Controversial Bollywood film Padmaavat panders to hardline Hindu nationalism

In a sad reflection of India's polarized political climate, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's historical epic shamelessly exploits Hindu-Muslim tensions


PADMAAVAT (Sanjay Leela Bhansali). 163 mins. Subtitled. See listing. Rating: N


After watching the most controversial Bollywood movie in years, I walked out of the theatre feeling disgusted – but not for the reasons that sparked protests in India last year.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest period film is an embarrassing display of Hindu nationalism and male machismo. Not even the grandeur and refined spectacle for which Bhansali is known can cloak its shameless denigration of Muslims.

Set in the 13th century, Padmaavat is a fictional take on the epic poem Padmavat written in 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. It is a boring love story that revolves around two men and their armies.

The film adaptation’s initial roll-out was much more exciting. Originally titled Padmavati, it was delayed due to protests in India and political interference that caused the country’s strict censor boards to defer certifying the film and certain state ministers to threaten to ban screenings.

Why? Because of a momentary glance between two characters –  Queen Padmavati, a Rajput and Hindu, and Sultan Khilji, a Muslim – in the film’s trailer. Right-wing Hindu political forces interpreted this glance as a dishonour to Queen Padmavati, an important and historical figure.

In fact, this glance never occurs in the film – the two characters never encounter each other. Contrary to that initial outrage, Padmaavat offers a shamelessly glowing depiction of Hindu and Rajput nationalism and an offensive depiction of Muslims. This level of Hindu-Muslim tension in a Bollywood film is unusual.

The setup is standard: Sultan of Delhi Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) is used to getting what he wants. A possessive man, he is a sharp fighter, ambitious and obsessed with beauty and empire. His adversary is Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), a Rajput king and ruler of Mewar, who takes a subtler approach to life. A charmer (rather than a taker) of women, he is concerned with principle, pride, honour, being a Rajput (a caste with royal lineage) and protecting his kingdom.

That Khilji is Muslim and interested in expanding the Mughal empire while the Hindu Rajput kingdom needs to be guarded, should be of no consequence. India has always seen itself as a secular democracy, but given the rise of hardline Hindu nationalism, Padmaavat cannot be viewed outside this context. To do so would be irresponsible.

The plot really gets going when Khilji hears of Queen Padmavati’s (Deepika Padukone) beauty. He wants to lay eyes on her and assumes that would be enough to make her his, but Ratan Singh and Rajput honour stand in his way.

Ratan Singh and Padmavati jointly concoct several plans to defeat Khilji. In the end Khilji and Ratan Singh square off in a well-choreographed sword fight. Meanwhile, Padmavati leads a chorus of maids in a lecture about good versus evil.

Padmaavat climaxes in an exacting and shocking spectacle of good (Hindu) versus evil (Muslim).

In the film, the Sultan and his army are portrayed as barbaric and animalistic, they are clad in dark colours, their sets messy and chaotic. The Rajputs are dressed in whites and bright colours, portrayed as a community committed to principles, honour and pride.

Political tensions aside, the cast is lacklustre. Not even Padukone, known for playing strong and interesting female leads, can bring Padmavati to life. In most scenes her eyes brim with tears – emotional yes, but she’s not saying anything. The character shares intellectual mastery and warrior skill with her husband, but she is reduced to a weepy-eyed wife.

Khilji’s wife, Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari) lives under his thumb and is painfully submissive until close to the end when she helps the Rajput royals escape from her husband and is banished to a dungeon as a traitor.

Once again, Bhansali has succeeded in cinematography and set design. While the costumes are beautiful, they’re underwhelming  in comparison to his 2015 hit Bajirao Mastani, a period piece that also starred Padukone and Singh.

A notable amount of screen time is given to topless men. Both Khilji and Ratan Singh get to show off their buff bodies. Perhaps to keep us entertained throughout the 163-minute run time.

The disappointing soundtrack adds little pizzazz. Hit song Ghoomar comes early, with forgettable follow-ups until Binte Dil: Khilji lies in a bathtub with his slave eunuch Malik Kafur, gratingly played by Jim Sarbh. Kafur declares his love for Khilji, who quickly rejects him while understanding Kafur’s dedication is about desire. It’s corny and unbelievable even by Bollywood standards.

Padmaavat ends with a “glorious” display of jauhar,  an ancient Hindu custom of self-immolation. Padmavati ceremoniously leads several hundred women of the Rajput court, all dressed in red and gold, into flames thus protecting herself from Khilji’s gaze for eternity.  

She is Padmavati the leader, the saviour of the Rajput people. With this one, Padukone, known for being a feminist and speaking out against body shaming, marches us back in time.

movies@nowtoronto.com | @checkoutrach

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