By now, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani has become a bonafide Bollywood box office smash, raking in just under $14M in its first two weeks globally and recently sweeping the Filmfare Awards. However, it’s also a controversial film that’s sparked many protests across India.
The film is not about the famed exploits of that great Peshwa general who expanded the Maratha Kingdom from a dot on the West Coast to a lot across Central India between 1720-1740; it’s not about the conqueror who defeated the Mughals and the Portuguese, and knocked right at the doors of Delhi. It’s actually about one woman who caught the wandering eye of a man and wooed him away from his wife.
In the army, there is an offense that is liable to get you shamed and cashiered: it’s called ‘stealing a brother officer’s wife’s affections.’ That’s what Mastani (Deepika Padukone) proceeds to do. Her father, the Ruler of Bundelkhand (Benjamin Gilani), summons the help of the Marathas to defeat the Mughals who have laid siege to their city and made the royal family prisoners.
Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) arrives on the scene and defeats the Mughals. As his stay lingers beyond the formally mandated military rest and recoup leave, and turns into furlough, chemistry between Mastani and Bajirao quickly ignite an illicit love affair.
Bajirao returns to the slash and burn of his military quests, and the frigid arms of his desolate Queen Kashibhai (Priyanka Chopra), but Mastani is not far behind. Determined not to let time slake their passion, the crafty woman — the illegitimate daughter of a king and his paramour — resorts to the crude device of a convenient Rajputana custom where a woman may marry a suitor’s dagger during his absence on account of being away at battle.
She claims her marriage to Bajirao is solemnized on account of his having gifted her his dagger — innocently though — the man didn’t mean anything by it. Being born out of wedlock herself, she finds nothing wrong in pursuing a married man. And her father too, never thinks it fit to stop her from her ignominious quest.
Mastani seeks him out, much to the dismay of everyone around him. Bajirao’s orthodox Brahmin family is horrified by her impunity. So they scorn and humiliate her. They even make several attempts to assassinate her. But she perseveres in the face of opposition. Bajirao’s first wife Kashibai; his mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi); and his younger brother Chimaji Appa (Vaibhav Tatwawdi) are most deeply affected by this choice. Bajirao’s mother, especially, attempts to relegate Mastani among the danseurs and court courtesans.
The CharactersChopra though, as a grieving, scorned wife, carries her role with élan.In reality Bajirao did lead an exciting life, both on the battleground and off it; and he was indeed a master of strategic battlefield mobility, choosing the battle on his own audacious terms. He also happened to be actually married to Mastani, the daughter of the Bundelkhand king. It is also true that their son, Shamsher Bahadur, denied a Hindu upanyana (rites of passage) ceremony because of his ancestry, died fighting for the Marathas in the battle of Panipat at 27. Shamsher’s son, Ali Bahadur, carved out his own empire in the Bundelkhand region from the lands bequeathed by Bajirao to Mastani, which today is called Banda. Bajirao died of a heatstroke while collecting revenue, and not in the torment of his parting from Mastani, as depicted here.
There are too many things that go wrong at the functional level where it becomes hard for a traditional Indian audience, still deeply rooted in the consecration of family, loyalty, religion, and tradition, still badly hung-over from the sermonizing of the last few films, to swallow this tale.
Had the conflict not been on a religious level, which Bhansali elevates it to — and I think that’s a strategic mistake — one would have gladly embraced the Hamlet-ian dilemma that a married man faces when being pursued — by so much beauty. I wish the conflict were on account of some royal treachery, or political vendetta, or plain body odor or hairy shins: and I would have agreed.
In too many recent movies, Singh clowns around…and that trademark silly grin lingers here too, until half-way through the film, when he suddenly realizes he is a forlorn regal character allegedly torn between libido and duty. The grin disappears, and the man inflates in stature. Yet, it’s hard to take him seriously. Padukone, too, is flippant and frivolous; she ought to have shown more aplomb. Chopra, however, carries her role as a scorned wife with élan.
Style Over Substance
In Greek plays they had comic relief; when devastating sorrow swept over a sobbing audience, the playwright summoned the sobering clowns. In our movies, we have philharmonic relief, where song and dance, and rain and trees take over. Bring tissues for the teary moment when, just after intense jousting, when Mastani and Kashi, both vying for the life force of their master, return as grinning, well-mannered, well-adjusted, and magnanimous competitors in the palace dance show.
Where story and script fall short, Bhansali seemingly uses production value, choreography, costumes, and score to perfunctorily bridge the gaps. In fact, this dependency on detail comes at the expense of moving the story along efficiently — so ham-fisted item numbers are later used to fast-track the plot to the finish line. It becomes unnerving, upsetting and quite disorienting for the audience. Other Bhansali tropes inclue: A plethora of Photoshopped scenes here, including that of a sedated Bengal tiger, sterilized battlefields and castles, and sweeping shots of scarlet skies.
Ultimately, if Bajirao Mastani is guilty of anything, it’s not of distorting history to the point of fairy tale — what else besides melodrama would moviegoers expect from Bhansali? — but rather, it’s guilty of not doing it consistently and evenly. However, like all of Bhansali’s films, it’s at least a good popcorn flick if nothing more.
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Nidhi Singh studied English literature at Delhi University. She has a number of novels and miscellany published in India, and her short stories have appeared in various magazines such as Flash Fiction Press, Fabula Argentea, Romance Magazine, Under the Bed and Nebula Rift. She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.