"Every Friday aapka bhagya badal jata hai," director Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi tells me over a call. His latest film, the Yash Raj production, Akshay Kumar-starrer Samrat Prithviraj flopped at the box office, and didn't fare any better with the critics. Mounted on a budget of 230 crores, the film has made a little over 65 crores.
For all its flaws, the discourse around the film seemed to be taking place entirely beyond its craft — its politics was questioned and pillaged by people on both sides of the political spectrum. "Donon side se beating mili," Dwivedi jokes. The historical genre — whose resurgence he traces to Baahubali, after which producers became confident about having their heroes wear dhoti-kurta — has also become a contested space for voicing contemporary political beliefs. The past, in these films, is a reflection of the present.
It is in this context that I had a chat with the director, who has been working with this genre since the early 1990s, with Chanakya and later Ek Aur Mahabharat (1997) and Upanishad Ganga (2012). Edited for length and clarity.
You mentioned that the outcome of the film was surprising and that you did not foresee a lot of the criticism it got. What specifically were you referring to?
The number one misconception was that our film is a historical film. I have never claimed our film is historical. There is a dispute among historians on how accurate Prithviraj Raso, the poem we based the film on, is, but it isn't my job as a filmmaker to decide that. I studied Prithviraj Raso to make the film. There are many versions of the poem written by various people. How do people expect me to give the final verdict on which version is true? This is not my job. In any established history there are differences of opinion. After all, history is not just about dates but it's also about interpretation of events.
I had also read many different views about the historicity of Prithviraj's wife Sanyogita. Her name is different in different versions. As a matter of fact, in one version she is the daughter of the slave of one of Jayachandra's queens, as opposed to being Jayachandra's daughter, a princess. There are even books that say there may have been no Sanyogita. Another example is that Sanyogita is not the only wife of Prithviraj. Raso says that he had multiple wives and would battle various kingdoms to get their daughters.
"People even criticized me for using the word "Shaheed". If people have such a problem with the word, what do we call Shaheed Bhagat Singh? This is, honestly, very scary to me."
There are different views for practically every event in the story. For example, historians say Prithviraj died at 26, but Raso says he eloped with Sanyogita when he was 36. So which version is true?
What is very interesting is that the same episodes that I have shot in Prithviraj were made by Shri Shyam Benegal in Bharat Ek Khoj. He made an episode on Raso where the consultants of the story were none other than Shri Irfan Habib, Shri R.S. Sharma, and Srimati R. Champakalakshmi, stalwart historians of this country. I have immense respect for their scholarship and if their story was correct in 1988, then how did this same story become false in 2022?
Do you think this debate is due to the extremely politicized climate the film has been released in especially after Akshay Kumar's comment, "Unfortunately, in our history textbooks there are two-three lines about Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan, but a lot has been mentioned about the invaders. There is hardly anything about our culture and our Maharajas."?
When Akshay sir had asked his son about Prithviraj Chauhan he replied that he had no knowledge about who that was. That was Akshay's trigger point where he started inquiring why we never teach what we may call "Hindu history". Now this is what he thinks, it isn't my opinion nor is it the opinion of my producers. He expressed this opinion on a show, and so people started to think Samrat Prithviraj was a historical film. But he never said this was a historical film. People got his message mixed up.
Those who oppose the present political dispensation thought that the film was supported by a political party, however that wasn't the case at all. Akshay is one of the most well known actors in India and he would like to show the film to all of his family and friends, so what's the harm if the home minister of the country sees the film and expresses his opinion on the rewriting of history? Likewise what's the harm if Yogi Adityanath who is the head of a state of 25 crore people sees the film as well?
See, it's not like you don't have the right to reject an actor but he's been working for 30 years so you know his capabilities. Akshay Kumar has done the role to the best of his potential. He is not the first actor whose performance the audience hasn't liked but to boycott him for his acting as Prithviraj makes no sense; boycotting his film due to things he has done in the past, such as promoting paan masala or saying that one shouldn't give Lord Shiva milk, makes no sense because these matters have nothing to do with the movie at all.
There are a lot of Urdu and Farsi words in the film. Was this a conscious choice?
People didn't want Urdu in Prithviraj because they associate it with Muslims but for me Urdu is associated with India. But people started telling me that there shouldn't have been Urdu in this film.
I read one passage from Raso where the author himself says that he used the words of the Quran in the poem. People aren't aware that in that time Jayachandra's army had many Muslims, "miron ki fauj". I also wanted to offer the view that Urdu isn't a foreign language rather it actually originated from India. In fact, one of the greatest Indian poets of all time, Goswami Tulsidas used many words in Arabic and Farsi that aren't of Sanskrit origin in Ramcharitmanas – garibniwas, sahib, sarkar. So all of a sudden how is Urdu only the language of the Musalman? It is our language.
I think people were expecting Sanskritised Hindi. But the Raso was written in a language called Pingal. Those who know the history of languages know that Persian was used during that time and there is no harm in using it.
Towards the end of the film you had a disclaimer that after Prithviraj came 755 years of "videshi hamlawaron aur hukmaranon", were you talking about the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals?
