Padmaavat, Bollywood’s most recent, controversy-ridden tale, is just up Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s alley. Much like his previous films, the almost three-hour story is filled with sweeping landscapes, dramatic sets, and incredibly stunning costumes. The film, inspired by a poem of the same name, which takes place in 13th century Rajasthan, centers around Rani Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), Maharawal Ratan Singh, King of Chittor (Shahid Kapoor), and ravenous Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), the rough, barbarous Sultan from Delhi who lays siege to their kingdom in his lust for the beautiful queen.
The story begins with Padmavati and Ratan Singh falling in love after she accidentally shoots him with a bow and arrow while hunting in her home in present-day Sri Lanka. She moves back to Chittor with him, becoming his first wife and Queen, and lives in splendor and love until, through a rumor, she becomes the center of Alauddin Khilji’s, deep, dark fantasy, who hears about her beauty and claims he will stop at nothing have her for himself. The film is then a battle of the wits between him and Ratan Singh, as Khilji does everything he can to take Padmavati.
While the film is rich in cinematic graphics-- gorgeous costumes, breathtaking forts, textured tents and deserts, symmetric dance sequences, as well as beautiful characters, for we can all admit that Shahid Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, truly did look beautiful in their royal garb in their royal courts, it felt overly manufactured, it felt like a distraction
This distraction came with a clear message—that Hindus are righteous, pure heroes, and Muslims are dirty, savage, un-wholesome, and ultimately, evil barbarians. Bhansali even went as far as to connect these sentiments in the visual coordination: Mr. Kapoor was dressed by his beloved Padmani in whites, beiges, light hues; he ate vegetarian food delicately; he was clean, sharp, and beautiful. Mr. Singh, on the other hand, was dirty and wore dark clothes; he was constantly smeared with blood (usually of those he killed), he stomped around harshly, was famous for his interest in both women and men, and ate meat with ferociousness.
Meanwhile, the final scene, the legendary, dramatic ending, depicted Padmavati and the women of Chittor running to their death in an enactment of Jauhar-- an old tradition where women would self-immolate to avoid capture or assault by foreign enemies. While the film makes sure to preface that they don’t condone this tradition, the stunning visual aesthetic of hundreds of women (as well as pregnant women and children), dressed in the traditional bridal red lehengas and sarees, running with broad smiles on their face towards the fire, was problematic-- not in it’s showing it at all, but how it was represented.
While the film was trying to convey the power of Padmavati and the Rajput women as they chose to take their fate into their own hands by self-immolating instead of being captured by the enemies, the problem lies in it’s representing the act as something not at all grotesque. The shots in this climactic scene were striking-- the juxtaposition of red against the clay fort, the symmetrical architecture and steps leading down to the huge fire pit, the determination in hundred’s of women’s eyes, Deepika’s sweeping hair… it was so inspiring and magnificent, that you almost forget that the aftermath of that scene is hundreds of women burning to death in order to avoid society’s alternative: brutality and sexual assault.
Ultimately, what was missing in Padmaavat was not the visual imagination, but rather the consequences of its portrayal of the story. We must ask what our job as film makers is… What are we choosing to represent? What are we choosing to fight for in our stories?
This was more than a film—the promotion and censorship that occurred with Padmaavat brought to light a serious problem in the Indian film industry: that true art and expression cannot go untouched, that the final say goes to politics and religion, not to the creators. And yet, despite having the coverage, power, and fame to fight these censorships, the release of Padmaavat revealed a project that in reality was missing the mark.
Nothing was stopping Padmaavat from being a world-class film—it had a huge budget, an A-list cast, and an “epic” story that could inspire the world visually. Instead, however, it was a bit cheesy-- it’s graphics were fine, until you looked at the CGI’s details, which were rough and shockingly undeveloped. Instead, it played into the most basic tropes religion and politics can hand you. Instead, it couldn’t emerge as a powerful film about women’s empowerment, because it forgot to mention the reasons why women needed empowerment in the first place.
Bollywood needs to work harder to create original, high-end films. Despite boasting one of the largest film industries in the world, and a production scope that reaches millions of viewers, quality is missing. Where is the art? Where is the attention to detail? Where is the recognition of it’s power to influence? To inspire important conversation?
Let’s do better India. If this controversy over censorship has shown us anything, it’s that we need to take art into our own hands. As a film production agency, we hope we can fill the shoes that Padmaavat left empty.