Cinema || Bajirao Mastani (Bollywood at its best)
Celluloid storytelling of epic proportions, both in terms of grandeur of subject and lavish nature of productions, is a hallmark of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, adored in the annals of Bollywood history as the maker of the sublime ‘Khamoshi’, the extravagant tragedy ‘Devdas’ and the beautifully poignant ‘Black’.
After employing the duo of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone to bring his tragic love story ‘Ram Leela’ to life, he selects the same duo to and also ropes in Priyanka Chopra (who had a cameo in the last film) to realise an epic chapter of Indian history featuring the enigmatic Peshwa Bajirao I and his lady love, Mastani.
Peshwas (Prime Ministers) have occupied a pride of place in the history of this nation with and at times, without the standard reference of their respective monarchs. Such is the legendary reputation of these warriors that versions of court and future historians would be worked upon and canonized by common citizens themselves – the keeper of stories from the ravages of time.
The human tendency of making such histories a part of one’s own existence by infusing details which are seldom historically accurate but have a truth arrived at by the ‘writer’ is what enables a filmmaker exercising the right of creative leeway to script a saga that, despite its historical inaccuracies, can stand the test of time.
Bajirao Mastani certainly appears to be such a classic that should not only stand the whims of time but has proven to be contemporary enough to exert a meaningful statement in its time with regard to the extant societal and cultural scenario.
Peshwa Bajirao I is imagine to be an enigmatic soul indeed, keeping with the legend circulated by resuscitators of past national heroes at a time when the entire nation was striving to unite itself against a colonial power controlling their lives. His quest for perfection in his ideals, sheer success of his warrior persona and tumultuous affair with the half-Muslim Persian beauty Mastani became as much a stuff of legend as a subtle nudge at the turn of the twentieth century – to understand one’s roots and speak against a burgeoning divide among religions by pointing out that at its worst, bigotry is the very enemy of what makes life worth living in the first place: Love.
Bajirao’s happy family consisting of a singular wife (Kashibai) and a child, with no short of venerated recognition from all quarters of family and the society at large, suffers a severe blow after Mastani surfaces as a petitioner for Bajirao’s love, which he is ready to bestow upon her willingly. Bajirao Mastani is, in essence, a tragedy in the making throughout. Even if one is unaware of the fact that their respective names are uttered in the same vein as that of Laila-Majnu or a fictional Romeo and Juliet, it is understandable why writers, playwrights, filmmakers and even television producers have resorted to this timeless tale time and time again.
It is the chance to explore a true ‘hero’ in the most primal sense of the word, winning battles at will, stooping to conquer love but lose all that awaited him to feed the bottomless ego. It is yet another chance to explore intolerance purported by religion rather than a sense of unfairness, which Bhansali explores in myriad hues by painting Priyanka Chopra’s Kashibai at will – two minds of brilliant sensibilities coming together to one of the finest supporting acts in recent times. The plight of the sidelined first wife is mitigated certainly by Bajirao’s kith who chose to stand beside her, but that does not excuse the subhuman treatment meted out to the outsider Mastani.
Wars are waged to end conflicts but the nature of tragedy is that this war never ends as an enraptured audience would like to. The catharsis is in the suffering, but it cannot be reached at via mere logic. It should be garnered by logic-defying, intricate musical performances accompanied by dance, elaborate romantic set pieces in lavish sets and locations, words that come out of characters’ mouths in conversation but flow like crafted poetry, dripping wit and beauty from every single syllable. This is how Bollywood used to do it, but this is how Bhansali does it still. He can make them as spellbinding as they used to make them!
Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone have outdone each other (yet again) in Bajirao Mastani. They are each getting better at their crafts with every single outing and we can only hope that they keep mesmerising us with such moving performances. The script by Prakash R. Kapadia follows a lucidity commendable for historical epics of this scale, while Sudeep Chatterjee’s cinematography has left no stone unturned to visualise every single frame with the utmost care and pomp.
Even as the film is based on Nagnath S. Inamdar’s Marathi historical novel ‘Rau’, Bhansali has invested a good part of his life into this magnum opus of his, in development for 15 years. This is also his most accomplished work as a music director yet, seamlessly blending classical philosophies and borrowing from the Islamic musical traditions to create a grand soundtrack fitting for a cinematic experience of this scale.
Bajirao Mastani is, without a doubt, Indian cinema at its dazzling best. This may not be an avant-garde alienator or a typical public pleaser, but the stupendous success of the film has proved that for the time being at least, the signature elements of classic Bollywood dreams have not vanished yet. Connoisseurs of art in this nation must thank their stars for having a Sanjay Leela Bhansali in their midst who can deliver a strong statement for the times in the grandest manner in which it can be envisioned by the best of the dream merchants of Mumbai. 
Film: Bajirao Mastani
Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Written by Prakash R. Kapadia
Release: December 18, 2015
First published in Issue #3 of CultureCult Magazine (Winter 2015-16)