18 Dec 2015 ● Tamil ● 2 hrs 38 mins
At the beginning of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Bajirao Mastani,” a Bollywood romance set in 18th-century India, there’s much talk of planting saffron (that is, Hindu) flags in Delhi, the heart of the Mughal (that is, Muslim) empire. Is this going to be an unpleasant India-for-Hindus epic? On the other hand, the movie seems to have some feminist bona fides: Mastani (Deepika Padukone) is an impressively fierce woman warrior, who saves the life of the equally fierce Bajirao (Ranveer Singh) on the battlefield as arrows whiz by her head. “Mastani writes her own destiny,” she says. Well, O.K.
But soon neither theory proves true. “Bajirao Mastani” is no nationalist cri de coeur; instead, it’s the story of a Hindu man (Bajirao) who falls for a Muslim woman (Mastani). Bajirao gives Mastani his dagger, which, in her kingdom, means they’re married; she follows him home, only to be rejected by custom, her mother-in-law and Bajirao’s Wife No. 1, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra, familiar to American viewers from ABC’s “Quantico”). Mastani’s fierceness is now all about love, service and motherhood.
Mr. Bhansali, a Hindi cinema auteur, fills his movie with gorgeous things: green walls painted with delicate pink flowers, a twinkling palace of mirrors, lush fabrics. (The effects-laden battlefield scenes tend to be more pompous, in the “300: Rise of an Empire” mold.)
There’s plenty of story here, but “Bajirao Mastani” has more visual pop than narrative traction. The central pair of defiant lovers are never particularly convincing as convention-busters, nor are they as appealing as the rooms they inhabit or the clothes they wear. You may find yourself rooting for Ms. Chopra’s pushed-aside Kashibai: She has beauty to spare, a good song and something the rest of the movie lacks — warmth and a touch of humor.