Bajirao Mastani Review: A Film Whose Three Women Shine, Yet Falls Short Of Soul

This Bajirao Mastani review sums up why the movie, despite some excellent performances by its female stars, lacks depth and fails to live up to expectations.

This Bajirao Mastani review sums up why the movie, despite some excellent performances by its female stars, lacks depth and fails to live up to expectations.

One fine morning a film maker thought, I will make a film on the legend of the star crossed lovers Bajirao and Mastani – the eternal love saga between Bajirao Ballal Bhat an 18th century Maratha Peshwa born to a Chitpavan Brahmin family and Mastani, the illegitimate daughter of Maharaja Chhatrasal, the Rajput king of Bundelkhand and his unwedded Muslim companion.

So he called the best technicians in the industry, the best costume designers, set designers, special effects, CGI and so on. He hired talented actors with an overload of gorgeousness. He got the best of this and the best of that, forgetting to call in just one person – the writer.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali forgot that story telling happens not by gorgeous costumes, magnificent sets, special effects and talented actors, but by the words spoken by the characters in the film.

Keeping history aside, Bhansali has imagined 18th century Maratha and Rajput kingdoms where women had some agency. In spite of one of the early scenes showing hundreds of Rajput women at the Royal palace preparing for the violent practice of jauhar (the ritual of women jumping into the funeral pyre to save their honour), through the rest of the film, we notice that the three leading ladies of the story, Mastani (Deepika Padukone), Kashibai (Bajirao’s first wife played by Priyanka Chopra) and Radhabai (Bajirao’s mother played by Tanvi Azmi) are not merely present as war exploits or political strategies or damsels in distress or superficial pieces of decoration. They come across as women who had a lot of power and agency; women who are masters of their own fate. Too bad, Bhansali couldn’t find a writer to actually give words to his imagination.

Bajirao Mastani shows a Bundelkhand under attack by Mughal forces. Maharaja Chhatrasal sends a warrior to visit Bajirao and seek his help in fighting the enemy. Bajirao refuses to meet the warrior but the warrior forced inside Bajirao’s tent fights several security men alone. Suddenly the helmet drops and the warrior turns out to be Mastani with long flowing hair, little makeup, no jewellery. Her fierce ‘Ninja style sword wielding horse riding’ entry is impressive but predictable as many of us film lovers have still not gotten over Benazir’s entry during the Buzkashi competition in Khuda Gawah (1992).

Bajirao, impressed by her style agrees to help, and together they go to the battlefield and shoulder to shoulder, sword to sword they fight the enemies away. As an audience you quite like this amazing warrior woman and want to know her more but her introduction is already over. Before you can really know what kind of person Mastani is, she is looking gorgeous, dancing and falling in love for reasons you never understand because of the lack of a good writer.

In the middle of the night Mastani plants a kiss on Bajirao’s lips, and so we are told she was a sexually empowered woman, not ashamed of her passion. She decides to chase her love all the way to Bajirao’s kingdom at Pune without any formal recognition of their relationship or even a commitment from Bajirao which shows her as self-willed and with the strength and courage to take her own decision and face the consequences thereof.

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“Mastani apni takdeer khud banati hai” (Mastani creates her own destiny), she says. But who was Mastani really, deep inside? What were her dreams, hopes, aspirations? Why was she different from other Rajput women? These are aspects that build strong everlasting characters. A few less songs would have made space for a writer to explore these aspects.

The same goes for Kashibai’s character. We have even lesser understanding of her than Mastani but Priyanka Chopra’s acting prowess makes up for the gap. She nailed it in just one scene – Kashibai’s faceoff with Mastani, depicting her agony at being reduced to the status of ‘first wife’ and a titular head. This scene simulatenously gives us a glimpse of woman with an otherwise kind, loving, gentle heart, who couldn’t hate anybody even if it was Mastani. An extremely powerful poignant scene gone too soon; before I could wipe off the tears from my face, the two women broke into the Pinga dance which made absolutely no sense and totally killed the moment.

While it was extremely common for medieval kings to marry younger, prettier women one after the other as the previous ones got old or pregnant and it had little to do with true love, Bollywood has turned men like Bajirao and Akbar into romantic heroes with big hearts nurturing nothing but true love for their heroines. The movie shows Bajirao as a man who one loved Mastani and Kashibai equally; one was his strength and the other his inspiration. His kingdom, crown, power are depicted as shown as meaning nothing to him when compared to his love. As unreal as it all seems, it was commendable that Bajirao was imagined as a person who respected women.

When Mastani was about to deliver her first child, no mid-wife or doctor comes forward to assist her. At that crucial moment, Bajirao himself goes to her labour room and helps her deliver the baby. This was a terrific attempt, perhaps never thought of before in Bollywood, to show that child birth is a process where both man and women should be involved as opposed to women being sent to their parents’ house to deal with the complexity and come back only with the child, preferably a male. A huge round of applause for imagining such a beautiful moment of love and mutual respect, yet again gone too soon. The scene barely had the required impact.

I can go on with all the well intentioned thoughts that had no impact for lack of a good narrative. To put it in a nutshell, Bajirao Mastani is a film like those Japanese dolls which are so life like that you can make love to them, but they have no heart or soul.

Top image courtesy movie promo posters


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