By Vidya Dronamraju and Devdutta Mukhopadhyay
Breaking away from the conventional damsel in distress trope, the trailer of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest production enticed us with the promise of a powerful warrior heroine in the form of Deepika Padukone’s Mastani. Walking into the theatre, we had high hopes from what we believed would be an epic tale of star crossed lovers who were truly equal in every sense. The movie began with a disclaimer that the events depicted may not be historically accurate but much to our dismay, the filmmakers certainly managed to get archaic gender roles right.
Warrior Heroine turned Full Time Dancer
The lovers meet against the backdrop of war with Mastani seeking help from the Peshwa, played by Ranveer Singh, to end the siege on her hometown of Bundelkhand. When he refuses to see her, she rushes into his tent swords drawn and takes down all of his guards. Her armour is practical, covering all the essentials, including her hair and face. This powerful scene comes to an abrupt end with one blow from the Peshwa, which uncovers her head gear and shows her flowing mane of hair and defiant eyes. The Peshwa agrees to help her and eventually plays a critical role in ending the siege. She saves his life on the battleground but gets grievously injured and has to be carried away in true damsel in distress style by the hypermasculine and undefeatable Bajirao. Mastani’s skill and determination is remarkable for a woman who lived during the 17th century. She rode into battle at a time when it was practically unheard of women to do so. She even refused to be thanked for saving Bundelkhand as she believed it was her duty to protect her home. Unfortunately, thirty minutes into the three hour long movie, the promise of a strong independent female protagonist is forgotten. For the remaining two and half hours, Mastani focuses all of her energy on making Bajirao fall in love with her. A battle wounded Mastani tries to enthrall Bajirao through song and dance. She even hints at marriage during her performance because regardless of how courageous and capable a woman is, at the end of the day, all she wants is ek chutki sindoor. Bajirao in turn seems to be smitten by the brave and beautiful Mastani who is unlike any other woman he has known. He gives her his short sword as a mark of love and respect but Mastani takes it to be an offer of marriage because of the customary practice prevalent in Bundelkhand. She gives up everything all in the name of ‘ishq’ and follows Bajirao to Poona, much to the consternation of Bajirao’s orthodox mother. She is made to live with the dancing girls and is made to perform at the main palace, something that is clearly beneath her royal station. Yet, she does not protest against this treatment meted out to her and dances beautifully much to the chagrin of Bajirao’s mother. Bajirao finally succumbs to her persistent efforts and takes her as his second wife, warning her that she would never command the respect a first wife would. However, she gratefully accepts his offer of marriage and graduates from being a dancer to an illegitimate second wife. Mastani’s character had immense potential to showcase the difficult experiences of a woman who has to bear the double burden of marginalization because of her gender and religion. But at the end of the day, it is a love story and the strength of Mastani’s iron will can only be gauged through her devotion to Bajirao.
Kashi, played by Priyanka Chopra, is the embodiment of the Sati-Savitri stereotype. In the first half of the movie, she is the loving and devoted wife whose entire existence revolves around her husband. She is unwilling to hear a word against him, and in her eyes, he can do no wrong. When he returns from war, she dances with joy. She welcomes him home with an aarti and a limerick on her devotion. She undoes his armor for him even when he is fully capable of doing it himself. She is ready to go to battle with him the next time even though she doesn’t even know how to straddle a horse! Predictably, when she learns about his infidelity, the truth hits her hard with her image of a loving and faithful husband going up in flames quite literally. In the second half, she is morose and heartbroken, but remains the dutiful first wife who would do anything for her Peshwa. Her interaction with Mastani is limited to a handful of scenes and all of them are in connection with Peshwa. Any attempts to portray her as a multi-dimensional character by having her warn the Peshwa about the threat to Mastani’s life or her welcoming the couple to the new palace fail to add any depth to her character because they are all the actions of a self-sacrificing wife.
The Angry Widow A.K.A Radha Bai
The only other major on-screen female character is Radha Bai played by Tanvi Azmi. She is Bajirao’s widowed mother who serves as an antagonist by standing in the way of Bajirao and Mastani’s love. She cares for Kashi and is a stickler for tradition. Even though she opposes her son at every turn, she clearly loves him as is evident by her reaction to news of his illness. She is caustic towards Mastani, and uses every opportunity to humiliate her and throw her out of the Palace. She cannot tolerate the fact that her son has a second wife who is a Muslim. She would prefer to have him step down from the throne rather than to continue seeing Mastani as his wife. She follows all the traditions of widowhood and is devoted to the Hindu clergy. This devotion, is the only aspect of the movie that is not directly connected to the Peshwa as it is fuelled solely by her spiritual beliefs.
Bechdel Testing Bajirao Mastani
In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test, it needs to have at least two named female characters discuss something other than a man. But in a movie like Bajirao Mastani, whose sole focus seems to be on the larger than life Bajirao and his relationship with his wives, even a passing conversation about Mastani’s religion between Kashi and Radha Bai seems like an achievement. The only words that escape Mastani’s mouth are all about her undying ‘ishq’ for Bajirao. She stops fighting after meeting Bajirao, and the next time she wields a sword is to protect her son. Therefore, her warrior persona is conveniently used to highlight her maternal instincts. Kashi spends the movie either swooning over Peshwa or crying over him. She is the ultimate martyr who sacrifices everything for the men in her life. The other major female character is Radha Bai who is also the only non-romantic interest. Her repugnance of all things Muslim stems from her devotion to the Hindu clergy, and it is her religious bigotry that allows her to have a conversation about something besides her son. The movie barely passes the Bechdel test but the idea of it being a feminist film is ludicrous. It could be argued that Bajirao Mastani is a period drama, and one cannot judge a movie set in the 1600s based on modern egalitarian sensibilities. However, for a film to be considered feminist, it need not show women constantly defying gender roles and breaking conventions. The only requirement is that it portrays women as full human beings with their own struggles and limitations. Bajirao Mastani is disappointing not because Mastani and Kashi didn’t burn bras or lurch picket lines. The reason why the movie fails is because these women remain love interests, and never graduate to being people who are trying to navigate their lives to the best of their abilities even though their choices are curtailed by oppressive societal structures. The viewer does not even know what happens to Mastani after Bajirao’s death. The film ends with her collapsing on the floor once she learns that her ‘ishq’ is no more, and she ceases to exist in the absence of Bajirao. None of the female characters get their own narrative arc, not even one that supports a man’s story. Overall, Bajirao Mastaani had immense potential to showcase the complexity and consequences of transgressive love but by playing into the same old stereotypes, the filmmakers squandered away an opportunity to prove that women in love need not be solely focused on love, but they can be multi-dimensional characters with their own history and destiny .
[Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University is running the Dirty Picture Project that reviews blockbuster Bollywood films from a feminist perspective. This particular review is by law students, but anyone who would enjoy this and is capable of carrying the work out is welcome to join in. Please do write at firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Dirty Picture Project’ in the subject line if you would like to be a part of the project.]