Monday, December 21, 2015

On "Bajirao Mastani"

Princess Mastani, the eponymous heroine of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest, is extraordinary not just because she is beautiful (as played by Deepika Padukone, she looks like she might dissolve into sunlight and mist at any moment) or because she is a skilled warrior. Mastani is also fantastically cussed, a creature of shockingly little reason or sense. A brief flirtation with a Maratha general impels her to abandon her home and land up at his. She remains there in the face of insult and injury, degradation and ostracization, because she must have her Bajirao. And once she has him, Mastani makes him the locus of her existence, waiting for him, making love to him, bearing offspring for him, and eventually losing her child and her life for him. Padukone doesn't even blink when she looks at Singh; her splendid eyes are astar and a little deranged.

Bhansali has always romanticized (and eroticized) extreme submission. But the clever, brave, literate Mastani's self-effacement in the name of love is a dizzying new level in the sadomasochistic love games that often form the crux of his films. She's the Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction, except Bhansali exalts her for her magnificent obsession instead of making her an object of derision. 

If you're the sort who expects characters in fiction and art to act in rational, constructive ways that best serve their own interests, Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali's retelling of an 18th-century noblewoman's love affair with an already married warrior-statesman, will annoy you as much as Bhansali's previous romantic dramas did. 

The principal characters in Bhansali's cinematic universe are all superego and id, sex drive and death drive, high passion and high dudgeon, and they, like their creator, do little by half-measures. I wrote in an earlier piece that a SLB love story, at least Devdas onward, is generally "a horror film of sorts. Love is both god and monster; and since there is no fleeing from it, the infuriating, fascinating victims in Bhansali's cavernous yet claustrophobic world run toward it, bloodied and crazed." 

Romantic love as sublime torture, as the thorn in your side (or, if we're being referential, in your foot) that you leave there till you are near-dead and orgasmic with the poison in your system, is not an easy or even pleasant notion to buy into, but Bhansali realizes this notion with such Quixotic mania in every aspect of his movies that I, for one, invariably find myself impressed, if not always moved. He is a true visionary, a filmmaker whose ambition is matched by an ability to hard-sell his worldview (perverse as it may seem to many) through the almost wracking beauty of his visuals and music and the dogged, unflagging thrust of his narrative toward the rousingly tragic. 

Bhansali's abiding interest has been viraha, the separation of lovers that is heavy with pain and an almost spiritual sort of longing. I was a little taken aback when I thought back on his oeuvre and realized that, despite the reputation his films have for the chemistry between their main leads, the lovers of his films spend very little time in each other's company. Kept apart by circumstances and wounded pride and intransigent families, they are, after the initial courtship, mostly shown pining for one another. The separation of the titular couple, less organic here than in Bhansali's other films (since she marries him and lives right across the hall, so to speak) might have become Bajirao Mastani's biggest downfall were it not for its lead actors. Singh and Padukone make so much heat and light out of the surprisingly meager screen-time they have together (and very little by way of interesting storytelling about the two of them as a unit post-marriage) that it is on the strength of their chemistry alone that the film holds together.  

Padukone is, in general, tremendous in the film, playing Mastani with an appealingly wanton quality and using those magnificent eyebrows and long, expressive hands to great effect in each of her magnificent dance numbers. It's a pity, then, that her Urdu is rather ragged and uninflected, especially given how solid her co-star's accent work is, alongside the rest of what he manages to accomplish in his superstar-making turn here.

I said a silent prayer of gratitude for Singh while watching the film. Thank heavens Bhansali wasn't able to make this film earlier with any of the other male stars he'd intended to cast. Singh is virile and beautiful as Bajirao, who is perhaps the most interesting male protagonist Bhansali has ever written. (The filmmaker's women are almost always the most compelling figures in his work; the men are generally immature, unworthy idiots or curmudgeonly saints.) Singh brings so much swagger to his deeply committed performance and is so ferociously, terrifyingly alive that the film almost seems like it's in 3-D when he's onscreen. His Bajirao is so many things — noble, funny, sexy, imperious, hotheaded, scheming, and eventually weary and broken — and the actor hits all of those notes without showing any sign of strain. You understand why the two women in his life are so hopelessly besotted with him. 

The second of those two women, Priyanka Chopra's Kashibai, is the film's most sympathetic character. Singh and Chopra's scenes with one another are full of warmth and humor in a way that his with Padukone just aren't. Chopra, in what is perhaps her best performance to date, brings reserves of dignity, humor, and warmth to Kashi and just about walks away with the film;  the wise, sweet Kashibai follows in the tradition of Madhuri Dixit's Chandramukhi (Devdas) and Rani Mukerji's Gulabji (Saawariya) as the character whom, despite her third-wheel status, the audience feels most for (and would probably like best in real life). 

