Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Footnote In History, An Enigmatic 'Mist'ery: Bajirao's Mastani

I have never done a movie review on my blog unless you count my post titled 'English Vinglish' where I drew parallels between teaching my adult students and the situations that have been perfectly portrayed in the movie and exhorted everyone I knew to watch this beautiful Bollywood film, which in itself, is a rarity...Yes, I just realized 'beautiful Bollywood film' sounds like an alliterative oxymoron, in the current day scenario!
My daughter had been eagerly waiting for two Bollywood films that were to release on the Friday a week before Christmas. After a hard semester, she wanted to unwind by watching not just one but both these films. And so, on the day school closed, we watched the really tacky and completely unbelievable movie starring India's reigning superstar and I was bored to tears and honestly wanted to walk out half way. Two days later we were back in the same theatre to watch the other big banner film, this one based on historical events and my expectations were at an all time low, after the fiasco of the first film.
I was spellbound from the first shot and that's saying a lot because I'd rather read at any time of the day or night, than watch a movie. I come from the state of Maharashtra in India and this movie is based on the life of a Konkanastha Chitpavan Brahmin Prime Minister or 'Peshwa' to the King, who was also the greatest General of his time. He lived in my home town Pune, belonged to exactly the same caste that I do, spoke my mother tongue and represented an era that I have studied in great detail at the under graduate and the post graduate level. So how could I not be interested, except for the fact that Bollywood can massacre any event or situation? Mercifully, we were in for a treat this time!
Peshwa Bajirao is played by a young and upcoming Bollywood hero and he has done a marvellous job. What was specially endearing was the Marathi accent that underlines his Hindi, the language used in the movie. Marathi is my mother tongue, Hindi our national language and usually when people who speak Marathi on a daily basis try to speak Hindi, you just want to stop short of throttling them, so terrible is their accent. This particular Bollywood hero is a hard core north Indian so it is apparent that a lot of effort has been made in tempering the national language with underlying tones of the mother tongue!
His first wife, Kashi, has been played by a leading Bollywood actress and what stands out the most is the attention paid to detail. If you are Indian or of Indian origin, you will know that every region has different facial expressions for approval, disapproval, pride, disgust and so on. As her husband comes home victorious from a battle, ( he won forty battles in a row in his short but illustrious career!), she is watching him from the balcony and the way she twists her face in approval and acknowledgement of his feat is classic! It is so Maharashtrian. I have seen this expression on the faces on countless aunts, my grandmothers, great aunts and elderly neighbours and even my own mother...It made me feel at home instantly!
Though the Hindu Marriage Act, by virtue of which our men can have only ONE legal wife, was passed more than two hundred and fifty years after the time frame that the movie is based in, most Brahmin men of the period had just one wife. Peshwa Bajirao is content too till he comes across the half Muslim Mastani in the course of one of his campaigns in another part of India, where he helps her father to fight against the Mughal army. In gratitude, the father gives lots of war booty to the Peshwa along with his stunning daughter, who is already enamoured of the handsome young Peshwa. That's the version of the story as portrayed in the movie.
Mastani, the daughter of a Muslim mother and a Hindu father, played by another very talented Bollywood leading lady, is not acccepted in the ultra conservative Brahmin society of my home town. It is made clear to the Peshawa by his own mother that it is fine to consort with Mastani as a 'Mistress' but there is no way that she can be given the legal status accorded to a wife. Bajirao, in turn makes it clear to all and sundry that Mastani is not just an amorous indulgence on his part but his true love! His palatial home, Pune's famous 'Shaniwar Wada', built at an astronomical cost of Rs.16,000 (USD 250) in 1732 AD, has no place for the ostracised Mastani and so he builds her another palace, a few miles from Pune. A part of that palace has been dismantled and reconstructed in one of Pune's most famous museums and gives us an idea of its former glory.
The person to suffer most in this 'menage a trois' is, of course, the first wife, Kashibai, known by the sobriquet 'Laadubai' or the 'loved one', which she was, till Mastani materialized on the scene. She finds herself ignored and neglected, even as her husband finds solace elsewhere. She is forced to put on a brave face and live with the situation, as women of that era did not have the option of living an independent life and nor were they welcome in their father's house, if the husband was still living. She tells him ' I would have given you my life had you but asked, but you snatched away my pride...' Nearly three hundred years have passed since then but this will strike a chord with the faithful wife of any adulterous husband even today.
