Is there a filmmaker in Bollywood more relentless than Sanjay Leela Bhansali? Relentless in his choice of themes, palette, tone and mood. Relentless in the colors and contours of his frames. Relentless in pursuit of that great story of star crossed lovers, unforgettable tragedies and memorable epics. He is probably the only filmmaker you can recognize just from the image compositions he comes up with. Maybe that’s why after a point he decided to take on music direction of his films. Everything on screen is so poetic and created with love that he couldn’t bear someone else giving it a score.
The ostentatious setting this time is for the love story of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) and Mastani (Deepika Padukone), caught in a maelstrom of familial tussle with Bajirao’s mother Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi) and his first wife Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra), and caste issues in the saffron clad Maratha empire encroached by Mastani, daughter of Rajput king and his Muslim wife. This is a story that lends naturally to Bhansali’s brand of drama. You have a number of confrontations – one on one at that – in this canvas that he gleefully brings his paintbrushes to – Bajirao and Mastani, Bajirao and Radhabai, Bajirao and Kashi, Kashi and Mastani or Bajirao and his brothers. The trailers may show battlefields and sword fights but Bajirao Mastani deals with the battle within mounted in as colossal a stage. A fall in the battle ruffles Mastani’s tresses far far away. The weather changes reflect the feelings of the lovers. There is gleaming sunrise, torrential downpours and stormy rivers that need astrology approved rings for luck. Nature is called upon as witness to the union of Bajirao and Mastani and it is nature that violently responds to their unlawful separation. This is a love story of that kind. Love that is intensified and empowered by the class of opposition it faces.
Talking of reflection, a lot of that is going on in Bajirao Mastani. There is ample use of mirrors in both literal and figurative sense. An elaborate mirror play is used to project Bajirao standing in the middle of his new mirror palace into a screen in Kashibai’s room. The way this is used later is predictable but works. Mastani reflects on her meeting with Bajirao and him offering her his dagger (a Bundelkhand tradition of acceptance into holy matrimony) sitting in front of a mirror and Kashibai, back in Pune, discovers that his dagger is missing standing in front of a mirror. You see Kashibai’s face in a mirror in a shot from behind her when she is talking to Radhabai and they joke about stitching a green flag instead of a saffron one. At one point the Peshwa says our fight is with the Mughals and not the Muslims. There is also a lot of water in Bajirao Mastani as characters walk in it during significant moments. Bajirao walks across a pool of water to the Nizam when he offers his friendship. He acknowledges Mastani’s presence in his city for the first time standing inside a fountain. He steps into the water to come clear about his feelings for Mastani to Kashi. The story itself ends in water. Maybe it reflects purity of thought and expression or Bajirao’s proclamation to his subjects to be adaptable. The set up gives Bhansali a lot of room to go for his wide angle shots maintaining symmetry to give it the gravitas that he wants in every shot. Like the rains over a mountain shot from below with Bajirao taking on Krishna Bhatt, the Brahmin head. Or in scene featuring a dart game that Bajirao practices on his brother Chimaji. The palette is all red and golden hues and true to Bhansali’s canon we get everything from Holi to Ganesh Chaturthi bathed in bright colors. A most exquisite picturization of Albela Sajan celebrates Bajirao’s return from war.
Bajirao may be the warrior but a head to toe in mail and mask sword fight introduction is reserved for the legitimate actor-star – Deepika Padukone. There is no doubt about her warrior status on or off screen. In contrast Ranveer Singh’s Bajirao gets a muted display of his talents in the king’s court to squash the doubts anyone may have. First it is a bit disconcerting to see the transformation from this Mastani to the smitten princess of Bundelkhand as the much maligned second wife of the Peshwa in Pune. But Mastani grows on you with her uncompromising dedication to Bajirao in a hostile environment. I wonder if there is a more perfect casting than Ranveer Singh with his shaved head and tuft. There is a case of hindsight but it is impossible now to imagine Ranbir Kapoor or Varun Dhawan or Shahid Kapoor in this role. At some point Bajirao Mastani morphs into a Kashibai show in the second half all thanks to Chopra’s superb measured performance. Kashi’s uncertainty about her feelings is writ large on her face throughout and even as the story lets her down she never takes leave of her husband. I still don’t know what Aditya Pancholi was doing in the film and if there is one question I’d like to ask the director it is this – What was that casting of Milind Soman Mr. Bhansali?
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)