Movie Review: Bajirao Mastani

December 18, 2015
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(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Is embellishing historical events with a heightened sense of drama and cinematic liberty equivalent to mutilating it? Or is it ok when it’s meant for entertainment? If you watch Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical epic “Bajirao Mastani” as a student of history, these questions are sure to come up. The film is already under fire from historians and experts who say the portrayal of the Maratha warrior Bajirao Peshwa is inaccurate.

But Bhansali himself doesn’t seem take his history too seriously. A disclaimer at the beginning of the film states categorically that it doesn’t claim to be historically accurate. And even though it is based on N S Inamdar’s Marathi novel, “Rau”, the film doesn’t stay faithful to its source material, veering away many a time from Inamdar’s much more nuanced retelling of Bajirao’s life.

History, then, is merely a vehicle for Bhansali to mount his story on. This time, the scale is even bigger than his earlier films and slightly reminiscent of Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Jodhaa Akbar”. There are bloody battles, opulent palaces, grandeur and beautifully choreographed songs, but not all of them are historically accurate.

Ranveer Singh plays Bajirao, the dynamic Maratha warrior who leads the king’s armies and captures lands far and wide. He meets Mastani, the daughter of the king of Bundelkhand, when she comes to ask him for help in rescuing her kingdom from a Mughal conqueror. The two fall in love in true Bhansali style amid swinging chandeliers, falling curtains, clanging background music, and what is meant to be poetic dialogue.

But Mastani’s part-Muslim lineage and the fact that Bajirao is already married to Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) come in the way of our lovers. Bhansali’s narrative style is in full flow here. Everything is larger than life, including the size of Mastani’s nose rings, some of which look like they could be the rings around Saturn. Bajirao and Mastani speak to each other as if they are in a poetry competition, and the dialogue (by Prakash Kapadia) is clunky and heavy-handed.

The narrative is linear and predictable, but the film comes alive when Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra are in the frame. For Singh, it is possibly the role of a lifetime and he plays Bajirao with an ease and confidence that radiates on screen. His Marathi nasal twang, his swagger, his confrontations with his mother and brother, all point to a pitch-perfect performance that is the biggest highlight of the film.

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Matching him scene for scene is Priyanka Chopra, who brings so much dignity to the role of a wife who has to watch her husband fall in love and marry another woman. She is by turns playful and serious, a far cry from the Kashibai that Inamdar describes in his book (Kashibai is said to have been arthritic and had a limp).

The weak link is Deepika Padukone, which is surprising given the golden run she’s had lately. Padukone is so busy trying to be the ethereal beauty and mouthing dialogue like “Ishq ibadat hai” (love is worship) that she forgets to emote. She sports a permanent martyred expression throughout the film and fails to give us a sense of Mastani.

At 158 minutes, Bhansali’s film feels a tad too long and overwrought. The battle scenes seem to be more of a distraction, and the film-maker spent too much time and energy on making Bajirao and Mastani’s tale into this spiritual, other-worldly love story.

Despite all its faults, “Bajirao Mastani” is propped up by the performances of Singh and Chopra; and for that alone, it’s worth a watch. Just forget your history lessons inside the theatre.

(Editing by David Lalmalsawma; follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay, and David @davidlms25.This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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