Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest Bollywood film Bajirao Mastani appears to be a hit in the San Francisco Bay area according to an unscientific poll I conducted. The first few days were sold out explained the ticket sales person at the local Silicon Valley theatre when I went to see the film. I, of course, waited for a few days before catching the show on a weekday and was surprised by the turn out. Bajirao Mastani needs to be watched on the big screen someone pointed out, and I agree.
Bajirao Mastani is Bhansali’s magnificent obsession. For over a decade he tried to make the film and finally succeeded in directing the film starring Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Tanvi Azmi, Milind Soman and others. The film released on Dec 18, 2015 in a handful of theatres in the San Francisco Bay area.
This historic period film is set in 18thc India when the country was a patchwork quilt of different kingdoms with the Mughals ruling in Delhi and the Marathas ruling from the western state of what is Maharashtra today. The film opens with a discussion on electing a new Peshwa or Prime Minister for King Shahu (Mahesh Manjrekar), the Maratha King. The conflict is resolved when Bajirao (Ranveer Singh), a brilliant military strategist is chosen. Selecting the new Peshwa is a minor conflict compared to what unfolds next – a love conflict, where Bajirao ends up loving two women – Mastani (Deepika Padrone) and Kashi (Priyanka Chopra). The story of Bajiao and Mastani is mostly a footnote in Indian history books, but in the hands of Bhansali the story morphs into a grand tale of love and betrayal.
In one of his early military expeditions Bajirao falls in love with Mastani, a princess from Bundelkhand, who is of mixed heritage. Her father is Hindu and her mother is Muslim. He ends up marrying Mastani, who follows him to Pune, where Bajirao lives with his mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi) and Kashi. His mother has a hard time accepting Mastani since she is partly of Muslim heritage. She simply refuses to accept Mastani into the family and uses various ploys to severe the ties between Bajirao and Mastani. Radhabai fails miserably.
The uneasy relationship between Bajirao’s family and Mastani continues for a few years. Mastani lives in a separate home with her son and gets to meet Bajirao on rare occasions. Things take a turn for the worse when Bajirao and Kashi’s son Nana actively plots to eliminate Mastani. In a tragic turn and unrelated turn of events Bajirao and Mastani die.
The film was an absorbing watch, but every now and then a dialog box would pop in my head with a question or comment. Before that ephemeral thought melts from my mind I’d frantically scribble them on a piece of a paper. Here are my observations in no particular order. Ranveer Singh’s performance is powerful and riveting. For some inexplicable reason I was reminded of Sohrab Modi, an actor, who was famous for his performance in films like Pukar, Sheesh Mahal and others. Modi had a way of grabbing your attention right from the first frame of his film. I am not sure if Singh has watched any of Modi’s films. The way Singh strode into the first scene of Bajirao Mastani reminded me of Modi.
Both Padukone and Chopra were very good. Padukone has developed an effortless way of portraying her characters and she did the same in this film. This is perhaps one of the more polished performances of Chopra. Her portrayal of Kashi had lot a lot of quiet depth, empathy and conflicted emotions. Tanvi Azmi as Radhabai was very convincing. Others that need a special mention are Milind Soman and Mahesh Manjrekar.
The costumes, color palette and the sets grab your attention. Anju Modi needs a special mention for her wonderful work on creating a rich and brilliant wardrobe for the actors. Grand costumes with gorgeous color palette is a hallmark of Bhansali’s production. And then there is the music that is composed by Bhansali.
I am not sure whether it was just me or if others saw the fleeting influence of Chinese cinema in Bhansali’s directorial style. For instance, the sword fight between Mastani and Bajirao reminded me of Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon. And then there were a couple of scenes that distinctly reminded me of Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s films like Raise The Red Lantern. There was a scene in Bajirao Mastani where red Chinese looking lanterns are lit that brought back memories of Yimou’s films. And then there were shots of the Peshwa’s home, courtyard and rooftops that once again had that tantalizing Chinese influence.I was puzzled on why I was reminded of these Chinese influences. Could it be that Bhansali was trying to reach his Chinese audience through these references? Bajirao Mastani released in China in 600 theaters. Perhaps that explains the Chinese influences in the film? Or, am I reading way too much into it?
And now for the quibbles. What is it with Bhansali and love? Why does he focus so strongly on the tragic elements of a love story? What is his fascination with unrequited love and portraying women as having limited choices? I’d be curious to find out what Bhansali has to say about love. Why does loving someone have such drastic and dramatic consequences in his film? What draws Bhansali to make films on a grand scale?
Bajirao Mastani is worth watching on the big screen at least once. And by the way, Bajirao Mastani is just 10 minutes longer than Spectre. So, are Hollywood films catching up with Bollywood films in terms of the length of the film? You be the judge.