It’s surprising how Sanjay Leela Bhansali only just got around to making a historical epic. His is a cinema of grand gestures and raised voices, weeping string sections and poetic destruction. When he applies this aesthetic to modern-day stories, the results can seem a bit overwrought, as they did in his last film, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. But when you’re telling tales of warriors and princesses (and warrior princesses), the setting encourages, even demands, high drama. And no one does drama like Bhansali.
Bhansali had wanted to make a film about the 18th century Maratha peshwa, Bajirao I, and his second wife Mastani, as early as 2003, with Salman Khan in the lead. Over the years, the project kept resurfacing, only to be sent back into the purgatory of development. Finally, the Ram-Leela pair of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone was cast, and production started. In July, a trailer appeared, suggesting similarities to the recently released, already very popular Baahubali.
It turns out Bajirao Mastani is quite different from the Telugu megahit. But you wouldn’t know that from the first 30 minutes, which build up to an extended battle that will be compared—unfavourably—to Baahubali’s crunching action sequences. After the soldier princess Mastani (Padukone) tracks him down and requests his help, Bajirao (Singh) and his army come to the defence of Bundelkhand, which is under siege from the Mughals. The pre-war scenes are beautiful, with one establishing shot that’s a version of the Monument Valley shot in John Ford films, and the stirring visual of an army charging downhill at dusk carrying lit torches (which turns out to be a decoy). But the battle itself is disappointing, and no match for the superior VFX and epic sweep of Baahubali.
Once Bundelkhand has been defended successfully, Bajirao and Mastani waste no time falling dramatically, violently in love (he cauterizes the wound she sustained in battle with his sword, which is a very Bhansali way of telling us they’re made for each other). When he departs soon after on a military campaign, he leaves behind his dagger. In 18th century Bundelkhand, such an action is tantamount to marriage. It’s all the encouragement Mastani needs to leave home and land up at the peshwa’s palace.
This is a problem, because we already know that the peshwa has a wife, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). To add insult to injury, Mastani, the illegitimate daughter of the ruler of Bundelkhand and a Persian woman, is Muslim. The film soon becomes a royal triangle, with Bajirao unwilling to listen to his advisers—and his formidable mother, Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi)—who are telling him to keep his new love under wraps as his mistress, and Kashibai and Mastani out-sacrificing each other for his well-being.
Bhansali obviously hasn’t had his fill of star-crossed lovers: Having the leader of a state looking to establish Hindu rule across India fall in love with a Muslim warrior was probably the only way he could have upped the ante on the Romeo and Juliet hijinks of Ram-Leela. While the palace intrigue storyline may not be particularly novel, his flair for colour, movement and visual opulence remains intact, and the writing (story by Bhansali; screenplay by Prakash Kapadia) is significantly better than in his last couple of films. There are moments when the dialogue could be from a less Urdu-heavy Mughal-e-Azam, particularly the charged banter between Radhabai and Mastani—this film’s equivalent of Akbar talking to Anarkali.
Though Bajirao Mastani is more heart than head, there’s one moment when both are equally balanced. Early in the film, we’re shown how the image of Bajirao standing in a glass palace is transmitted via a complex system of mirrors on to a screen in Kashibai’s room. In other words, she can see a film of her husband, an idea perfectly attuned to the historical reality of Maharashtrians being the originators of cinema in India. In a later scene, Kashibai hears her husband in the palace and rushes to look at his image, only to see him embracing Mastani. Though Chopra’s face registers little, it’s a heartbreaking scene, more so for the intricate way in which it’s set up.
Bhansali might be one of the last exponents of the grand old Bollywood style. Melodrama is not only something he’s comfortable with, it’s the air his characters breathe. His songs don’t move the story forward, as the modern style dictates; instead, they are invitations to stop, sit back and gawk at costumes, jewellery, glittery sets and gorgeous people moving in unison. He’s unafraid of placing a tiger in a scene for no reason at all—though the effect is spoilt somewhat by a ridiculous Censor Board-mandated disclaimer that states “Tiger scene shot abroad”.
Singh’s sensual, almost cruel swagger, though familiar by now, is perfectly matched to the brazen character he’s playing. Padukone adds another wilful rebel to her burgeoning roster; though she ends up in chains (cue Anarkali references), it’s her single-minded pursuit of her love that propels the plot. Chopra is a little blank early on, but warms up once her character decides to acknowledge the other woman in her husband’s life. Azmi plays the scary matriarch with as much verve as Supriya Pathak Kapur did in Ram-Leela. Yet, even at their most compelling, there’s one person who’s writ larger than any of them on screen, and that’s Bhansali.
This review appeared in Mint.