Sanjay Leela Bhansali's massive magnum opus follow up to 'Bajirao Mastani' releases it's first trailer! And it's glorious. Magnificent. And uncharacteristically worrying. But not for the reasons you would think. While the movie has been in the news since last year for its many religious controversies, it's more so the portrayal of one of its characters that concerns me.
Films of any historical setting will naturally court some controversy over authenticity of subscribing to the real version of events. Discussing whether to exercise artistic influence, or tell a dull story to preserve that 'really happened' becomes a pointless exercise when adapting a real event into an entertaining film, that also has to be financial successful.
But the Trailer points out something that is a lot more concerning to me, than worrying about if the scenes in the movie actually happened in real life or not.
'Padmavati' sees Deepika Padukone's titular character, and her husband played by Shahid Kapoor, having to fend off an attack on their kingdom from another opposing ruler played by Ranveer Singh.
The trailer doesn't really provide much story, which is strange because it's more than 3 minutes long! But Bhansali is known for this. The real heroes of this trailer are visuals, clothes, setting and cinematography. This should be considered asmore of an extended teaser, given that there will be a more dialogue intensive 'story' trailer that usually follows. But the visuals of 'Padmavati' are amazing. The sets and cast look impressive as hell, not to mention that I'm incredibly curious about the battle sequences, as they seem very grand in scale.
But while everyone else gushes over the visuals, which are gorgeous of course, the bulk of my interest remains in the story. And from what little we can unpack about the story from this trailer, I'm a little upset.
The trailer for 'Padmavati' makes it seem that Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji, is playing the conventional antagonist of the story.
When Ranveer Singh is featured in the trailer with devilish scars and a visual aesthetic that seems to imply a wild nature, it feels pretty clear that he's supposed to be the bad guy of the movie.
To know more about the story of 'Padmavati', or at least the historical version, take a listen to my Podcast where we discuss the film and it's historical inspiration, pretty extensively. But to simplify: Kapoor & Deepika Padukone play Rajput King and Queen. Singh's Khilji is a Muslim conqueror, enamored by Padmavati, who wants to make her part of his harem, so wages war against the Rajputs. It was a weird enough story line to want to adapt into a movie, but the trailer makes it seem even weirder.
Let's forget for a second about the motivation behind this adaptation, which basically feels like 'Troy', without the political, mythological or complexity of human relationships that that movie explored so successfully. But the issue becomes why Singh's portrayal of a Muslim character, is so explicitly vile and gruesome?
Full disclosure: I know very little about the historical depictions of these characters, cultural groups or even events as they supposedly played out in history. So I'm not sure what these characters are supposed to look and act like. But my concerns are more from a perspective of compelling storytelling. And if artistic liberties can be taken to dramatize historical elements, then the same license can be used to make a story more layered, instead of a one-note hero versus villain story.
Singh is seen doing conventionally villainous things in the trailer; staring creepily into a mirror, being carried, literally on the shoulders of other men (Xerxes from '300' anyone?) and fighting bare chested like a wild animal. Even Singh's look of the characters is that of a dirty, scarred and ravenous person. It's just too cliche! It's like Bhansali took all the tropes of what a villain is supposed to look like, combined it with some of Singh's own off-screen outfits and created the character of Khilji.
This is especially true when contrasted against the pure and regale aesthetic given to (presumably) our hero of the tale, Shahid Kapoor's character. Kapoor is seen adorned in jewels, coiffed hair and surrounded by extravagance. The difference is very much that of a clean cut and pure good guy, versus down and dirty evil bad guy. Which again, seems so one-dimensional, and not what you would expect from a filmmaker like Bhansali!
Should we be expecting him to have a catchphrase? A signature move where he feeds his enemies into pit full of crocodiles? Maybe the prehistoric kind from 'Mohenjo Daro' ?! Given the talent involved, both on and off screen, I was expecting for Khilji to be a cold and calculating conqueror. One whose need to rule over anything he sets his sights on, transfers over into his desire towards Padmavati. Not a watered down Bollywood version of a Khal Drogo impersonation.
There's also a disturbing scene of Singh eating meat, that's made to look so disgusting and feral, that it's hard not to feel like it's an intentional depiction of Muslims' non vegetarianism that is often an issue for Hindu characters in Bollywood. ('Bajrangi Bhaijaan')
Now, given that the role is being played by a talented actor like Singh, I definitely want to give him and Bhansali the benefit of the doubt here. I want to believe that there is more to this character than has been portrayed in the Trailer thus far. I'm sure the character will be given a tragic back story, or some other humanizing plot points that make his actions justifiable, or at least, understandable. But if the ultimate point of 'Padmavati', and these characters is just go to toe-to-toe, and we're going to get a 3 hour epic historical eye-feast built around it... it feels pointless.
Here's hoping the second trailer, the one with actual story beats and character introductions, will provide more insight. As well as a lot more of Aditi Rao Hydari as Khilji's wife, who is completely missing from the first trailer.