The Peshwa is away at a battle when Mastani is imprisoned by his oldest son and given the ultimatum of returning to her father's house which she refuses, outright, to do. It ends with the Peshwa dying of a disease far away from his home state, and Mastani either commits suicide or dies of heart break soon after. Her young son is raised by Kashibai who turned to religion, went on pilgrimages and comissioned a huge temple which still stands in her home town, a few hours drive away from mine.
Mastani, who had remained but a foot note in History, gets a new identity with the release of this magnum opus. We had all dismissed her as the 'other' woman, a marriage breaker and a home wrecker but here we see she was an accomplished warrior princess in her own right. In her part of the country, second marriages were common and accepted. Sadly for her, in my part of the country and in my caste they were not and so she was doomed, even before she tied the knot with the already spoken for Peshwa.
The movie has given rise to a lot of controversy with people asking how a Brahmin woman of that era could dance, as Kashi does, in the foot-tapping, chartbusting song 'Pinga'. My point is she is dancing in her residence, there is not a man in sight and Maharashtrian women do have this 'women only' function where women are encouraged to let their hair down, dance, play games and sing songs, most of which talk about how nasty one's in laws are! The tradition harks back to an era where girls as young as eight were married off, as Kashibai herself was and then rarely allowed to go back to their maternal home. Other historians have pointed out that Kashi suffered from a form of arthritis, so would have been unable to dance the way she has, but what's a Bollywood blockbuster without song, dance and controversy? She is very decently clad in a traditional nine yards rich silk saree, as is Mastani, whom she invites for this function, in an attempt to offer an olive branch to her husband's muse. The song where the Peshwa himself dances and uses a cheap Marathi word to say he annihilated the enemy is much harder to swallow but one has to take that with a pinch of salt and understand that the Director needs to cater to the 'front benches' too and not just high brow intellectuals and looking at those magnificent and opulent sets, he definitely needs to recover the amount that has been spent on this epic historical film!
I enjoyed the movie here in Nairobi in a packed cinema hall. When the titles rolled, there was a stunned silence in the theatre and everyone was frozen for about a whole minute, as if they were unwilling to come back to the 21st century. I was hit by a huge wave of home sickness and I wanted to fly home the next day itself, go to Shaniwar Wada again with my children and also buy some gorgeous 18th century traditional gold jewellery! It did not help in the least that my jeweller, P N Gadgil, in my home town, was the official jeweller for the movie and I was being bombarded with messages on my India cell phone number, telling me that the exclusive Bajirao Mastani Collection was now available at their many branches!
I also desperately wanted to drink the cold milk shake named in honour of Mastani. We have enjoyed it since we were children and it is available only in Pune. It comes in various flavours like mango, chocolate, saffron and pista and is a sinful concoction of creamy milk and huge dollops of ice cream, served in a tall mug, topped with dry fruits. One feels slightly decadent and guilty while indulging in it, as it is absolutely loaded with sugar and calories. After watching the movie, I feel that is exactly how Peshwa Bajirao Ballad must have felt every time he was with Mastani, knowing the entire Brahmin community, including his own mother, son and brother, were against his antics. You know you are making a mistake but you can't help going back for another Mastani, time and again...As I will, come June, when I go home...

                                                               Shaniwar Wada, Pune
                                                     The main door of Shaniwar Wada


  1. An excellent pen picture by an archeologist, a hard core Maharashtrian and a linguist . You made my day. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! Now go watch the movie soon!

    2. Thank you! Now go watch the movie soon!

  2. The end was captivating.. as how you compared the guilt of having Mastani with the guilt of Bajirao... too good metaphor!

    1. Thank you Priya and thanks a ton for following my blog too!

  3. This was my reaction to the movie.
    Saw Bajirao Mastani movie today. A grand spectacle about extraordinary people. All controversial debate seems so pointless. Wonderful acting and production befitting the characters bring portrayed. नियति किती कठोर असू शकते हे परत ऐकदा बघायला मिळाले। अगदी एक रोमांचकारी अनुभव।

  4. Another reaction to a question from my niece that Ranveer portrayed Bajirao as a little eccentric --

    Just imagine fighting 40 battles in a span of about ten or twelve years. Constantly being on the road under strenuous conditions , far away from home, worrying about all the अस्तनितील निखारे। How do you survive. You have to be a little eccentric, to protect yourself from what life throws at you. Ranveer Singh portrayed this aspect so beautifully. My heart went out to him.


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