Director: Om Raut
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, Kajol
Duration: 2 hours,
Hindi cinema is currently in the throes of historical fever. On the heels of Ashutosh Gowariker's Panipat comes Tanhaji:The Unsung Warrior. For makers who are struggling with how to revive centuries-old stories for a millennial audience, I have good news. Writer-director Om Raut, co-writer Prakash Kapadia and leading man and co-producer Ajay Devgn seemed to have cracked the formula – Tanhaji, based on the life of Shivaji Maharaj's lieutenant, is an action movie rolled into an Amar Chitra Katha comic.
Which means that there is no room here for nuance or arcs. Actors play outsized, one-note characters. The Marathas, with a few exceptions, are valiant, noble warriors who sacrifice their lives for their motherland. The Mughals are largely avaricious usurpers who demand 'jaat' and 'jaan'. They are described as 'darindey' and 'mauka parast'. The clash of good and evil is played out in 3D, in an unapologetically artificial, digitized world. The battle scenes seem straight out of a video game. But Om doesn't give you time to question the history or the questionable politics or the one-dimensional storytelling. He immerses you in a quick-paced adventure that skillfully combines spectacle, nationalism and hyper-masculinity. As storytelling, Tanhaji is rousing and effective.
Ajay Devgn plays Tanhaji with rock-like conviction. This is a man who stands stoic in the face of death
Subedar Tanhaji Malusare is the ultimate mard Maratha – he twirls his moustache and ferociously leads his men into battle even when they are drastically outnumbered. He goes up against Aurangzeb's Rajput general Udaybhan. Uday is a sadist who kills for amusement. In one scene, he screams so loudly that a man topples to his death. It is fitting that the fight between Tanhaji and Uday pivots on a phallic symbol – a canon called Nagin that is pointed at the fortress of Shivaji Maharaj.
Ajay Devgn plays Tanhaji with rock-like conviction. This is a man who stands stoic in the face of death. But Ajay doesn't over-express the valour. Even the fiery speeches are delivered with gravitas. Though there are moments when it feels like the trademark reserve will crack and he will do a 'aata majhi satakli' from Singham. It's a smart choice to cast Kajol as Tanhaji's wife Savitri. She has few scenes but the familiarity between the real-life husband and wife helps to ground their relationship. Sharad Kelkar is impressive as Shivaji Maharaj – he has an innate dignity. I can't imagine any future films on Shivaji Maharaj casting someone else. But the scene stealer is Saif Ali Khan having the time of his life as Udaybhan. Saif plays the exaggerated evil with a cheeky panache. Uday is an elegant psychopath.
The spectacle and staging of war seems inspired by the Baahubali franchise. And the surgical strike sentiment feels like Uri: The Surgical Strike
There are echoes of Sanjay Leela Bhansali in the elaborate lighting scheme and the colour coding of characters. The spectacle and staging of war seems inspired by the Baahubali franchise. And the surgical strike sentiment feels like Uri: The Surgical Strike. You can almost hear Tanhaji asking his troops – How's the josh? Om cleverly combines these elements – the climactic battle is plotted with absolute precision. DoP Keiko Nakahara and editor Dharmendra Sharma create a propulsive, immersive experience. The film's furious nationalism is bolstered by Sandeep Shirodkar's background music. And the costumes by Nachiket Barve and Mahesh Sheria are aesthetic and nicely detailed – especially Udaybhan's more elaborate wardrobe.
Tanhaji succeeds in pushing your buttons but there is no getting away from its problematic ideology. In one scene, when a Mughal general is killed, Om immediately moves the camera to temple bells ringing loudly as though the gods themselves were applauding. This film is apparently the first in a series that celebrates the unsung heroes of India. I hope the ones that follow offer more inclusivity.