Film Review: Padmaavat

A queen's beauty provokes a tyrant into war in this large-scale, largely inert costume epic from India.
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Very loosely based on a 16th-century Sufi poem, Padmaavat opened to isolated demonstrations in India by hardline Hindus who very obviously had yet to see the film. An extravagant, often gorgeous bore, Padmaavat is such tasteful kitsch that it's hard to imagine anyone getting worked up enough to be offended by it.

Director, co-writer and composer Sanjay Leela Bhansali starts with Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh), a ruthless villain who's seen raping and murdering the help on his wedding night. Alauddin later kills his uncle to become sultan of a Turkish-Afghan territory.

Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), King of Mewar in northwest India, and Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), a Singhal princess, meet cute when she accidentally shoots him with an arrow on a hunting trip. After many burning glances, they wed and move to a fort and palace in Chittor, Mewar's capital.

Alauddin learns of Padmavati's beauty and sets out to conquer her and Mewar. Laying siege to Chittor, Alauddin takes Ratan hostage in a ruse and demands that Padmavati come to his castle to ransom her husband. Despite the potential harm to her honor, she does, although with some hidden tricks of her own.

Then it's back to Chittor for a final showdown, Ratan determined to defend his queen and country, Alauddin using treachery to try to defeat him, Padmavati waiting in the palace for the outcome.

As a director, Bhansali has an eye for spectacle, his camera swirling around spectacular sets filled with scores of opulently dressed extras. (The 3D effects are hit-or-miss.) But on a dramatic level Padmaavat is much too restrained. Characters are forever explaining their beliefs and positions instead of reacting to the moment. Warnings are delivered, threats are snarled, but action is limited to a few stiffly choreographed skirmishes and one halfway-decent swordfight.

Even the romance fails to strike sparks. Padmavati and Ratan don't even kiss onscreen, and Bhansali apparently had to resort to CG to cover Padukone's midriff during a dance sequence. Kapoor and Padukone are dazzlingly photogenic, but no match for Singh. Adopting an Ivan the Terrible goatee and what looks like a pearl-encrusted fez, he bludgeons his scenes and co-actors into submission.

Bhansali's faced controversy before, notably with Ram-Leela, his 2013 Muslim-vs.-Hindu version of Romeo and Juliet. (It also starred Singh and Padukone; this is their third film with the director.) Muslims have a lot more to complain about than anyone else with Padmaavat, which depicts their sultan as an amoral, bloodthirsty, pansexual lout. But even agnostic audiences will be disappointed by a three-hour downer that ends with mass self-immolation.

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