken some liberties with the original poem (based on a cursory Wikipedia search). The theme of jealousy could’ve been brought to the fore, not just in the rivalry for Ratan Singh’s affection between Nagmati and Padmavati but in the jealousy toward Padmavati felt by Alauddin’s slave and consort, Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh). The fact that Alauddin and Malik are lovers and it’s depicted as no big deal is Padmaavat‘s greatest strength.
However, that relationship also plays into the characterization of Alauddin as a dirty, feral creature, one who snarls while tearing meat off the bone with his teeth and who will have sex with anyone. He is also Muslim, as we are constantly reminded by the green flags bearing a crescent moon that flank him at all times. Bhansali goes to such lengths to conflate Alauddin’s base appetites with his religion that it becomes gross.
Singh, for his part, makes the most of his problematic character, overshadowing Kapoor in all of their scenes together. Sarbh likewise seems to enjoy his free rein. Padukone looks regal — as does Aditi Rao Hydari, who plays Alauddin’s wife — but she has little to do once she leaves her forest kingdom.
Virtually all of the scenes between Padmavati and Ratan Singh are shot in slow-motion, the two of them making moon eyes at one another. This reliance on slow-mo — which extends to battle scenes as well — highlights just how little actually happens in the movie, both in terms of plot and character development. Padmaavat looks gorgeous, as Bhansali’s movies always do, but looks aren’t everything.