Show don’t tell: Bajirao Mastani

I’ve always found cinema to be a fascinating world. Why is the protagonist framed by pillars? Would we know one of the characters is walking into trouble if no ominous music was playing in the background? Why does this scene have a lot of reds?

At J-School, we had the option to learn cinema analysis and interpretation. I had opted for other electives, and had given this as my last preference. As luck would have it, I was assigned this elective thanks to a mystifying algorithm that the management used.

I was disappointed when I got the news, but I couldn’t help but feel happy that THE Baradwaj Rangan was going to be taking these classes. Soon enough, I realised that this was one of the best things to happen at ACJ for me. My latent curiosity found an outlet, and it was pure joy analysing movies with him (side note: he is a very kind and non-judgemental teacher).

So here I am, trying to apply what I learnt through the Talking Cinema elective.

In this post, I attempt to interpret the visual storytelling that permeates Bajirao Mastani, a 2015 Hindi film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Kashibai’s character progression

Bajirao marries Kashi as dictated by tradition. She is emotionally expressive, religious, and wears her heart on her sleeve.

She is introduced with lamps around her – symbolic of her passionate nature.

She wears colours that indicate passion too: reds, yellows, orange, maroon, etc. Even her eyes are red-rimmed.

As the film progresses, she comes to represent Bajirao’s duties as a Peshwa- fighting battles, within and outside. She remains the dutiful wife, sticking to rigid rules: We see her in square/rectangular spaces, which in Indian context represents the masculine, which is inflexible, conscientious, and rule-adhering.

She is so duty conscious that she welcomes Mastani with the traditional aarti, invites her to participate in the palace’s celebrations, and takes care of Bajirao till his death. The descent of her life from light to darkness is also shown visually – her scenes are placed in well-lit spaces, vibrant interiors, she wears vibrant colours. As she comes to terms with Bajirao belonging to Mastani more than to her, she is seen in progressively dark spaces and wears cool tones. Sample: the scene where she asks Bajirao to never step into her quarters again, and starts blowing out the lamps; the next being her informing Bajirao she’s pregnant with his child, in a gloomy garden- she wears blue, her hair is loose, there are very few lamps.

Towards the end of the movie, she wears the palest of colours and whites too- symbolic of her soul having detached from her emotions. Her face is almost always placid, rarely expressing any emotion, her eyes seldom shed tears. Priyanka is hands down the best thing about this movie.

Mastani’s character progression

Mastani is portrayed as a calm person who never loses her composure – even when expressing intense emotions. A lot of her scenes feature placid water. When she’s happy, when her heart’s aflutter, we see her amidst fountains. She wears the most subtle shades of colours, her home is set amidst a still lake.

When she is experiencing intense emotions, they’re denoted by intense colours – case in point – the Mohe Rang Do Lal song sequence: she wears muted colours, but she bears her palm as she looks at Bajirao and we see red.

When she is sequestered in a run-down palace by Bajirao’s mom, everything around her is black- you can almost feel the heaviness.

Her relationship with Bajirao alludes to the Krishna-gopika equation – she is moved to tears by her love for him – a common occurrence in poems by Krishna devotees on their divine experiences. Even Mohe Rang Do Laal is a song sung to Krishna.

As with the mythical god’s story, the Bajirao-Mastani relationship doesn’t take into account ethics or morality. She leaves everything for him, and is willing to go to great lengths to be with him, yet she doesn’t mind that Kashi will be the one who will be acknowledged as the wife; she understands Kashi’s hurt and doesn’t serve platitudes. The lack of regret on the couple’s part about hurting Kashi and other people, is representative of the fluid morality their relationship shows – and is denoted by circles – the feminine principle – free-flowing, flexible.

As the movie progresses, we see Mastani is deep reds and browns, her spaces are more fire than water.

That is, where Kashi moves into a non-attached space in her relationship with Bajirao, we see Mastani losing her cool, needing to assert her love, her relationship, her beliefs.

The ethereal Deepika is the apt pick: her fluid motions, minimal makeup, soft voice and subtle expressions also reflecting her – water – the feminine.



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