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Padmaavat (2018)

CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies

Vibrant Vinay hadn’t even seen this one, it’s so new. We sat down to watch it – feet twirling as ever to head off the DVTs – as three hours of fanciful history floated by on screen. It’s a tale of an ancient Sultan, who’d murdered his way to the throne, finding out about the super fit Queen of a dynasty living in a mighty fort, and looking to lay siege then bludgeon his way past the walls and her husband to get to her…some of it true, says Wiki, lots of it not, most of it based on an ancient poem, the story centres around the tremendous beauty of one Padmavati, and it is Padmaavat.

Sumptuous. That’s the word. The film is so gorgeous it’s difficult to breathe at points. From costumes, to cinematography, to faintly dodgy but kinda pretty special effects, it is one, glorious box of visual delights. Really. And I know that doesn’t really sound like old Jack, what with my ability to judge the visual qualities of something being limited by a life behind a desk and a deep ignorance of colours, costumes and art. But, sod that, this film is magnificently pretty. And that’s before it gets on to adoring the physical qualities of its stars.

So, let’s get the awkward stuff out of the way. The thing is too long, the script is flat, exhaustingly elegiac and not subtle in its presentation of the goodies and the baddies. The former are pious to the point of dullness, the latter are snarling, posing monsters driven by their lusts. That this splits down Hindu and Muslim lines given the history caused no small amount of difficulty when it was released earlier this year. It made old Jack ponder on Braveheart, which I always thought was lucky to avoid similar issues given the Scots are presented as simple heroes and the English as a bunch of twats. If we hadn’t all been laughing so hard at Mel Gibson’s accent, there could have been war.

Anyway, back in Padmaavat, I hold up my hands and admit complete historical, religious and geopolitical ignorance. It is telling that the film starts with a bunch of intertitled caveats claiming lack of intent to offend anyone. They should have mentioned pantomime writers as well, given this treads clunkily on their territory. But, hey-ho. It sent me off to read up on the actual history, and that’s a good thing. And there’s a clip below this review that may give you pause.

But is it any good? Honestly, I was mesmerised. Deepika Padukone enters the film in full-on Legolas-mode, bouncing through the forest hunting a deer and accidentally skewering her future husband with an arrow. Love blossoms, much as it did when Mrs Jack accidentally stabbed me with a pruning fork back in the ’50s. Padukone remains terrifically beautiful and exuding strong personality, but somehow less than in Piku (2015) when she is funny, grumpy and real. Here she is admired by all, including the script writer who forgot to add fun.

Shahid Kapoor gives good King as Maharawal Ratan Singh, but his beauty and stillness leave you craving the moments he loses it. And by loses it, I mean stands perfectly still and bellows.

The entertainment arrives with the bad guy. Ranveer Singh, clearly blessed with the same intensity gene, and glower, as Christopher Eccleston, is lethal ambition incarnate. His performance as Allaudin Khajili is Machiavellian, self-serving, showy and terrific. He is a magnificent relief after the gliding gentleness of Padmavati and her beau and – despite the bad guy thing and the plot – wins the film.

A brief aside on the oldsters. This isn’t their story. There aren’t that many in the film. Padmavati’s sweetheart father, the occasional impossibly wise old woman, the noble buddy and soldier to Kapoor’s king (Ujjwal Chopra as Gora Singh, dignified throughout, even in his last moments on screen when he fights under what can only be regarded as exceptionally trying circumstances…), the unfaithful priest and – the biggest and best of these caricatures – Raza Murad as the old Sultan. He is the despot we all want to be: slouched on our thrones, flab resting wherever we choose, dining and deciding. His passing of the throne to Allaudin, with all the death-huggy glowering involved, is a slap in the face to oldsters. Our rule will be benign, yet murderous. Alas, the youngster who takes over is vicious and murderous. ‘T was ever thus…

The sumptuousness gives way to some interesting special effects as mighty armies face each other on the plains of Chittor. Allaudin is set on glowering lustily at Padmavati. Many are behind the fortress wall, taking the time to have festivals of light and colour, others out on the plains. Lovely concept, but, in film terms, not much of an improvement on the Battle of Helm’s Deep. The Kings have battles of courtesy which lead to Padmavati’s mister getting kidnapped…

Now, by this point, old Jack was getting a bit tired of the masculine showing-off and olde-worlde predominance of it. Padukone steps up at last, breaking free of the limits imposed by her jewellery. She moves from gazing, glaring or weeping through it to playing a dangerous game to get her King back. There’s a moment when she works with Allaudin’s unwilling wife, Aditi Rao Hydari as Mehrunissa, and it lands that the women rule this land for all the talk of honour, kingliness and battles over their beauty. Which is, let’s be clear, beguiling. Go Ranis.

Okay. Padmaaavat is a movie of caricatures and legends, so don’t expect humour, reliable history or anyone to agree that it’s telling the exact truth. The good-bad simplicity – loudly perceived as prejudice and reason for threat in some corners – makes for a touch of sluggish pantomime in the way it plays out. But the visuals are terrific. The cast are gorgeous to look at. And, for this ignorant old soul, the smatterings of (I get it, dubious) ancient story and a challenging but somehow perfect ending, make for a warm, absorbing, slow afternoon.

Beware, the following clip has an opinion, but you’ll get a sense of the emotions triggered by the film…

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