With Padmavati, Sanjay Leela Bhansali goes where cinematic greats have gone before
Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Pamavati has majestic grandeur written all over it. His fascination for literary and historical characters continues with Padmavati (also known as Rani Padmini), the 14th century queen from Rajasthan who is an enigma to us even today. With this film, Bhansali is also touching upon a theme that is a favourite with filmmakers across the world.
Bhansali’s Padmavati explores war and love on celluloid. An obsessive, unrequited love unfolding amid all-around mayhem — it’s a formula that filmmakers have turned to time and again. The English Patient, Casablanca, From Here to Eternity, Doctor Zhivago are just some of the films that come to mind, in this regard, which went on to become universal favourites (and blockbuster hits). The End of The Affair or For Whom The Bell Tolls or Cold Mountain each explored facets of love seamlessly merged with the tension and urgency of war.
What is it about war and romance that makes audiences connect so strongly with these films? Is it their dramatic nature that is the draw? As themes, India hasn’t explored them as extensively on the big screen — Padmavati is among the rare films (Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, SLB’s Bajirao Mastani are the others that come to mind). One reason for the lack of such films is perhaps the nature of wars themselves in our country. If we were to overlook historical wars, and view the more contemporary ones instead — with Pakistan, China — they were not sustained ones (barring Kargil, which lasted two months). Perhaps the shorter duration gave filmmakers lesser fodder for filmmakers; more suited to films about specific battles/incidents than sweeping sagas.
Hollywood, on the other hand, has had a film of this genre — dubbed the Great American Movie of the time — at least every decade. So while the ‘40s had Casablanca, the ‘50s had From Here to Eternity and the ‘60s had Doctor Zhivago. Not only did these movies flawlessly showcase love against the backdrop of war, they were also released at a time when most people were recovering from the ravages of the two World Wars. The wounds were fresh, and there was a generation that could relate to the horrors.
Take the case of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (which is perhaps the closest Padmavati comes to, in terms of canvas and scale). Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje set his story against the backdrop of World War II, and the story of the unrequited love between Almasy and Katherine (as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas) took the Oscars by storm in 1996 — garnering 12 nominations and winning as many as nine categories.
Of course there have been times when films with these themes have been way off target. Bhardwaj’s Rangoon is a case in point, as is Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. With the bombing of Darwin during World War II as its backdrop, the film failed because of its glaring plot-holes and ill-defined characters.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the only filmmaker of this generation in Bollywood who can be described as an ‘auteur’. One factor that should work in Padmavati’s favour is that the story of Rani Padmini, Rawal Ratan Singh and Alauddin Khilji is part of folklore — and there is no documentary or historical proof of the incidents he wishes to depict having eve taken place. Protests from certain groups aside, that does give Bhansali the freedom to mould his film the way he wants to. Whether it will become a great — like Doctor Zhivago and the other films that made war and romance their mainstay — of course, remains to be seen.