Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani was almost banned in Pakistan. The issue taken up by the censors was linguistic: the excessive, unadulterated Sanskrit heavy Hindi was at fault. As reported in the Express Tribune, Mobasher Hasan, chairman of the censorship board, cited the reasons behind the initial ban, “Firstly, the film is in Hindi and our ordinance does not allow Hindi films to be screened,” […] “Secondly, it is a historical drama that is indirectly against Islam and Muslims.” These reasons seem at odds with current practices, where cinema theaters show Hollywood films translated into Hindi (dubbing doesn’t take place in Pakistan anymore. It became cheaper to import English language films dubbed in Hindi from India, rather than dubbing films into Urdu). The film, if anything portrays Brahmin priests as unrelenting and cruel, and shows Muslims to be less orthodox, and more emancipated. Perhaps this was the problem?
Bhansali doesn’t depart from his trademark style of sweeping wide shots, elaborate sets and dance sequences filmed using a variety of camera angles – his especial favourite being an overhead shot – and of course, his weakness for love triangles. Scale is always big, large, grand with Bhansali. Bajirao Mastani doesn’t shy away from that, in fact scale moves into CGI to depict battle scenes in vast sweeping plains, rugged cliff drops and armies rushing through valleys. This is the production of an epic, and as contemporary audiences, we almost expect and demand CGI to deliver to us the grandeur and magnificence of old forms of battle. Modern warfare is reliant upon drones and bombs, which leaves contemporary audiences riveted and awed by the sheer scale of ancient warfare. While guerilla warfare and hand-to-hand combat exist till today, there is nothing to match the scale of ancient warfare, which perhaps explains our fascination.
Scale is always big, large, grand with Bhansali
Alongside the battles that Peshwa Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) is leading in 18th century India, there are intrigues and wars being plotted and waged on the domestic front in Pune. The contrast between the two battlefronts is not lost in dialogue and symbolism that remains consistent throughout the film. The story is a love triangle, of two women, and one man; Bajirao meets Mastani (Deepika Padukone) and they fall in love, while he is already claimed by his wife Kashi (Priyanka Chopra). Tradition, religion, hatred, all strive to keep the star-crossed lovers apart, as they come up against institutional might and personal vendettas to stay together. Bajirao is a Hindu Brahmin Maratha military commander whose ambition is to control all of Hindustan. The film is set in a time of internecine conflict in the Indian subcontinent – the Mughal empire was in decline, and the vacuum left space for wars between the Mughals, the Hindu rajas, the Marathas, the Nizams, and the European colonisers who were swiftly moving in.
Because of its time period, and the employment of certain tropes, the film is reminiscent of Mughal-e-Azam. The construction of the Ayinah Mahal was reported to be the second most expensive set constructed after Mughal-e Azam in Bollywood history. According to a report in The Indian Express, the set utilized “over 20, 000 intricately designed mirrors […] handpicked from Jaipur. The massive set measures 12, 500 square feet, and one angle of the frame reflects in the 20, 000 mirrors.”
Kashi realises Bajirao’s infidelity when she sees Bajirao and Mastani embracing in Ayinah Mahal, as reflected upon a curtain in her chamber. This device of using mirrors and reflections to expose lovers is evocative of the scene in Mughal-e Azam where Akbar discovers Salim and Anarkali to be lovers in the Sheesh Mahal, where a drugged Anarkali declares her love for Prince Salim.
Padukone, in her role as Mastani is stunning. She moves with easy grace, with flourishes and whirling movements that are fluid between the battlefield, and the dance floor. Her form as a dancer is angular, even when it is softened for gestures and movements of Kathak, suggesting her training as a Bharatnatyam dancer.
We witness an aestheticised, decorated, gracefully adorned masculinity
Bhansali’s usage of slow motion calls attention to the finesse of the choreography, whether in dance numbers, or in the pirouettes and twirls with multiple swords on the battlefield. Pandit Birju Maharaj’s choreography for the Holi dance sequence featuring Padukone is a visual treat. The background of the fort on the mountains appears flat, and artificial, and one has to strive to ignore its lack of depth, but Padukone is an easy, welcome distraction. The song ‘Pinga,’ which has Mastani and Kashi dancing and singing together, appears to be modeled on similar lines of the ‘Dola Re, Dola Re’ song in Devdas, which had Madhuri and Aishwariya Rai Bachan dancing together. References in cinema help audiences remember its rich history, however self-references must always be handled with a bit more care.
The film celebrates masculinity – it is after all a war film. However, it is an aestheticised, decorated, gracefully adorned masculinity that we witness. Costuming for the men is just as detailed and decorative as that for the women. Jeweled turbans, multi-hued rings, pearl necklaces, dangling earrings, kohl-lined eyes, angrakhas are all part of the wardrobe for men in this period film. This is a material culture as is evidenced not just by the detail in costume, but also in the attention to gifts and tokens, usually in the form of jewels or clothing exchanged and bestowed upon the characters. This is realism, and not Bollywood requirements such as five costume changes per song.
The on-screen chemistry between Padukone and Singh is in marked contrast to the coupling between Singh and Chopra; the latter showing a dominant male, and a desirous but submissive female, while the relationship between Bajirao and Mastani is shown as intense, heated, anguished, courageous and filled with ready wit and fire. First, for Pakistani audiences inured by Pakistani TV serial watching to romances with flirtatious, dominating, even lascivious male characters and subdued, docile, ‘feminised’ females this is a welcome break. For the few TV dramas that are wanton enough to show some aspects of a two-sided romance, as audiences, we are profoundly grateful. As cinemagoers, we learn life from the cinema, we learn romance, we learn truth, we learn violence, and we learn ourselves by identifying with the celluloid characters. It is important that they give us something to learn. Second, this version of the love triangle plays into the stereotype of dutiful wife vs. thrilling lover. I’m not a personal fan of monogamy, but the tired logic of this stereotype makes me wary – especially if one is depicting 18th century India, which seemed to be far more imaginative, risqué and flexible than contemporary South Asia.
The screenplay was co-written by Prakash Kapadia and Bhansali, and is based on N.S. Imamdar’s novel ‘Rau.’ Its dialogue pays homage to a time when courtly language was a living tradition, resplendent with poetry, witticism, and splendid metaphors. Singh and Padukone’s flirtation is laced with innuendo and layers that peel away to allow us to gaze at the intensity in their souls, expressed through an exchange of couplets and one fateful dagger. This form of expression is a far cry from contemporary Hindi, or Urdu, and while it is dangerous to romanticise nostalgia, it is a much poorer world that we live in today, where linguistic complexity and wordplay seem to have escaped our tongues.
The film does not offer a happy ending, concluding on a didactic voiceover instructing us to free our hearts of prejudice and open our hearts to love, which possibly could’ve been less heavy-handed. Watch this film for Deepika Padukone, the dialogue, the on-screen romance between Padukone and Singh, the male wardrobe and some of the CGI.
What a fantastic review but I have to take some exceptions. You told everything here in great depth, now should I see the movie? .Excellent language describing the whole movie, but most of the film critics do not write with that great details because the fun is lost, and still they like the readers to see the movies. If I see a movie which my wife wanted to see as well, she would caution me not to tell me the story, else her sense of fun be lost.