Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Producer: Sunita Gowariker, Rohit Shelatkar
Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon
Duration: 2 hours, 51 minutes.
Ashutosh Gowariker is Hindi cinema’s most fervent historian. For almost twenty years now, he has turned his studious gaze on milestone events and with earnestness and diligence, reimagined them on screen. His films have been routinely criticized for taking too many dramatic liberties and the results have been mixed – ranging from the brilliant, Oscar-nominated Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India to the largely unwatchable Mohenjo Daro. But there is little doubt about the sweat and passion he pours into each project.
In Panipat, he recreates the third battle of Panipat. The 18th century battle is considered to be one of the biggest clashes of two armies – the Afghans led by Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas led by Sadashivrao Bhau. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Marathas died during and after the battle. The Marathas lost because they were outnumbered and betrayed. This is not a spoiler. This film is called Panipat: The Great Betrayal. But Abdali never invaded India again.
Some of the key scenes – like Abdali crossing the Yamuna river or Parvati watching the final battle from a hill – are clumsily staged. And the digital effects are sloppy.
It’s a rousing story filled with noble warriors, feisty wives, power struggles and selfless courage. With its emphasis on masculinity and motherland, it’s also a story that speaks directly to our hyper-nationalistic cultural climate. There are enough opportunities for impassioned speeches on deshbhakti, defending our country and the glory of the ‘mard maratha.’ At one point, a character says: Ishwar kare kesariya dhvaj ko nayi unchai mile. The ultimate goal is to keep the saffron flag flying high. The enemy is Muslim, which makes the fit with the current polarized political narrative, perfect. It’s revealing that Sadashivrao is portrayed as an enlightened warrior who, despite being warned by his own army men, includes a Muslim as head of the artillery. But Abdali, like Khilji in Padmaavat, is a barbarian – in one scene, he bludgeons a man to death using his crown. This film should have been the 18th century version of Uri: The Surgical Strike because the josh of Sadashivrao and his men is always high. Instead we get a labored history lesson, which stretches for an interminable two hours and fifty-one minutes.
The biggest hurdle is the writing– Ashutosh, Ranjeet Bahadur, Chandrashekhar Dhavalikar and Aditya Rawal are credited with screenplay and Ashok Chakradhar for dialogue. I always get worried when I see too many writers because a film needs a unified vision. This is writing by committee and it shows on screen – instead of an organic story, we get a fractured, leaden structure that moves from one scene to another with the help of a voice-over and animated maps. The road to the battle is long, literally – the army travelled from Pune to Panipat and it seems like the writers decided to document every twist and turn along the way. On screen, this translates into a series of conversations with smaller kingdoms to align with them, dwindling supplies, the battle strategies and of course the continuing romance between Sadashivrao and his wife Parvati who enters key meetings to provide ready solutions. The screenplay is essentially a check-list of events that are being ticked off.
The writing doesn’t flesh out the characters so there isn’t much that Arjun Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt can do except inhabit the characters in the most superficial way – stand erect to appear noble, deliver long dialogues without blinking
The characters have more layers in their clothing than their personalities. Sadashivrao is heroic and Abdali, vicious. The writing doesn’t flesh them out so there isn’t much that Arjun Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt can do except inhabit the characters in the most superficial way – stand erect to appear noble, deliver long dialogues without blinking. The physicality might be a fit – we are told that Sadashivrao does 1500 surya namaskars. But underneath the posturing, there isn’t a beating heart. We get a hint of complexity in a few scenes with Sadashivrao and Parvati – in one, Sadashivrao explains to Parvati that he is made for battle, not for politics. In another, he begs her not to become a sati if he is killed. But there isn’t enough of this vulnerability and fear. Kriti Sanon’s demeanor is too contemporary but she adds color and emotion to the story, which often becomes repetitive. Arjun veers between sincerity and monotony. Meanwhile, Sanjay plays Abadali as a one-note Afghan who speaks Hindi without a trace of an accent. But yes, his eyes are rimmed with Kohl. Sadashivrao and Parvati are Maharashtrian in the same cosmetic sense. Every few lines, there is a sprinkling of Marathi to remind us.
Nitin Chandrakant Desai’s production design, Neeta Lulla’s costume design and the cinematography by Muraleedharan C. K. are strong but I wonder if after so many historical films, a certain fatigue is setting in. It feels like we’ve seen it all before – the beautiful costumes, the staggering jewelry, the grand sets. I still remember how dazzling it was when we first saw it in Jodhaa Akbar but now Ashutosh seems to be cannibalizing his own work – like the memorably erotic sword play between Jodhaa and Akbar in that film, here also, you get a scene in which husband and wife wield weapons romantically but it pales in comparison. The beats of the genre are also becoming familiar. Padmini Kolhapure who plays the scheming Gopika Bai will remind you of Tanvi Azmi’s Radha Maa in Bajirao Mastani. The events of this film take place 20 years after that one – Bajirao and Mastani’s son is a key player in Panipat. We are in the same world except this one is less enticing. Some of the key scenes – like Abdali crossing the Yamuna river or Parvati watching the final battle from a hill – are clumsily staged. And the digital effects are sloppy.
Panipat finds its footing in the last hour when we finally get into the ferocious battle – Ashutosh succeeds in creating palpable horror and valor here. The other plus point is Ajay-Atul’s music – from the testosterone-filled ‘Mard Maratha’ to the exuberant ‘Mann Mein Shiva’. I wish the energy and tempo of these songs had seeped into the rest of the film.