By: Samar Khan
When Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s name is brought up in any form of conversation, discussion inevitably turns to his all-time great film, Devdas, and rightfully so. Considered by many to be THE defining film of the early 2000s, it’s difficult to argue against the notion that the film is Bhansali’s best work. His recent releases have garnered critical acclaim (Saawariya not included) but generally tended to not light the world on fire. Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela managed to stop his box office halt and introduced the world to the electric pairing of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. The duo were reunited in the spiritual successor to the romantic thriller in– the topic of our review-, Bajirao Mastani. To state that the film takes the best of Bhansali’s filmography and meshes it together would not be doing it justice; in some ways, it manages to outdo what the aforementioned flicks brought forth. However, despite its utmost quality, the film falls just shy of climbing into the Top 3 list of Bhansali’s directorial features.
Releasing on the same day as the utterly mediocre Dilwale (the link has been attached for those that have somehow not read our review), the film seemed destined to sink against the masala entertainer. However, as the better-than-expected box office grosses can attest to, the positive aspects of the film have managed to overcome any star power Rohit Shetty’s Dilwale may have and is an excellent film.
In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll aim to keep the plot details to a minimum so as to intrigue you –the audience- just enough to make you wish to watch the film for yourselves. Similar to the aforementioned Ram-Leela, Bhansali decided to stick with the highly popular and sizzling duo of Singh and Padukone. To call that casting decision a no-brainer would be another understatement; outside of the legendary Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol pairing, the young stars have a chemistry that is just fantastic to witness on screen. Singh plays Bajirao Ballal, the leader of an 18th century Marathi Hindu regime, who slays all in his path and falls for the warrior princess of Bundelkhand, Mastani (expertly portrayed by Padukone). Mastani falls for him and eventually moves into his kingdom in a bid to marry him. After seeing a number of listless and uninspired performances from leads that appear to just be in a film for the sake of a paycheque, it’s refreshing to witness the passion that Singh and Padukone bring to the screen. The pair’s ability to emote with their eyes and body language is an underrated trait, with the intensity of their love and the anguish of their despair being away from one another being expertly produced on screen and easily visible for the audience to pick up. Who needs dialogue when the facial expressions alone can carry the storyline?
Speaking of the dialogue, to call it the antithesis of what would be present in a Rohit Shetty film is putting it lightly. For every crude joke and awful attempt to introduce comedy that was apparent in Dilwale, Bhansali counters with the elegant prose and poetry one would expect from his films. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam showcased just how fantastic his use of deceptively deep and flowing dialogue is and he continues that trend into Bajirao Mastani with his stars performing the dialogue that is expected from his films now. Check out this two-liner spoken by Priyanka Chopra’s Kashi:
“Heere Mein Heera Ho Toh Use Kehte Hain Kohinoor,
Rao Ka Naam Lete Hi Kaashi Ke Chehre Pe Aata Hai Noor”
Simply marvelous. Of course, the dialogue was not perfect (certain characters’ dialogue fell flat as the actors delivering said dialogue were as wooden as Emraan Hashmi was in Hamari Adhuri Kahaani) but on the whole, the dialogue was generally excellent.
Another major component of the story is Bajirao’s wife, Kashi (in an excellently subdued performance by Priyanka Chopra), who is both hurt by the betrayal yet refuses to leave her husband, desiring his happiness above all else. It’s a testament to the story produced by Bhansali that he manages to keep Chopra’s Kashi integral to the story when the story could easily have rendered her an afterthought in the titular leads story; instead, her character is given the ability to shine in bringing to life the hurt of a wife that doesn’t wish to be vindictive against her husband and his new love.
The remainder of the supporting cast is rounded out by Tanvi Azmi (as the mother of Bajirao in a competent performance), Mahesh Manjrekar (excellent but criminally underutilized in his cameo as Shahu Maharaj) and Aditya Pancholi (similarly underutilized but excellent as per the norm for whenever he appears in any film production). The weak link of the supporting cast, by a large margin considering the sizable role afforded to his character in the second half, was Ayush Tandon as Nana Saheb. Without spoiling the plot in any way, his character’s significance could have been appreciated far more by the audience had the actor himself appeared suited for the role; rather, Tandon failed to look the part envisioned by the audience for his character while his sub-par acting accordingly failed to do him any favours.
One of the major appeals of Devdas and Ram-Leela were the lush visuals and sets utilized by Bhansali, with both earning widespread positive reviews for their vibrant and/or perfectly dark sets. Bhansali employs considerably more CGI in Bajirao Mastani and it is generally gorgeous, with the ridiculously opulent fortress interiors and utterly gorgeous battle scenes providing a visual feast that Bollywood isn’t exactly known for. The opening credit sequence sets the tone for the remainder of the film, with a fantastic combination of live action images superimposed on animated pictures that need to be seen to be fully appreciated. There is a certain battle scene that is clearly CGI and would typically be seen as comical in most movies; however, due to a combination of Singh’s intense emoting and perfectly edited cuts, the audience gasped at the sheer beauty of the scene. As is Bhansali’s style, he steps up his game in the visual department and succeeds in nearly every aspect.
Crucial to any Bollywood film is the quality of the soundtrack; too poor and even the best of films are docked considerable points from their scores. Thankfully, Bajirao Mastani had a solid soundtrack that, while it won’t blow anyone away, managed to somehow be both epic and soulful when required to do so. The epic beats during battle scenes, the songs, and dances inspired straight from Devdas (the parallels between that and Bajirao Mastani went further than just the love triangle, you know!) all added up to perfectly complement the visuals on screen. Some of the songs were heavy on Hindi however (compared to the norm of the Hindi-Urdu mix that is common), and the filmmaker’s decision to subtitle each segment of a song was appreciated as that is not a common occurrence in the majority of Bollywood films.
For any Bhansali fans that appreciated any of his work in the past, the film is recommended. For those with a particular fondness for Devdas and Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, it is highly recommended for the similarities of the stories, songs and characters will be a particular treat. The film has its flaws as mentioned above, but still stands out as one of the better Bollywood films of 2015.
The Film Lawyers have, after careful consideration, decided to grace Bajirao Mastani with a grade of B (7.5/10).