Director: Om Raut
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, Kajol, Sharad Kelkar, Neha Sharma
Duration: 2 hours,
Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, unlike recent Hindi historicals, is more action than words. Not much time is devoted to strategizing, politics, evil ministers and elaborate power-play. The characters are either happy, sad, killing or being killed – it's all wham, bam, thank you ham. In a sense, this works better for the tone that director Om Raut chooses: A vivid, graphic novel-ish rendition of war that straddles the thin line between geography and physics. It's simple good v/s evil, with the "future of Swarajya" at stake. A quick voiceover explains the 17th century conflict between the Marathas (led by Shivaji) and the Mughals (led by Aurangzeb) for the Southern fort of Kondhana. The Mughals, all kohl-eyed and effeminate, need the fortress to expand their empire into South India; the Marathas say No Way Jose.
The two Kings are too busy looking proud and regal, which sets the stage for their trusted commanders – Maratha military general Tanaji Malusare (Ajay Devgn) and the Mughals' shadowy Rajput warrior Udaybhan Rathod (Saif Ali Khan) – to outsmart each other in period filters. Tanaji is introduced in an aerial ambush against Mughal goons, while Udaybhan is introduced as a villain who chops off the trunk of an elephant in a human chess game. Campy but cool.
Given that most of the acting is fiercely one-dimensional, one almost understands Tanhaji's (post-converted) 3D imagery. If not for the depth of field, how else would we know that spiked and streaked hairstyles are a 350-year-old thing? The level of detailing is impressive: Even the pre-movie Akshay Kumar anti-smoking-weds-sanitary-napkin ad is rendered in 3D. We watched Kumar lecture Nandu in 3D glasses. On a serious note, the layout is uncomplicated: Tanaji, who prioritizes his land over his child's wedding, promises Shivaji victory against all odds in what became known as the Battle of Sinhagad.
The combat is fairly bloody and imaginative. The heroes scale a vertical wall at the dead of night in a Lakshya-ish climactic battle; kinetic energy trumps potential energy for a major portion of this face-off. That's more than one can ask for in a historical cock-fight of Indian machismo. On the face of it, the film is well-crafted when Devgn isn't attempting to inspire his troops with tired monologues. It's not so much about grand visuals and lyrical choreography as it is about outrageous moments. In short, Tanaji is Bajirao Singham's forefather, while Udaybhan is Alauddin Khilji's brother from another mother. One spouts honour and the other swears by murderous eccentricity.
The styling of Saif Ali Khan's Udaybhan screams "evil Muslim": He wears black as opposed to Devgn's saffron, he enslaves Rajput princesses, he kills animals for fun, he spit-roasts giant crocodiles for dinner and chomps on their flesh, he tortures other Hindus by pouring hot water into their cages.
Now for the optics. Those who still think that a film should be judged on 'artistic merit' alone – and that its politics and messaging have no bearing on its craft – can stop reading here. Not least when the term "surgical strike" is a huge part of its promotional campaign. Tanhaji is shamelessly saffron. Everything about it is aimed at capitalizing on the current national mood. Chants of "Har Har Mahadev" and "Jai Sri Ram" pepper the Maratha charge. At a time when Islamophobia is being wielded as a weapon to divide, the makers of Tanhaji might counter these claims with the fact that both Tanaji (Maratha) and Udaybhan (Rajput) are Hindus.
But the film evidently seems to believe that the only villain worse than a Muslim is a Hindu (traitor) who works for Muslims. It's good Hindu v/s bad Hindu – but only for the sake of labels. For one, a popular Muslim actor plays the bad Hindu. More notably, the styling of Saif Ali Khan's Udaybhan screams "evil Muslim": He wears black as opposed to Devgn's saffron, he enslaves Rajput princesses, he kills animals for fun, he spit-roasts giant crocodiles for dinner and chomps on their flesh, he tortures other Hindus by pouring hot water into their cages and grins like Khilji's rejected stunt double.
To drive home the point (despite every mention of 'Rajput' being muted throughout the film), I'm pretty sure a flashback hints at Udaybhan's mother being Mughal or of "lower blood" – a balance-check to throw the Karni Sena off the scented trail. Given that the final battle is centered on a Mughal-heavy fort that is surprise-invaded by the Marathas, Tanhaji feels a lot like Uri: The Surgical Strike. Not only in ideology but also in how its solid craft camouflages the troubling ideology. A well-made propaganda vehicle is far more dangerous than a mediocre one with zero tact. In such cases it's impossible to separate the film from its form, especially when it's clear that the action might be half as inventive and spiteful if Mughals – or their descendants – aren't the enemy at hand. The 'entertainment' literally revolves around fetishizing their ills. The form is the film.
The vanquishing of the villain on a phallic-shaped cannon is the least of Tanhaji's problems. Three dimensions of Devgn delivering a counter-productive lesson in religious tradition is. When halls across the country erupt to these images, the chants might sound like anything but "azaadi". We might feel a lot of things, but free won't be one of them.