PADMAAVAT Review: If Only Hollywood Made Epics Like This

India’s most controversial blockbuster is an exciting take on an ancient story.

To call Padmaavat a cultural phenomenon would be an understatement. It’s set box-office records even outside India, making the top 10 at the US box office on its opening weekend - an astonishing performance for any foreign-language film. But the production was hotly controversial already. Based on an allegorical epic-poem account of the 1303 Siege of Chittor that has since become legend in the true sense of the word, the debate and outrage around its perceived slights on India's various subcultures was 2017's biggest cinema story, despite few Westerners hearing about it.

The uproar began before the film was even shot. Reactionaries identifying with the various groups depicted in the film staged threats and protests, some horrifically violent, at perceived negative or heretical depictions of its historical and legendary figures. Bounties and threats of violence were placed on the film’s cast, crew, and potential screening venues. Sets were attacked with petrol bombs. In one instance, a human corpse was found hanging next to a slogan protesting the film (later deemed a suicide reframed postmortem by opportunistic protestors). Politicians called for the film to be banned. Leading up to release, rioters torched buses, pelted civilians with sticks and stones, and even attacked a school bus.

Most of these reactions, of course, stemmed from rumour and innuendo bearing little resemblance to the actual film. Its release was indefinitely delayed as a result, and it took multiple changes to pass India’s notoriously conservative censorship board, eventually growing several disclaimers and an altered title (referencing the original text rather than the main character). Only after a Supreme Court free-speech ruling was Padmaavat even released in several Indian states.

Suffice it to say, DC fanboys ain’t got shit when it comes to protesting. And based on the movie, the first Indian film to screen in glorious IMAX 3D, DC films ain’t got shit when it comes to cinematic spectacle, either.

Padmaavat’s epic-poem roots might inspire apprehension in Western audiences unfamiliar with them, but luckily, the storytelling is strong enough that one can go in as an empty vessel and still grasp most of it - provided that vessel is also an open one. It mostly centres around the (real, historical) siege of the Chittor fort by Khalji sultan Alauddin, and his (made-up, allegorical) attempts to abduct its (also probably made-up) queen, Padmavati, who along with Chittor’s other women ultimately performed an act of self-immolation rather than be taken by Alauddin’s forces. In telling that story, the film also delves into the romance between Padmavati and king Ratan Singh (the impossibly good-looking duo of Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor); power struggles within the Delhi sultanate; Alauddin’s relationships with his wife and male slave/consort; and more.

In no small way, the whole affair resembles a hyper-sensuous Indian Game of Thrones, with all the betrayals, beheadings, battles, and (implied) boning that goes along with it. It’s exceptionally entertaining, full of jaw-dropping twists and awe-inspiring setpieces - not to mention a healthy smattering of often-wry humour.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali revels and luxuriates in the scale afforded him by the film’s budget - the highest in Indian cinema history - forging a sweeping epic whose every corner is packed with detail. Every aspect of the production drips with sensuality, from the lush sets and intricate costume design to some of the most effective 3D cinematography I’ve ever seen. Dance numbers and battle scenes constantly one-up each other in energy and dynamics, filling the screen with combatants and dancers and choreography. The rich score and dramatic sound design frequently overwhelm, mixing with the visuals to create a truly intoxicating motion picture experience.

If there’s any single reason to see Padmaavat - and there are many - it’s Ranveer Singh’s captivating performance as Alauddin. Nearly one hundred percent of the villainy in Padmaavat falls on Alauddin’s shoulders (with a tiny bit going to weaselly priest Raghav Chetan), and Singh performs his role with psychopathic levels of charisma. Playing Alauddin like an awesome, sexy blend of pirate captain and Klingon, his performance here is one of my favourites of the last year, at least. With luscious hair, magnetic eyes, and a vital energy unlike any Western movie star, Singh creates a preening, scenery-gobbling villain it's hard to look away from - the kind of guy who inspects himself in a mirror and does a muscular chef’s-kiss. You’d struggle to find an actor this present in every moment of their performance as Singh is in Padmaavat. Once the Internet gets its hands on this performance, the gifs will rain from the heavens.

One of Padmaavat's more intriguing subplots involves Alauddin’s relationship with Malik, a slave presented to him as a gift who becomes an advisor, enforcer, and consort. Though there’s no explicit homosexual conduct in the film, subtext oozes from the frame in the pair’s scenes together. They share a musical musical number that starts off with Malik massaging Alauddin’s feet in an enormous wooden bathtub, and it's hilarious, sexy, and sad all at once. Latent or blatant, the sexuality is palpable as fuck.

The historical and cultural minefields navigated in Padmaavat are dense, and I can't pretend to fully understand them. Those more familiar with the story might speak differently, but to my eyes, Bhansali has done a commendable job of reconciling a centuries-old story with more modern sensibilities. Though the story definitely has Hindu heroes and an Islamic villain, the director and cast alike are careful not to tar Alauddin's Muslim followers with his nastiness, presenting the character as a singular villain driven by selfish greed, not religious fervour. And as for “historical accuracy,” I can only speak from my perception and say the movie exudes a blend of period authenticity and fanciful legend-spinning. I suspect that's also the intent.

Predictably, it's in its treatment of its female characters that Padmaavat gets most interesting. The source material was written around 1540 and set in an extremely patriarchal culture and time period - and there's no getting around its ending, which sees Padmavati and other women of her court self-immolating in order to escape capture and torment. Ritual suicide is obviously a tricky area to explore, especially when it’s so pointedly gendered, but Padmaavat goes out of its way to make the best of a bad situation at every turn. 

Bhansali and Prakash Kapadia’s script does its damnedest to bring Padmavati out from under the heel of patriarchal rule, giving her substantial agency within the story's framework. As played by Padukone, Padmavati is an intelligent and tactful figure, capable of playing the proverbial game of thrones right up until the end. Her self-immolation is neither glorified nor presented as an act of duty; it's a tragic last resort in a no-win scenario. Somehow, Bhansali manages to find the self-actualisation in every one of the film's characters, from Padmavati to Alauddin's all-but-ignored wife, turning the climactic inferno into a statement of defiance rather than one of defeat. The result is a film based on a traditional text that's explicitly about tradition, but finds non-traditional, character-based routes between plot points - and comes out swinging against the petty power-grabs of men.

For many Westerners, Padmaavat could be the first experience of Indian cinema - something I would encourage. At 165 minutes, it’s long, but not “Bollywood long” - you’ve seen studio tentpoles with comparable running times, but with a fraction of the storytelling or joie de vivre. A Shakespearean-scale epic costume drama with severed heads, dance numbers, and barely-restrained sexuality: you can’t go too wrong with that.