Friday, 1 January 2016

Movie Review - Bajirao Mastani (An Allegory For Modern Indian Society)

Bajirao Mastani - a period romance with a subliminal political message for modern India

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's blockbuster movie "Bajirao Mastani" starts with a grand and ambitious allegory. The candidate for the post of Peshwa (prime minister and de facto ruler) of the Marathas under the nominal emperor Shahu is the heroic and confident Bajirao. Challenged to display his worth by splitting a peacock feather in two, Bajirao fires an arrow and apparently fails - the feather remains standing. Bajirao then asks the Maratha court to examine the lower part of the feather that was anchored to the soil. His arrow has indeed cut it in half - not along its length, as his challenger had implied, but into two shorter lengths.

Bajirao demonstrates his political allegory with a peacock feather, just as Sanjay Leela Bhansali does with his film

Bajirao's allegory then follows. The soil is India, and the feather is the Mughal empire of the Muslim invaders that has entrenched itself in Indian soil. If one cuts off its supporting lower half (the stronghold of Delhi), the Mughal empire will crumble. If made Peshwa, he proposes to establish the power of the Marathas by conquering Delhi and deposing the Mughals.

Needless to say, Bajirao's soaring rhetoric and inspiring allegory, not to mention the display of his martial prowess, win over the emperor and the court, and he is duly crowned Peshwa.

But what follows in the rest of the 160 minute movie is itself a grand allegory, and if the box office returns are anything to go by, its intended lesson is being welcomed in India as enthusiastically as the Maratha court welcomed the feather analogy.

But first, let's dispense with the superficials.

The sheer splendour and opulence of the palace scenes fill a viewer with awe. I knew that the Marathas rose as a major power in India towards the end of the Mughal empire, and might have gone on to conquer all of India had the British not made their appearance. But seeing their glory in such exquisitely rich detail is something else altogether. If nothing else, Bajirao Mastani inspires me to read up on the Marathas in more detail.

The battle scenes are dramatic too, although the very last one where Bajirao single-handedly takes on the entire army of the Nizam is over-the-top and unrealistic.

An early battle scene - Bajirao takes on Muhammad Bangash in style

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.

The opulence of the palace scenes is dazzling

Speaking of visual treats, the human elements of this drama are delectable eye-candy too. One finds it hard to look elsewhere when Priyanka Chopra as Bajirao's wife Kashibai appears in a scene.

Time and again, we are reminded why Priyanka Chopra was crowned Miss World 2000

Deepika Padukone as Mastani is not so much glamour girl as warrior princess, and she is magnificent.

Whether defending her kingdom Bundelkhand against a Mughal Nawab or defending herself and her child against Maratha would-be assassins, she fights like a tigress

And Ranveer Singh as the great Bajirao does justice to his role as a giant historical figure.

As I will argue, Bajirao's heroism extends beyond the battlefield to challenge society itself

My personal favourite bit of eye-candy is the bath scene with a buff Ranveer Singh and the ever-ravishing Priyanka Chopra.

Eroticism needn't be sexist - this sequence can do something to men and women alike

On to the more substantive part of this review, then!

The entire movie has a subliminal political message. It is Bollywood's allegorical exhortation to Indians to be inclusive, and is aimed mainly at Hindus.

In the style immortalised by the Four Word Film Review, I would summarise Bajirao Mastani as "Hindus, don't be hardhearted".

The Maratha empire stands for Hindu-majority India. In contrast to that other period romance Jodha-Akbar, Bajirao Mastani is a story of Hindu ascendency, not of Muslim triumph. The timing of the movie's release is significant. The mood in India in 2015 is palpably different from what it was just a couple of years earlier. The Hindu nationalist BJP won a decisive victory in the 2014 election, and the saffron flag now flutters everywhere in India, virtually unchallenged. There is a mood of triumphalism among Hindutva supporters. This mirrors the rise of the Hindu Maratha empire in the early 18th century and the resurgence of Hindu pride.

Nothing secular about this state - Bajirao on his temporal throne with the figurative backing of Ganesha 

Set against this larger trend as background, the character of Mastani is an allegory for the Muslim minority in India. As a matter of historical fact, Mastani was half-Hindu and half-Muslim, and she herself had developed a syncretic identity (as her father says in the movie,"She worships both Allah and Krishna"). Such syncretism is of course viewed as heresy by Muslim fundamentalists, who allow for only one "true" god. In contrast, Hindus claim to subscribe to a more liberal, many-paths-to-one-truth philosophy. Yet Mastani's bridging identity was never accepted as such by the Hindu Marathas, and she was seen as purely Muslim. Moreover, she was not even accepted as a royal since they considered her father's Muslim wife as only a concubine.

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)

Mastani arrives in Pune and sends back the soldiers who accompanied her from her native Bundelkhand. This is enormously symbolic. She has surrendered all power, and relies on the goodwill of the Maratha court to accept her. The analogy is clear. After the fall of the Mughals and other petty Nawabs, Muslims in India are no longer the rulers of the country. In a democratic setup with a Hindu majority, they rely on the goodwill of that Hindu majority to be able to go about their business as equal citizens.

Alone and vulnerable - Mastani arrives at the Maratha court to a hostile reception

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.

What stands in the way are several mental blocks in the Hindu mind, each symbolised by a character in the movie.

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?

Kashibai's "How could you?!" look

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.

Krishna Bhatt - The face of villainous orthodoxy

Bajirao's unbending mother Radhabai represents rigid social mores. She can acknowledge with pride that her son respects women and that he is fighting to give Mastani the respect that is her due, but she cannot take the next step to grant Mastani that respect herself.

Radhabai - "You may be right, but I'm not budging!"

Bajirao's elder son by Kashibai, Nanasaheb (who later becomes Balaji Bajirao), represents resentment and hatred. He cannot see beyond the fact that his mother has been humiliated by an outsider, and repeatedly asks Mastani to go back to Bundelkhand. The fanatical Hindutva hordes who harbour an unthinking hatred of Muslims and only want them to "go to Pakistan" mirror this attitude exactly.

Nanasaheb - a chillingly unremitting hatred born of resentment over perceived injustice

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 issue of bigamy poses its own interesting allegory. The social injunction against bigamy ("No man shall have more than one wife") is analogous to MA Jinnah's Two-Nation Theory ("Muslims and Hindus are separate nations and cannot share a state"). Mahatma Gandhi's idealistic belief that Hindus and Muslims can live together in peace in a secular country mirrors the unspoken hope of Bajirao Mastani's audience that the two women can somehow reconcile to being co-wives, that the Maratha court and society can somehow find it in themselves to accept Mastani, and that everyone will then live happily ever after.

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.

They're all good people. Can't they get along somehow? Is tragedy inevitable?

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!

Crucially though, what should we see represented by the character who accepts Mastani, who wants her to be treated as an equal, who can bring up one son (Raghunath Rao) as a Hindu and the other (Shamsher Bahadur) as a Muslim, who loves both his wives and wants to keep both of them happy?

In other words, who is Bajirao himself?

He is our conscience.