When you want to placate the current sensibilities of the nation using 17th century popular historical narratives, you get Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. The movie's disclaimer in the beginning warns us that incidents, events, and characters would be altered, which would have been fine had it been limited to some artistic liberties. But when racial profiling becomes a norm, one needs to ask, why?
The rhetoric of Mughals portrayed as 'foreigners' is a running theme in the film. For a Mughal living in India for generations, Aurangzeb doesn't sound like a native Hindustani speaker. In fact, he's been given an accent. The Mughal process of Indianization, which started under Akbar, was a powerful political tool to seek legitimacy and acceptance. Aurangzeb, despite his economic issues and orthodox streak, was not powerful enough to change the essence of the Mughal empire. Despite the changing times, Rajputs remained integral to Aurangzeb's administration. Similarly, the Marathas continued to employ Muslims and Portuguese in their service, just as Marathas themselves found employment with the Mughal, Bijapur and Golkonda powers in the second half of the 17th century. But most historical dramas choose not to engage with these aspects. What better way than making the Muslims into the 'others'.
Most movies cater to their times and the audience. For example, Mughal-e Azam (1960) portrayed an extremely Indianized Akbar. In Jodha Akbar (2008), Akbar remains perturbed by political as well as household issues like most of the TV series of the time. However, Padmaavat's depiction of Alauddin Khilji – the Muslim Sultan of the Delhi Sultanate – has set a new normal. The Mughal depiction in Tanhaji steps into it quite easily.
Both Aurangzeb and Shivaji do not get much screen time in Tanhaji. In fact, in his introduction scene, Aurangzeb is seen knitting. Now, it is said that Aurangzeb did not take any money from the royal treasury for his personal use and would write copies of the Quran or knit the caps for prayer. However, without context, such a detail is lost on an audience who only hear the Mughal commander himself calling the Mughals 'maukaparast' (opportunistic). We also see the Mughals and other Muslim characters tiringly wear green.
When you want to constantly make a group as the 'other', we rob them off of these historical details and nuances. Such representations of the Muslim elite are not just problematic, they also render history as a simple and straightforward narrative.
In the beginning of the film, the narrator claims that pitting a Hindu (Rajput) against a Hindu (Maratha) was the biggest treachery by Aurangzeb. It was almost after a century of Rajput assimilation into the Mughal administrative mansabdari system, but this line in the beginning of the movie sets the tone for what is to come. The identities of the characters are treated as binaries. The Maratha political ambition is valorized, and Mughal and Rajput ones are simplified.
Uday Bhan Rathore is portrayed as a very interesting man who is negative and therefore a Mughal-ised character. Saif Ali Khan does a good job of playing a man who is obsessed, violent, and unethical. Sadly, his portrayal remains historically problematic. He is a Rajput who remains loyal to Aurangzeb (as did many other prominent Rajput rulers of the time). His loyalty to the Mughals hasn't been shown as political move in the 17th century set-up. Instead, he's been turned into an eccentric oddball, whose uncouth eating habits are oddly reminiscent of Alauddin Khilji's in Padmaavat. The 'lal maans' (spicy mutton curry) eating Rajput character is seen barbecuing and chewing a crocodile. He constantly wears black after he joins Aurangzeb and kidnaps a widow from a Rajput royal family who had once rejected him. He is depicted as a merciless man who kills at the slightest provocation. He is used as a foil to bring forth the righteousness of Tanhaji, who is family oriented, loyal to his Maratha identity, and fights to avenge his father's death.
A lot of emphasis was given in medieval Persian cultures on adab (comportment) and social protocols. The public persona of an emperor and nobility was carefully maintained for they had to command respect and wield power. The code of ethics were in place for warrior classes in many cultures in India and elsewhere, and they were held with pride. But when you want to constantly make a group as the 'other', we rob them off of these historical details and nuances. Such representations of the Muslim elite are not just problematic, they also render history as a simple and straightforward narrative.
I want to leave you all with a very small but pertinent detail. Tanhaji Malusare is mentioned as a Subedar of the Maratha confederacy. Subedar comes from the Persian word 'suba' which means province. And the word subedar was used as an administrative post by all – the Mughals initially, then by Marathas and even the British empire. That's how widespread the larger Mughal administrative network had become by 17th century. History is not simple. It cannot be broken down to 'this vs that' or 'us vs them'. History is layered, complex and interesting, and viewers should not lose sight of that.