I was referring to Ghori who came from abroad. Akbar did not come from the outside.
What did you mean then by the 755 year gap in the seat of Delhi between Prithviraj Chauhan and Indian independence?
After 1192, barring Hemchandra Vikramaditya — who sat on the throne of Delhi for a duration of somewhere in between 29 and 40 days — the only Hindu who sat in power in Delhi was Jawaharlal Nehru. This is not just my opinion, there are several articles on this topic. Many scholars shared this view as well.
Don't you think it's dangerous to frame it in this way when the Mughal rule is being actively vilified and erased from textbooks and street names?
Yes, I did worry about that when making the film. What was surprising is that the opposition to the film came from all sides. Many people questioned why I didn't show the atrocities committed by Ghori or why I didn't show the rape of Sanyogita, the slaughter of cows and brahmins, etc. All I want to ask this section of viewers is where did they read this in Raso? None of these events have been referred to in the poem. There's a lot of misinformation on the internet. I've even heard some rumors that the director of Samrat Prithviraj has become secular and is hiding Ghori's sins. I simply presented the story of Raso as was presented by not only Shyam Benegal but various other people, including a show on EPIC channel.
"Yes, there's a fear that when we talk about a Hindu ruler it will be translated into hatred of Muslims by certain sections of society. This is the risk we take when making these movies."
The progressive critique of Samrat Prithviraj is that like a lot of movies after 2014, it panders to the virtuous Hindu and vile Muslim trope. What is your response to that?
If you look at the film you can see that Prithviraj gives shelter to Ghori's brother, Mir Hussain. He even eloped with a girl called Chitrarekha who was a court dancer for Ghori. Somehow people looked at this story and said that the Prithviraj was promoting "Love Jihad" which is something I didn't imagine even in the remotest of dreams. People even criticized me for using the word "Shaheed". If people have such a problem with the word, what do we call Shaheed Bhagat Singh? This is, honestly, very scary to me.
But you can't change history and people will take the lessons from history they want to take. What nobody talks about though is people like Dara Shikoh, who translated 52 Upanishads into Persian and wanted Hinduism and Islam to come together to make the world a better place or even someone like Rahim, Raskhan, and Akbar who were as nationalists as anybody.
To some extent I do agree that after 2014 people started to pick up subjects they used to be reluctant about because of the change in behavior of the censor board. But what I fear is that some of them try to use their films to promote discord.
Was Somnath mentioned in Prithviraj Raso? It is a hot button issue and I wondered why you brought it up in the dialogues.
Somnath isn't mentioned in Raso. But Mohammed Ghori came from Ghazni which is the same place Mahmud of Ghazni came from. So it is fresh in Indian consciousness that Mahmud of Ghazni destroyed the Somnath temple. When Prithviraj has a discussion with his courtiers, Kaka (Sanjay Dutt) asks him whether he has forgotten the conduct of the invaders of the past. Prithviraj responds by saying he does remember what Mahmud Ghazni did, but why should Mir Hussain be punished because of that. That is the point that I was trying to make that we can't hold this generation accountable for the sins of the past.
Increasingly, we are not able to distinguish Hindu pride from Muslim hatred. So when you want to specifically highlight that Delhi wasn't ruled by a Hindu for 755 years after 1192, it feels odd. But also I wanted to ask why you mentioned that he was the last Hindu Samrat of North India. What was the point of completely removing the South and their history from the conversation?
I had no intention of glorifying Hinduism in my film. In fact I'm probably the only filmmaker who has made two films with Muslim protagonists, in Pinjar and Zed Plus. Nobody spoke about that. Nobody spoke about Upanishad Ganga, where, despite reservations, I used Dara Shikoh as the character to introduce the Upanishads, instead of Yajnavalkya, Adiguru Shankacharya, and Swami Vivekananda. It was my belief that after Adiguru Shankaracharya, if someone has done a great service to the Hindu society it is Dara Shikoh, a Muslim, a five-time Namazi and elder brother of Aurangzeb.
Yes, there's a fear that when we talk about a Hindu ruler it will be translated into hatred of Muslims by certain sections of society. This is the risk we take when making these movies and with the experience of Samrat Prithviraj I think every filmmaker will be extremely careful about the subject of Hindu-Muslim unity or enmity. At least it's true for me! (laughs) See, let us not make the medium of film a battleground. Today, I may have lost the battle to tell the truth.
As for your question about South India, in the popular perception of India, as has been noted by historians, Prithviraj is still considered as the last ruler of Delhi, not of India mind you. I was just trying to follow this tradition of historians.
Is there anything you've learnt from the failure of this movie?
After the release of the film, I spoke to Aditya Chopra asking him what was happening. He laughed, said take some time off, go for a holiday and when you come back let us work on something else again.
But one thing is that there is a lot of misinformation on social media. What I've realized is that you should put the resources that you've used during research in the film itself. You need to have a meaningful dialogue with the audience. I think if I had informed my audiences earlier that use of Urdu and Farsi is not new in Indian tradition they would have received it better. After all, language is only a matter of communication rather than a matter of history.