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by Jay Seaver

"Fantastic to look at even if it could use a bit more chemistry."
3 stars

"Padmaavat" is the first Imax 3D film from India, or so I've read, which seems like kind of a late arrival to the party, although I don't know how many other epics of this sort have been made on such a scale in Bollywood lately. It is, if nothing else, a feast for the eyes, with expansive desert landscapes, beautiful palace sets, and some dance numbers that suggest that the rest of us really haven't been using this technology properly. Whether it's enough more than great-looking to be worth a trip in spots where it won't necessarily be getting the big, deluxe presentation is a trickier question.

Based upon an epic poem that a disclaimer at the start carefully notes is "regarded as fictional", the film opens in 13th-Century Afghanistan, where Khilji warrior Alauddin (Ranveer Singh) has brought Sultan Jalaluddin (Raza Murad) and his daughter Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari) an ostrich when asked for a feather, an obviously cynical courtship that has the obvious aim of Alauddin becoming Sultan of Delhi himself. Meanwhile, the king of Mewar, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) has come to Singhal to obtain some of its legendary pearls only to be shot in a hunting accident by Princess Padmavati (Deepika Padukone). They fall in love, and soon Padmavati returns to the fortress city of Chittor as queen. Her beauty enraptures even the royal guru Raghav Chetan, who winds up banished and vowing revenge - which he plots to achieve by convincing Alauddin that with the lovely Padmavati at his side, he could rule not just India but the world.

It's a shame that for all the epic, mythic scale of this story, it winds up being kind of a bore. It's not necessarily dull or listless - there's always something happening, and the movie seldom gets distracted or pads time with side quests - but crucial turning points are often as much a reflection of formalities as motivated decisions, declarations of honor and tradition as much as individual cunning. Like a western biblical epic, the film is often built around the statement of and adherence to virtues that while seldom presented in a sanctimonious way, can sound a bit like rote recitations at times. Padmavati's story can often come off as passive in a way that can't exactly be worked around without making this another story entirely, especially considering how active the title character is at the start, when she is her own princess rather than someone else's queen.

Queen Padmavati is a role that often seems more designed to take advantage of Deepika Padukone's beauty than her charisma, which is a shame. There's little opportunity for her to be playful once things are underway even though that's a large part of what makes the character appealing in the first place, although Padukone gets to show an impressive amount of steel. Part of the issue is that she does not actually share any scenes with frequent co-star Raveer Singh; while Padmavati's relationship with her king played by Shahid Kapoor is often cute and always decorous, Kapoor seldom gets a chance to give Ratan any sort of personality that the audience can rally around the way that his people do. Singh, meanwhile, gets to go hog-wild as Sultan Alauddin. The sultan's megalomania bursts from his physically imposing form, infusing everything from a dance scene to killing someone with his bare hands with menace, even scenes where the text reads as him being weakened or humbled, even kind of silly. I wouldn't want him in any other role in this film - he's too enjoyable a villain - but there's really nobody else in the movie that can measure up to him, no matter how broadly sketched the barbarian cliche he's playing is.

A grand but simple story with somewhat simple characters can still be worth it on sheer spectacle alone, and there's no doubt filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali (who co-writes, directs, produces, and scores the film) delivers on this count. His previous collaborations with Padukone and Singh, Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani, were visually stunning and this film does not break that streak. While there are times toward the start when either he seems to be getting used to composing for Imax/3D or the audience has to get the feel for his eye - the scenes in Singhal particularly feel like bringing a large camera onto a small sound-stage, and some of the CGI animals are unconvincing (to be fair, ostriches look like unrealistic special effects in real life) - he and cinematographer Sudeep Chatterjee have an exceptional eye for composition that allows vast palaces and deserts filled with soldiers to sink back into the screen to establish a genuine sense of scale. The "veil of fire" sequences toward the end are exceptionally well-framed, with the music increasing their grandiosity.

The filmmakers also strike a good balance between action and dance, using the physicality and on-screen activity of them to either move the story forward or boldface the emotion of a moment. The choreography on both is impressive, whether it be the kings entering in pitched battle wearing ornate but functional-seeming armor or how Alauddin's dancing will often have him and his army/entourage at a 45-degree angle to the floor, emphasizing physical prowess and recklessness as well as rhythm. And while many don't like 3D or see giant Imax screens as a gimmick, the way Bhansali combines a Busby Berkeley-style overhead shot with amazing wardrobe detail or threads the camera through a 3D environment full of dancers is a terrific, thrilling use of technology mostly used for making explosions bigger in the west.

The visuals and a story that, for its flaws, maintains enough momentum to get audiences through two and three-quarter hours (without an intermission card coming up in my screening) make the argument to seek out the best possible presentation of this movie if you're going to see it. It's a flawed and sometimes frustrating movie, but it also has the feeling of a genuine historical epic when it does work.

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originally posted: 01/31/18 06:20:00
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  26-Jan-2018 (12A)


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