Dir: Sanjay Leela Bhansali. With: Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, Mahesh Manjrekar. 158 mins. Cert: 12A
Since the millennium, the writer-director-composer Sanjay Leela Bhansali has fashioned a series of ornate wonders from mythological and historical material. He broke through with 2002’s Shah Rukh Khan-starring Devdas, then delivered 2005’s affecting Black – an expressionist The Miracle Worker – before going for broke on 2013’s Ram-Leela, casting Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh as the eponymous star-crossed lovers. With Bajirao Mastani, another epic tableau scattered with jewels and rose petals, Bhansali retains his Ram-Leela leads and channels David Lean – albeit a Lean with something far spicier than starch in his underwear. The result may be the cinema’s most seductive monument to marital infidelity.
Singh’s Bajirao – warmonger-in-chief of the 18th century Marathan regime – is introduced playing away: leaving decorous wife Kashi (Priyanka Chopra) at home, he’s sent to liberate the besieged Bundelkhand region, where he falls into stride with local warrior princess Mastani (Padukone). Victory assured, they repair to hers to compare scars – “Your wound is deep, let me see it,” Bajirao insists, a line more Geordie Shore than Mughal Empire – but it appears a one-time thing; once the blood cools, our hero returns to family life. For Mastani, however, this battle isn’t over: soon, she’s riding into court, demanding further satisfaction from the man she loves. Uh-oh.
Bhansali’s dramatising an ugly business, yet long stretches confirm this director is incapable of framing anything other than an entirely captivating shot: this is a film that plays out to the forgiving flicker of candlelight, and knows full well the pleasures of letting the eye roam. After Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, it’s this year’s second Hindi film to construct a glittering Palace of Mirrors, although Bhansali can’t resist adding extra layers of polish: surfaces so reflective they beam a prototypical cinema into adjacent suites, a lilting song, “Deewani Mastani”, in which Padukone makes pop culture’s greatest use of a mandolin since R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Bhansali paints the screen Indian Ivy.
The director handles his performers with similar sensitivity and intelligence, and all three offer real star turns, thereby avoiding fading into some singularly lavish scenery. Padukone’s Mastani, a Mughal Alex Forrest, displays a steely determination in the face of her hosts’ contempt that proves oddly ennobling. Chopra never allows Kashi to become an afterthought: those eyes register a wife’s hurt every bit as vividly as they have happiness elsewhere. And Singh’s bullet-headed Bajirao, forever charging into uncharted physical and emotional terrain, marks another fine showing from one of Bollywood’s most versatile leads: we spot exactly why this bad boy commands the loyalty, even lust he does.
The second half rests upon this sympathetic idea of the hero as akin to a buff, dreamy Henry VIII – not some love rat, but a man of appetite, spoiled for choice. Here, Bhansali details Bajirao’s attempts to reconfigure his household to better reflect the contours of his heart, chiefly by insisting these women – one Hindu, one Muslim – be treated as equals. It’s typical of the dignity Bhansali lends to this triangle’s points that the women aren’t set to catfighting, rather dancing together; no matter whether this is historically accurate, as filmed it provides a model of flexible sisterhood, not to mention as harmonious a setpiece as anything Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe shared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (Evidently Bajirao begged to differ.)
There’s perhaps no dressing up the downer ending – which at least reflects the era’s limited tolerance for forward thinking – and the once-torrid energy relents a little as the leads suffer in solitude. Yet overall, Bajirao Mastani sounds many more progressive notes than most recent Western costume dramas: it’s the work of a filmmaker recruiting in-every-sense hot leads to cast off their traditional garb and attempt something that feels very modern. In so doing, Bhansali has thrown down a sapphire-studded gauntlet to established chart-topper Shah Rukh Khan’s rival Christmas release Dilwale; that it lands so delicately, and yet so potently, is the surest sign we’re in the hands of an artist.
Bajirao Mastani is now playing in cinemas nationwide.