Bajirao Mastani is currently racking up admissions worldwide. I was drawn to it for two reasons. It stars Deepika Padukone and there have been (unsuccessful) attempts by activists to censor it in some way. The latter is not unusual but in this case seemed to revolve around communalist politics. I enjoyed Bajirao Mastani but I’m glad I read up a little on the history of the Maratha Empire in the 18th century before the screening and I admit that my experience of Hindi historical films is limited, so I probably missed some meanings as well as the cultural import of the music and dancing.
Bajirao (played by Ranveer Singh) was at 19 the eldest son of his family on the death of his father, the peshwa or prime minister of the Maratha Empire in 1720. He proved himself to the court and replaced his father, becoming a successful warrior who took on the Mughals and their governors (such as the Nizam of Hyderabad) to the North, South and East in order to expand the Maratha territory from what is now Marahashtra across much of Northern, Western and Central India. The empire reached its greatest extent towards the end of his son’s leadership in 1758. A few years later its power was challenged by the British. Director and co-writer Sanjay Leela Bhansali begins his film by acknowledging help from historians but but also offering a disclaimer stating that he is not claiming historical accuracy as the basis for his story. What this means is that some military actions have been ‘moved’ chronologically and that others (the majority) have simply been ignored so that what begins with the suggestion/promise of an action picture becomes a palace-bound romance and melodrama of intrigue and plotting. The crucial decision is to focus on Bajirao’s relationship with Mastani (Deepika Padukone), the daughter of the ruler of Bundelkand in North Central India after he was freed from the threat of Mughal occupation by Maratha armies. The historical Mastani sounds like the ultimate fantasy Hindi cinema heroine – a trained court dancer also adept as a horsewoman and educated in arts and literature. Deepika Padukone makes a brave stab at convincing us that she can do all these things. It seems likely that Mastani was the daughter of a Rajput father and a Persian dancer and therefore brought up to respect both Hinduism and Islam. This did not go down well with Bajirao’s family. Nor did the fact that Bajirao was already married to Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). In several ways, the most powerful character is Bajirao’s mother who orchestrates the systematic exclusion of Mastani within Bajirao’s household.
Watching the film I was reminded of two Zhang Yimou films. The classic melodrama Raise the Red Lantern (HK/Taiwan/China 1991) sees Gong Li as the youngest concubine in the household of a warlord in the 1920s attempting to survive and prosper as the ‘fourth mistress’. In Curse of the Golden Flower (HK/China 2006), Gong Li is this time the Empress who is being poisoned by her husband and who plots to take power herself with the aid of her son. I mention these two films because I think that there needs to be more attention to the links between Indian and Chinese cinemas and I think it helps to understand how narrative ideas develop. I’m not suggesting that Bhansali consciously used Yimou’s films but perhaps he responded to similar cultural mores in the households of Asian ruling families. Bhansali’s decision to spend more time on palace intrigue and less on military manoeuvres is important. Whether the balance between the romance and the drama works is open to debate. Some audiences have complained that the romance is not allowed to develop fully. For me, the strength of the film is the presentation of Kashibai who maintains her love for Bajirao and who brings herself to support Mastani as best she can because of that love for her husband – and because it is the right thing to do? This is contrasted with the actions of her mother-in-law Radhabai who faces the same dilemma but is more wedded to the survival of the family.
The controversy surrounding the film seems to derive from attempts by activists to try to ‘own’ the historical story in terms of what it suggests about the Hindu and Muslim figures in the story. Hindu activists argue that Bajirao led his armies in a campaign to win India back from the Mughal invaders and to establish/re-establish a Hindu state. The film narrative shows Bajirao devoted to his Muslim lover and to their son and Bhansali provides dialogues in which he argues for love ahead of religion – the narrative clearly sides with Mastani in her internal exile rather than the family’s aversion to admitting a Muslim. Bhansali does seem to be addressing contemporary issues (so Mastani has a speech in which she refutes the easy identification of saffron and green as the colours of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’). If I understand Indian history correctly, all of the armies of the imperial powers included Hindus and Muslims – and no doubt other religions and other nationalities. Most territorial wars do.
Whatever audiences make of the romance or the intrigue, or indeed of the music and choreography, most of them will enjoy the production design of this film which seems to meld ‘real’ locations, studio sets and CGI very well. For older audiences there will be a real frisson created by some of the scenes in the ‘hall of mirrors’ that surely must be an hommage to Mughal-e-Azam from 1960. I also thought one of the night-time outdoor dances was designed to invoke the earlier film as well. I can’t comment on the actors’ handling of the dialogue but in terms of their movement and use of their bodies, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh are very impressive. Overall, I’m not surprised that this film has become a major hit across Indian diaspora territories. It’s worth noting too that amidst all the discussion of roles for women in Hollywood films, this film features three roles for women out of the four leads in the narrative.
Here’s the official trailer (with subtitles):