This piece was first published on my regular column on Women’s Web

One fine morning a film maker thought, ‘I would make a film on the legend of Bajirao 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 unwed Muslim companion.’ So he called the best technicians in the industry, costume designers, set designers, special effects, CGI and so on. He hired talented actors with gorgeousness overload. He got the best of this and best of that, just forgot to call one person – the writer.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali forgot that story telling happen not by gorgeous costumes, magnificent sets, special effects and talented actors, but by the words spoken by the characters, supported by the time they spend with each other onscreen, their body language, expressions and dialogues. Without these your characters remain paper cuttings with no volume. They don’t strike a chord with the audience and their love, passion, pain nothing make sense. In Bajirao Mastani all I saw was interesting women, and a lot of gorgeous chandeliers.

The mere mention of their religion, caste and social status makes it obvious that Bajirao and Mastani were star crossed lovers whose love was not going to be accepted by anybody in the society. Mastani’s birth was illegitimate, on top of that her mother was Muslim. Bajirao was already married to Kashibai and had an adolescent son from her when he met Mastani. Why would these two people fall in love? What was it that they felt for each other that made them defy every odds? We don’t know because Bhansali never hired a writer to build the narrative. Instead he was too busy creating bling.

I write this piece of criticism with a lot of disappointment but not anger because so far as my feminist perspective is concerned Bajirao Mastani is a well-intentioned film. Good intentions wasted because of lack of good writers.

Keeping historical accuracy aside, Bhansali imagined 18th century Maratha and Rajput kingdoms as a world where women had some agencies. In spite of one of the opening scenes being about hundreds of Rajput women preparing for the violent practice of jauhar (the ritual of women jumping into 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 war exploits or political strategies or damsels in distress or superficial pieces of decorations. They were women who had a lot of power and agency and they were masters of their own fate for better or worse. Too bad, Bhansali couldn’t find a writer to actually give words to his imagination, to add volume to his characters.

mastaniLet’s take a look at the narrative. Bundelkhand is 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 but the warrior forces inside Bajirao’s tent fighting several security men alone. Suddenly the helmet drops and the warrior turns out to be Mastani, a female. Her fierce Ninja-style-sword-wielding-horse-riding entry was 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 Bundelkhand. Jump cut to the battlefield where Mastani and Bajirao are fighting with the enemy shoulder to shoulder, sword to sword and falling in love. Just like that. The scene has too much pomp and no heart, you simply don’t get it.

After the win Maharaja Chhatrasal requests Bajirao to stay at the palace for a few days and spend the Holi with them. Now comes Bajirao and Mastani’s first intimate moments in the privacy of Mastani Mahal, a scene which was supposed to unfold their love and passion and melt the audience’s heart. But once again all I saw were curtains, chandeliers, mirrors, fountains, jewelry . There were little spoken words between the two lovers to actually convey the love. There were some tacky dialogues using predictable over-used words like Ishq, Ibaadat, Zakhm et all, but too much bling in between makes you too blind to see and feel the love.

Nonetheless we see that in the middle of the night Mastani plants a kiss on Bajirao’s lips, 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 she was self-willed and had the strength and courage to take her own decision and face the consequences thereof, “Mastani apni takdeer khud banati hai” she says.

By now you begin to like Mastani, this brave, independent woman. You want to know her more closely but her character building is already over. Who Mastani really was deep inside? What were her dreams, hopes, aspirations? Why was she different than other Rajput women? A few less song and dance would have made space for a writer to explore these aspects and added volume to the character.

Same goes for Kashibai’s character. She has even less volume than Mastani but Priyanka Chopra’s acting prowess made up for the gap. She nailed it in just one scene – Kashibai’s faceoff with Mastani, depicting her agony for being reduced to the status of ‘first wife a titular head’ mixed with her otherwise kind loving gentle heart which 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 Pinga dance which absolutely killed the moment. Seriously, the worst part of the film coming immediately after the best part, like a splash of bitterness in your mouth right after a Gulab Jamun. Kashibai is imagined to be a woman who accepted her fate on her own terms. She showed solidarity with Mastani, and turned out to be her saviour a few times. But she ended her conjugal relationship with Bajirao. To imagine that an 18th century woman had the sexual agency to say no to her husband was commendable even though unrealistic.

Radhabai was the female head of the Royal family, she exercised a lot of control over her two sons, Bajirao and Chimaji, and a significant control in Bajirao and Mastani’s relationship but let me not give you any spoiler here. Mastani’s Muslim mother also seemed like an interesting character but she was given just few seconds of screen time, like she ended before she could begin. Looking at these independent female characters amidst the pomp and opulence was like having glimpses of diamonds in a coal mine.

Lack of a good writer impacted Bajirao’s character too so it is not a gender thing but at least he had a few more interesting lines to deliver about women’s respect, Brahminical hypocrisy, religious intolerance and universal love. But as I mentioned before, every scene had 20% substance outshined by 80% bling.

While it was extremely common for medieval kings to keep marrying 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 have turned men like Bajirao and Akbar into romantic heroes with big hearts nurturing nothing but true love for their heroines. Bajirao for one, loved both Mastani and Kashibai equally, one was his strength and the other his inspiration. He wanted to make his relationship with Mastani public only after confessing it in person to Kashibai. He also wanted to marry Mastani with proper Hindu rituals to give her full respect of a wife and was absolutely pissed at her being referred to as rakhail (concubine) – “Maine Mastani se ishq kiya hai aiyashi nahi (I have loved Mastani, not used her for fun.” His kingdom, power, wealth meant nothing to him in front of his love, he gave it all up just to be able to keep his relationship with Mastani.

As unreal as it all seemed it is nice that Bajirao is imagined as a person who loved his women as his equals and respected them as fellow humans. He wasn’t an over hyped Knight in shining armour holding Brahminical patriarchal values, rather a friend and a lover.

Much criticism aside, there was one scene which deserves a huge round of applause for being a path breaking attempt. When Mastani was about to deliver their first child there was nobody to assist her, no mid-wife or doctor would come forward. At that moment, it was none other than Bajirao himself who went to her labour room and helped her deliver the baby. This was a terrific attempt to signify that child birth is a loving process where both men and women should be involved as opposed to women being sent to their parents’ house to deal with the trouble and come back only with the child, preferably a male.

Unfortunately, it was merely an attempt which failed in creating the required emotional climax. There were a lot of grandiose before and after but the actual birth process was missing. She breathes and child pops out. A historical moment gone too soon. A terrible waste of a well imagined scene.

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 like those Japanese dolls which are so life like that you can make love to them, but they have no heart or soul.