Bhansali has clearly pulled out all the stops in making this a larger-than-life period drama. If his intention was to evoke awe at the grandeur and tumult of early 18th century Indian history, he has clearly succeeded. The entire movie is a visual treat.
To this day, India's Muslims, who are Indian by blood but following a faith that is foreign by origin, are often treated as invaders and foreigners, not as natively Indian. It is a matter of record that Indian Muslims are the most integrated and least alienated of all Muslim communities worldwide, yet that seems to cut little ice. The constant attempts to position Mastani as a courtesan rather than a queen represent the RSS view of Muslims as nothing more than second-class citizens.
The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture ... In a word they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizens' rights. - "We, or Our Nationhood Defined" by MS Golwalkar (the second supreme leader of the RSS)
By portraying Mastani in a piteously sympathetic light, the movie is appealing to the sentiment of its predominantly Hindu audience to accept their Muslim brethren as their own.
Bajirao's loyal wife Kashibai is India's Hindu majority, the original and legitimate claimant to the affections of the Peshwa (the state). Accommodating another woman in her marriage is asking too much of a wife. Why should Muslim citizens be accommodated as equals in a secular republic when India has historically been a "Hindu Rashtra" and Muslims arrived as invaders, as unwelcome interlopers? How could her husband betray her and cost her her pride by bringing home another woman?
Nevertheless, Kashibai is the fairest and most accommodating of all the members of the Maratha court. She can see Mastani as a fellow human being. She thus also represents the accommodating and tolerant aspect of Hindu society,
The murderous and hardline priest Krishna Bhatt represents Hindu religious orthodoxy. It is the sentiment that invokes scripture to deny humane treatment of human beings.
Together, the priest, grandmother and grandson are a dangerous trio. They will attempt murder and imprison the unwanted one the instant the Peshwa's attention is elsewhere. When a government fails to do its "Rajdharm" (duty of governance) and turns a blind eye to intolerance, the mobs will take the cue and go on a communal rampage to harm and kill the hated "other".
The contradiction here is what we all need to resolve in our minds. The law against bigamy, after all, takes no note of the will of consenting adults to enter into polyamorous relationships. The Urdu saying, "Jab miya biwi raazi, to kya karega kaazi?" ("If husband and wife consent, what can the law do?") comes to mind.
Cohabitation is a choice. We can choose to be rigid and doctrinaire in our ways, insisting on separation or apartheid under the excuse of irreconcilable differences, or we can choose to melt those rigid rules by consciously deciding to welcome difference as diversity and to live harmoniously with other people. By demonstrating how easily audiences will overcome their prejudice against bigamy in their wish for Bajirao, Kashibai and Mastani to be happy together, the movie is showing us that our mental barriers are of our own making and can be dismantled at will.
A tragic ending puts the final seal on this argument. Sad movies tend to leave a stronger imprint on audiences than others, as I discovered for myself when I watched Roman Holiday. The movie's appeal for inclusiveness is likely to be especially effective because of its unsatisfactory ending. The unspoken message is, "If you could end this story differently by making the Marathas more softhearted, would you?" Of course we would!
In other words, who is Bajirao himself?