Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Writer: Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Manushi Chillar, Sanjay Dutt, Sonu Sood, Manav Vij, Ashutosh Rana, Sakshi Tanwar
Cinematographer: Manush Nandan
Editor: Aarif Sheikh
The saffronisation of Hindi cinema reaches its nadir – or pinnacle, depending on what your surname is – with the latest Akshay Kumar starrer, Samrat Prithviraj. Most mainstream makers have figured out that period dramas are the perfect vehicle to enable the current Islamophobic climate in the country without being explicit about it. The smokescreen is almost impressive for how deceptive it is: Replace Muslims with Mughals, riots with wars and invasions, Hindu nationalism with Rajput (or Maratha) pride, and find a phase whose story has spawned multiple but conflicting accounts in literature and poetry. Unlike The Kashmir Files, whose veracity could at least be debated by account of the events happening 30 years ago, movies like Samrat Prithviraj go so far back (1192 A.D.) that historical authenticity lies in the eyes of the beholder. Every legacy is true until proven false.
Who's to argue, for instance, that Padmaavat, the epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi on which Sanjay Leela Bhansali's magnum opus was based, was not God's honest truth? Who's to argue that Prithviraj Raso – the Braj-language poem about the life of the Chauhan dynasty ruler on which this film is based – is not just a holy text patronized by subsequent Rajput rulers? Who's to argue that its author, Chand Bardai, was not actually Prithviraj Chauhan's court poet who accompanied him in battle? Who's to say that other accounts by Jain authors, who portray this particular ruler as an inept King famous for being defeated by foreign rulers, are totally false? Who's to say that the young king was not actually the last Great Hindu King who single-handedly delayed the Islamic Conquest of India, ruled Delhi and wasn't 'technically' defeated by Sultan Muhammad Ghori even in his dying moments? Who's to say that Rajput Kings could be good and bad but all Mughal rulers had to be treacherous womanizers who attacked from behind? Who's to argue that Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan batted for women's equality before Twitter existed? Heck, who's to debate that the Ramayana isn't Indian mythology but earthly reality? Not me. And not you, either. But filmmakers can. And will.
So it's best to accept that history to Samrat Prithviraj is like clay to a child in nursery school who wants to impress their teachers. It can assume any form, and nobody can prove it's wrong. But, unlike in the case of Bhansali or even pre-2010 Ashutosh Gowarikar, the clay figurines of Samrat Prithviraj are not even pretty. Or crafty. It features a grand total of one-and-a-half unimaginatively choreographed battles (a leg of an elephant is pulled by a warrior so that the Ghurid king tumbles down its trunk), many saffron turbans and 'Har Har Mahadev' chants, a blindfolded Sanjay Dutt, several songs that compare Prithviraj Chauhan to celebrated Hindu mythological heroes, another Sati (jauhar) scene, plenty of talking and lecturing and highlighted ideals of nationalism, Afghan crowds offering standing ovations to Hindustani warriors, and three unfortunate lions who pay the price for being angry carnivores. That may sound like a lot, but it's really not.
Samrat Prithviraj opens with a wounded and blinded 26-year-old Prithviraj Chauhan (a 54-year-old Akshay Kumar) being forced to fight those poor lions in the Sultan's colosseum, while his loyal poet (Sonu Sood) sings a paeon to his courage. Soon, his entire story unfolds in flashback. We see the Samrat in romantic correspondence with the princess of Kannauj, Sanyogita (a 25-year-old Manushi Chhillar); they exchange love letters a few centuries before ICQ and email. Side by side, we see him defeat Sultan Muhammad Ghori of Ghazni in the first Battle of Tarain. He lets his enemy free, though, because his poet, who is also some sort of a soothsayer (or should we say, Sood-sayer?) insists for some reason that dying at the hands of someone like Ghori is the ultimate victory. He then engages with a dishonest Rajput Ruler (Ashutosh Rana), who is also Sanyogita's father, until the Ghurid King returns in the final act because the good-Hindu-bad-Hindu narrative can't go on too long, lest we get the wrong idea. At one point, the Ghurids wonder aloud how "these Hindustanis" derive strength from the fact that they consider their homeland to be a 'mother'.
As is evident, the execution of the film is an exercise in self-praise and religious exposition. The craft is largely poor, especially when the more dramatic and grandstanding moments are deflated by unintentionally comical dialogue. For example, the scene where he elopes with Sanyogita in her own father's kingdom becomes a parody when some of her female friends chime up to ask if they can return with his army (of horses) too. As they ride away, her mother (Sakshi Tanwar) promptly shouts out from behind, requesting the King – who has just snatched away a woman in front of their eyes – to take good care of her feisty daughter. I wish I was making some of this up. The arrow-like self-righteousness of the film defines its performances too. There is not a single actor having fun with the bad writing and caricaturing: like, say, Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat or Saif Ali Khan in Tanhaji. Manav Vij, who plays Evil Muslim Invader here, is a fine actor, but he is visibly straitjacketed by the binary themes. Both Akshay Kumar and Manushi Chhillar look like 2022 performers at a fancy dress ball; neither look or sound the part of 12th century Rajput royals. I don't know how people behaved back then myself, but I can say with complete certainty that this wasn't it. Sanjay Dutt plays the King's noble uncle, but his character spends most of the film blindfolded, because according to ancient tradition of punishments, he only takes it off during love and war.
What I found most fascinating, though, is how the writing uses – and exploits – its female characters. It's not what you think. In fact, quite the contrary. It tries to offset the blatant Hindu nationalism with a crash-course in 12th century feminism and gender empowerment. The film paints the Rajput emperor as a man so woke and progressive that he's a heartbeat away from using a hashtag. Terms like "sammaan," "izzat," "stree" and "dharma" are brandished every second time the leads appear on screen. Early on, the reason Mohammad Ghori declares war is because Prithviraj Chauhan gives shelter to Ghori's brother who eloped with the Sultan's 'rakhail,' prompting the Rajput ruler to ask – in lyrical language – why courtesans aren't allowed the right to love. Sanyogita defies her parents with grand monologues about women's rights and modernism that would feel less out of place in a Ricky Gervais stand-up special. He even defies the elders of his own kingdom – who are 12th century versions of prude Whatsapp uncles – to make his wife sit at his own darbaar with him, and bestow upon her the power to take important decisions.
This ties in with the 'motherland' line by the Ghurids, making the film look as though it were Jayeshbhai Jordaar set in 1192. But the intent here is far more ominous, because this film uses social agency to disguise the flames of religious communalism – and then fan them. Whether the Rajput ruler was actually progressive or not is not the point. That a period biopic has no qualms pillaging the grammar of the future to rewrite the language of the past is far more concerning. After all, we are conditioned to appreciate a social message drama, irrespective of how it's made. Some of us may even wonder: If it deifies women, surely it's right about demonizing Muslims? The question mark makes all the difference.