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The Hall of Mirrors: Reflections and Ruptures in “Bajirao Mastani”

image source: GQ India

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? 



WORKS CITED 

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.  

Bhansali, Sanjay Leela, dir. Bajirao Mastani. Bhansali Productions. 2015. 

it rained /

when the trees look like thunder paused in time it becomes easier to unclench my fists and dream of streets soaked in rain future people laughing dancing hugging and music spilling from behind every half-open door / it should be so easy to walk up leave and not look back everything’s dying and i’m crying sitting in the traces of my lightning decked date because nothing touches me gently anymore nothing touches me / anymore / please let me leave i will find a little empty corner and not say a word can i not / have one soft thing?

about my old high-school principal

you sell bouquets by the side 
of the road. every morning

i drive past your shop, & angelicas,
hollies, sages, & chrysanthemums 

lay intertwined. if i roll down 
my windows, the sweet

sticky scent wafts 
inside the car & perches 

upon my neck. i breathe
in. drive towards my old

school, praying that the a.c.
won’t wash their perfume off 

my skin. in class: doodle bushy
eyebrow-eyes, munch

upon packets of stolen
chocolates. in these corridors 

of covid-infected hunger,
i survive. stomach eating

itself, fingers failing 
to rise. often, i bring my wrist 

up to my nose. imagine: your
field of oranges, hydrangeas

braided in my hair. because 
of you / there’s a future for me here.  

every apple tastes sweeter / after the fall

there’s comfort in not touching—

disquiet dissonance rattling doors 
locked from within. 
arms reaching through televisions, 
eyes seeking from newspapers: 

every bite tastes sweeter 
when the fruit is stolen. 

i count the dead 
& open my drawer,
carefully sticking coins inside my piggy bank.
being alive comes with a price 
someone else is paying.
when the do-gooders come looking 
for warmth, i’ll break my bank 
&
name it yours.

everything we touch is meant to die
& everything alive is not ours. 

Headcanon Magazine | issue i: Coffee Shop AU — submissions are now open!

Friends, enemies, & acquaintances:

Headcanon Magazine, where I serve as editor-in-chief, has opened submissions for its issue i. The theme is “coffee shop AU”. You are welcome to submit fan-fiction, fan-art, poems, critical essays, memes, letters, etc. — anything goes, really! I’m extremely excited about this tiny project, & I really hope that you would consider sending something in. You can read the complete submission guidelines right here. You can email your submissions &/ questions @ headcanonmagazine @ gmail dot com. The issue is a non-commercial venture, & will be available on the magazine’s website for free in a pdf format. Consequently, submissions are completely voluntary. You can read more about the issue here.

I’m really looking forward to hearing from you. Take care!

our hands smell like smoke but we weave flower crowns out of our lungs & wear our vices with a smirk

light
falls
into our palms 
and slips 
through the cracks.
we curl our fingers 
around 
paper-palmed cigarettes. 
in the middle of the open road,
we look up to the naked moon in worship. 
every act 
of destruction 
makes us feel like
a God.
we pray 
to ourselves
for the ability to dream. 
there’s a crater on the side of the road.
there’s a bridge at the end of the sky.
hold my hand. 
let’s walk. 

love letter to “kabhi khushi kabhie gham”

thunder rumbles outside my window as rohan walks into rahul’s home in london
& first sees him, after a long, long time. their parents watch their reunion from a portrait on the wall
& i / cry as they lock eyes. watch me watch myself in my grandparents’ room watching 
the same film for the thousandth time & still—noticing a speck of dirt under anjali’s eye i
had missed during the first nine-hundred ninety-nine. is it love if i still find your sunlight
soaked reunion song to be absolutely annoying? kabhi khushi kabhie gham is a spit-fire nicotine
crushed ochre stained cashmere sweater i should have thrown out years ago. when i
was fourteen, it curled around my back & whispered in my ear: your home is the darkest room
you’ll ever sleep in. & that’s alright. i have found my brightest corners in my parents’ home 
& i never want to go back. rahul goes back. he forgives, [because forgiveness whittles away 
at your bones until you are the perfect mimic-man. your parents hate you.] & i have grown up
in india which means i / always arrive home. my home is the effect of my history of 
obedience. i adore this film. chandni chowk tastes like a history unabridged 
& unbroken. this is a capitalist state & everyone’s happy. shayaris twist tongues 
into figures-of-eight. & everyone’s dancing. how could rahul not fall in love? 
anjali’s bangles bite at his throat & he curls his dupatta around his neck twice to hide the bruises 
she has left behind. every fourteen minutes, he presses down with his fingers & they turn up violet. 
how could rahul ever hide his love? / they fall in love & they don’t die. spin songs about their future 
& twirl a classic tale of forbidden romance: rich man falls in love with a poor woman & his family 
despises her. she’s the greedy temptation rich man spied from the shop window & now wants. 
& bratty indulged rich-boy, rebel without a cause longs to save someone. her father dies & he
whisks her away. they revel in domestic bliss only / marred by their phone which never rings. 
bole chudiyan arrives like a letter from a friend who had forgotten about me. it takes my hand 
& its melody tastes like rainy evenings in hauz khas when my date stands me up & i’m smoking 
in the fort writing poems to my favourite city. shava shava is everything that’s wrong with my city: nandini & yash’s presence splatters the scene through a smoke-screen. my nostalgia comforts me.
rahul & rohan talk cricket in london & india wins. here’s a secret that will ruin my reputation:
in my favourite films, india always wins. but we are in the middle of a pandemic 
& i don’t give two fucks about my reputation anymore. lightning cracks the sky open: 
look! here comes the helicopter & here comes rahul & there he goes running towards his home. 
nandini will be waiting with an aarti ki thali. he will run his hands over the bannister & lilies
will grow in the webs of his fingers. anjali will tuck one behind her ear & smile for the camera.
the raichands will forgive, & we will know that forgiveness marks the return of peace. 

childhood carnivals

pink mouths softened cradle candy floss.
excited hands swat flies, & someone buys another
ticket to the merry-go-round. this must be 
a carnival — where else can one find such innocent
decadence? sunshine sinking dips into clavicles  
& my childhood’s gone. this must be a dream
— where else does my tongue still taste so sweet?