Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bajirao Mastani Movie Review

In three weeks old release Tamasha, we see Imtiaz Ali, like in all his films, trying to discover an eternal love story in current modern times. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has gotten his hand over one such eternal love story, but given his style of filmmaking, you don't expect a modern urban setup. He gives you worth of every penny of your ticket to the big screen; he transports you to a fantasy land. This time he takes us to some 300 years back in the history of Maharashtra, in purer times, when religion was in more aggressive form, and even a warrior king like Bajirao had to fight against it in pursuit of eternal love. Take the souls of these characters and put them in an urban setup, it could well be an Imtiaz Ali film (or, maybe, a Yash Chopra film, given that it is essentially an extra marital affair story). But Bhansali has more to do than just telling a story.  

The last slate of opening credits reel reads, "Music & Direction: Sanjay Leela Bhansali". He has taken over the music department recently, and you now know that he wants to have full control over your visual and aural senses. In the debate of "style" versus "substance", he is Team Style. But unabashed use of CGI technology has started intruding his sense of aesthetics. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to realise that. You know that overlit moon in Devdas is fake but at the same time you also believe that such a moon could exist in that world; everything looks like a part of a singular, grand looking microcosmic universe. Here, it simply looks fake, trying hard to fit into the universe of Bhansali, or a distant part of it. Thus, Bajirao Mastani does look great visually, but doesn't feel like how Devdas does.

Having said that, there's still a lot of philosophy that has gone behind the ethereal creation of his world and the narrative that takes such a form that it informs the world it is being told in. There are elements of natyashastra, there are elements of nature in his storytelling. There's fire, there's water, then there's fire on water. There's brilliant use of colors, there are talks about colors. One of the most striking use of color is in the scene when Kashibai (Bajirao's wife through religious marriage) is informed  that Mastani (Bajirao's wife outside religion) is about to be attacked, she steps out dazed where the air is full red -- looming of danger and conflicted choice between two hearts.

Such setup makes old-school melodrama look tasteful and relevant. When Bajirao is introduced of the chains of reflection through mirrors and water that would make appear anyone standing on the centre of a glass floor on a screen in Kashibai's room, you know this device will be used against Bajirao himself. It works because it has become an innate point of the central conflict of the film. When Nanasaheb (son of Kashibai and Bajirao) arrives at Mastani Mahal to make her a captive, we see the Mahal being surrounded by large silhouettes of army on horses; next moment they are behind curtains standing in front of Mastani. We know why they are here, there's little suspense, Bhansali cuts all the unnecessary slack and next shot we see Mastani setting her foot out of Mahal entangled in chains and handcuffs (This painful moment is accentuated by lines in Arijit Singh's soulful voice). What makes this entire sequence wonderful is how it transcends the dramatic nature of the story, taking it forward, and yet remaining in complete tone.

The false note in this setup of period world and characters is the most laughable. It is that they try to attest and authenticate the very setup. And that is Bhansali's old problem: Token use of language (Bengali in Devdas, Marathi in this one) to make characters sound real, but in his figment of fantasy -- that is outbreak of dance numbers -- they sing contemporary slang "vaat laaoli". Dibakar Bannerjee refuted this concept of sounding authenticate in a period correct film in his last Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! by making his characters talk in Hindi and then one line towards the end "Bengali samajhna bhool gaye kya?" to make us realise that they have been speaking in Bengali all this while in their world but it was the "magic of cinema" that translated it into regular Hindi for the Hindi audience and the film to qualify as a Hindi film. But such a tactic will not work in favour of Bhansali's filmmaking, so we may have to just live with it.

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