Mirrors play a significant role in Bajirao Mastani. When Mastani is informed that Bajirao is allegedly sick, she rushes to Shaniwar Wada to see him. They find each other in the Aina Mahal — i.e., the Hall of Mirrors — and passionately embrace. In this moment, they are reflected in the thousands of mirrors which surround them, and their reflection is further projected onto the blank tapestry hanging in Kashibai’s bedroom; where Kashibai sees them. I read this moment as a queering of the public-private binary. By reflecting Bajirao and Mastani in Kashibai’s bedroom, the mirrors blur the spatial boundaries present between the private space of Kashibai’s room and the public space of the Aina Mahal; and by reflecting a private moment between the lovers to an outsider, the mirrors disregard the lines between their private and public selves—here, the private becomes the public. The mirrors in Aina Mahal repeatedly facilitate this crossing-over and queering. How then, do we read the mirror itself—is it private or public? How does its positioning shape the bodies which interact with it? As spectators, how does this interaction influence our viewing experience? In this essay, I explore these questions by reading Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Bajirao Mastani alongside Sara Ahmed’s text Queer Phenomenology. I also consider the implications of queering the public-private binary, and the effects of “reflections” that cross over from the private space into the public.
The mirror is usually relegated to the background. As a result, it mostly goes unnoticed. In films, directors often place the burden of consequentiality upon the mirror, and queer this familiarity. Shots seen in the mirror and monologues spoken in front of a mirror carry weight, and significantly influence the film. In Bajirao Mastani, the projection of Bajirao and Mastani’s embrace into Kashibai and Bajirao’s bedroom is the watershed moment which disrupts the film’s “straightness”. In this scene, the blank tapestry in the bedroom acts like a screen on which the reflections from the mirror in the Aina Mahal are projected. The tapestry also serves as a device which is the effect and the tangible manifestation of the foggy spatial boundaries in the film. It is a liminal object; for while it is present in Kashibai’s room, it shows public images reflected in the mirrors in the Aina Mahal. These mirrors queer spatial boundaries; and in this scene, enable the crossing-over of Mastani from the outside of the bedroom into the inside. In this regard, Kashibai’s burning of the tapestry reads as a reassertion and thickening of the lines between her private space and the public space of the Mahal. The queering of these boundaries is uncomfortable and heartbreaking for Kashibai; and because she cannot destroy the cause of these blurry boundaries (the mirror), she burns the effect.
What is the use of mirrors? In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed writes: “It is not just that the object tends toward something, where the tendency supports an action, but that the shape of the object is itself shaped by the work for which it is intended…The thing would be a thing insofar as it is being used as the thing that it was brought into the world to be” (46). Mirrors are supposed to merge with the background of every space in which they happen to find themselves, but they also reflect and therefore (re)produce that space. This active production of a private space fosters an unintended intimacy between the object of the mirror and the subject; which further shapes that particular space to feel safe for the subject. However, if mirrors are expected to be peripheral, then by perceiving private reflections to be publicly significant we change the way mirrors are used. Subjects would then either cloak mirrors, remove them, or intentionally turn away from them. Films, however, by revealing the import of reflections only to spectators and by hiding it from the characters, are able to integrate these fault lines of queerness seamlessly, without interrupting the diegesis of the film.
In Bajirao Mastani, the reflections seen in the mirrors of the Aina Mahal are recurrently enabled to cause an effect. It is in the Aina Mahal that Mastani reacquaints herself with Bajirao. In the song Deewani Mastani, Mastani dances in the centre of this hall, and her image is reflected in every mirror of Aina Mahal. In one shot, we see Kashibai gazing at Mastani’s reflection in these mirrors; and appearing significantly perturbed by them. Here, I read Mastani’s golden lehenga (which encourages the illusion of her reflections merging with the Mahal), and the careful shooting of this song as an impactful use of reflections: Mastani’s performance is rendered even more forceful by her numerous reflections in Aina Mahal which make her appear ubiquitous, and discomfit Kashibai and Bajirao’s mother. In this scene, the foregrounding of the object of the mirror unleashes the torrential power of reflections.
Mirrors and their reflections are noteworthy, primarily because we often fail to notice them. They are usually present in the private domain, i.e., the bedroom. As an effect, they are often witnesses to the private self (the vulnerable self, the uninhibited self, the desiring self); the self which is, more often than not, unrestrained by social boundaries. In films, they are consequently useful devices to reveal characters’ interiority to spectators. I argue that this familiar positioning makes them private objects. Consequently, their movement from the private space into a public space, like the Aina Mahal, is ripe with destructive potential. The mirrors in Aina Mahal repeatedly reflect private intimacies being shared in public spaces. This invasion of the public space by the private selves causes a rupture, and creates a fissure in social order. In the second half of the film, this is repeatedly exhibited by Bajirao’s wanton countenance, which overshadows his former public self (the dutiful self, the brave self, the noble self). Here, desire overtakes duty — the private becomes the public — and the subject gives into chaos.
What does it mean for our reflections to become public? In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed writes: “So the space of the study is shaped by a decision (that this room is for this kind of work), which itself then “shapes” what actions “happen” in that space. The question of action is a question then of how we inhabit space. Given this, action involves the intimate co-dwelling of bodies and objects” (52). The private space is familiar. In this space, our bodies co-dwell alongside objects like the table, the chair, the bed, and the mirror. Our interaction with these objects shapes a space which is comfortable and secure. Here, the mirror quietly watches our unobserved selves; while harmlessly remaining in the background. But, when we foreground the mirror, we both change the way our bodies interact with it, and the shape of the private space. The familiarity which previously offered safety then becomes a source of threat. However, unlike films like Bajirao Mastani where the onus of “reflecting” and the crossing-over of public/private boundaries lies with the object of the mirror, in our everyday lives, this role lies with a different object: the camera. The camera conveniently captures our private reflections, and allows us to throw our private selves into the public abyss of the internet. The internet then becomes the ground where the public space is laid siege to by the private. Here, the queering of the public-private boundaries lends itself to effects like surveillance, and urges a redefinition of both “privacy” and the “private self”. It also begs the question: Today, what does it even mean to be private?
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.
Bhansali, Sanjay Leela, dir. Bajirao Mastani. Bhansali Productions. 2015.