They meet epic-poem cute: Hunting deer in the forest with bow and arrow, Padmavati misses her target (or does she?) and instead hits Ratan Singh right in the ticker. Boom. He takes her to his kingdom and installs her as Wife No. 1. (A pre-existing wife gets a demotion and a few halfhearted jealousy scenes.)
Soon, Allaudin (Ranveer Singh), a sultan conquering great swaths of India — Delhi is his latest acquisition — hears of Padmavati’s beauty. Because he must possess everything precious, he must have her. Epic battles ensue. And Padmavati is a death-before-dishonor type, so spoiler, she immolates herself when Allaudin breaches the fort.
Allaudin is a comic-strip villain, half-pirate, half-sociopath, all swaggering id. At least Mr. Singh looks as if he’s enjoying himself — he gets to grimace, gnash his teeth and rip the greasy meat off bones like a monstrous Henry VIII.
Which is to say: Mr. Bhansali is painting with a broad brush. One of Hindi cinema’s great stylists, he shows here, as he has in other films, a swooning fondness for the heightened look of movies and for the look of old India: forts and billowing tents and lovingly textured, color-coordinated interiors. The impact of all this care fades, though, if you watch the movie in 3-D, which accentuates the movie’s cartoonish qualities.
Those qualities extend to the characters and the story. As Padmavati reminds us near the end, it is nothing more than a tale of good vs. evil.
That could be fine — a slog, sure, but one with plenty to look at. As the movie proceeds, though, it becomes grimmer and more unpleasant, its fealty to spectacle increasingly tethered to violence and death. Which brings us back to the real world.
It is Hindus who have been protesting “Padmaavat,” mostly sight unseen; this week, before it opened, Hindu women threatened mass suicide in honor of Padmavati’s sacrifice. But, because the story can only get more perverse, the movie’s ugliness is in its portrayal of Muslims — the villain, Allaudin, and his army — not the Rajputs.
With the exception of a bad-seed Brahmin, the Rajputs are covered in glory here: Every action is a right action; their leaders, Padmavati and Ratan Singh, are models of beauty and refinement. The movie’s Muslims, on the other hand, eat dirty, fight dirty and follow the lead of a marauding brute who dishonors his own wife. It may be cartoonish but it’s also dispiriting.