Chopra gets the film's two most emotionally charged scenes — the first, where she finally reveals to Bajirao her anguish at having been abandoned; and the second, in which she visits her rival and encourages her to stay unwavering in the face of vitriolic intolerance. Chopra's Kashi is a paragon of traditional wifely virtue, but she is refreshingly uncompromising in her own way. She refuses to abnegate her self-respect by being content with her husband's second-best love. She refuses, also, to be unjust to the other woman; her resentment is reserved for the man who's made the decision to bring this other woman home.  

Chopra also gets the film's sexiest moment; she watches Singh bathe with unconcealed lust and is subsequently carried off to bed by him. Singh's romance with Padukone is chaste by comparison; the closest they get to physical intimacy is when he presses a dagger (no innuendo intended) into her back and when he helps deliver their baby. This bit is touching and funny, and not just because the baby is clearly fake.

Bajirao Mastani is Bhansali's first film based on historical events (if one discounts Black, which took significant inspiration from the Helen Keller story). Bhansali remains engaged primarily with the personal here, but he also concerns himself with the political in a way that he never did in his previous films. The film begins with Bajirao's declaration that he intends, by taking down the Muslim Mughals, to re-establish a Hindu empire in India. But he goes on to marry a Muslim woman and raise a Muslim son. The perceived corruption of the bloodline is what drives his mother, his brother, and the ruling religious order of his fiefdom to attack Mastani again and again. (All this maltreatment of Mastani gets a little repetitious, eventually; I'd rather have done away with it, and Singh's victory dance number, in favor of more of the lead pair together.) I was worried at the outset that Bajirao Mastani would take a troublingly of-the-moment Hindu supremacist view of the famed warrior's story, but it ends up being a fairly explicit call for inter-religious tolerance and harmony. As admirable as this message may be, it also feels facile, given that Bajirao's change of heart (which is what it really feels like, despite his subsequent claim to his mother that he was always fighting the Mughals, never the Muslims) isn't explored with any sort of nuance. And what of his massive ambition to conquer the entire nation? Bhansali doesn't quite know how to navigate Bajirao's aspirations as a statesman with the same level of engagement that he has with the character's domestic life. 

He does a better job of establishing Bajirao as a fearsome warrior, though, and Singh makes for a convincing and kinetic action star. Bhansali's aesthetic choices in the battle scenes are inspired by a couple unexpected sources: Wuxia films and graphic novels. (The thrilling opening credits make the latter inspiration explicit.) Despite these interesting influences, these scenes are not always visually successful. I wish Bhansali had relied less on CGI and more on practical effects and an impressionistic filming style, where cunningly chosen detail, rather than slightly incoherent editing and computer-generated trickery in unkind close shots, could have given us a sense of the action. 

Otherwise, however, this is an intimidatingly gorgeous film. Bhansali's visuals are, contrary to popular opinion, not pretty just for the heck of it. He gives the audience much to look at, but not out of a desire to pander. The glorious-looking worlds of his films, where each color and element is full and vigorous, are the most effective setting for the vivid, heightened emotional states of his characters. The compositional symmetry of his scenes and set pieces makes for the sort of backdrop against which the unrelenting forces of chaos set in motion to thwart his protagonists stand out in especially startling relief. 

Throughout Bajirao Mastani, I was almost afraid to blink for fear of missing some new wonder, some gleaming beauty. I almost laughed out of sheer disbelief during Deewani Mastani, a musical sequence of absurd, discombobulating beauty. (Mastani dances in a brazen whirl of gold in this number, but I was struck by how she, after her move to Pune, is almost always situated in enormous, ruin-like, shadowy rooms, a woman in the middle of hostile seas.) Bajirao Mastani's symphonic visual language is rich with diverse influences (Mughal tapestries, the Ajanta cave murals, Raja Ravi Verma paintings), but the resulting look is singular, purposeful, and memorable.

Ultimately, Bhansali and his team are trying to give us an experience, bold and large and go-for-broke, in Bajirao Mastani. The film has its faults, but halfheartedness or laziness are not among them.This is a film that is naked in its desire to stir and impress, and, to its credit, it often succeeds. Bajirao Mastani, exhausting as it can be, is a forceful, exhilarating work.

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