Panipat review: Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon earn respect for honouring Maratha valour

While there are few aspects unexplained, but director Ashutosh Gowariker succeeds in giving an entertaining and engaging fictionalised account of the third Battle of Panipat.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

Just 20 years into the third millennium, and Indian cinema, in particularly Bollywood is rewriting its history. From a time where it produced the odd historical film, filmmakers have regularly revisited the history books to tell some fascinating tales of valour, grit, love.  Sanjay Leela Bhansali has owned the space since 2015 with two blockbusters – Bajirao Mastani [2015] and Padmaavat [2018], while SS Rajamoulli unleashed the genre’s true potential with the gigantic success of the period epic drama Baahubali 2 – The Conclusion [2017]

Ashutosh Gowariker though is one man who perhaps re infused life into the genre. It all started with the Oscar nominated Lagaan [2001]. He then redefined grandiose with Jodhaa Akbar [2008].  It was then followed by the revolutionary tale Kheilein Hum Jee Jaan Sey [2010] and six years later, Gowariker placed his fight against oligarchy in a period drama set in the ancient civilization of Mohenjo Daro [2016].

Each film met its own fate, but the constant to any Gowariker film, even his early formulaic films Pehla Nasha [1993] , Baaz [1995], is the presence of stars.   [Alright, Deepak Tijori wasn’t one but Pooja Bhatt and Raveena Tandon were leading actresses when they took up Pehla Nasha]. 

For the first time ever, a Gowariker period film is not headlined by marquee names.  In an interview before, Arjun Kapoor was humble enough is saying that he’s looking for credibility as an actor. Kriti Sanon’s hugely popular but is still a few notches away from the A-list. And then there is seasoned actor Sanjay Dutt, who is still looking for a meaningful role post his release from jail in 2016.

A period war film on an unexplored chapter of Hindostan [now India] presented a huge opportunity for the trio to rewrite their careers. Gowariker takes us back in time in 1761, when the Marathas fought valiantly against the invading Afghans in the third Battle of Panipat.  The Marathas were led by their commander-in-chief Sadashivrao Bhau [Arjun Kapoor], while Ahmed Shah Abdali, the head of the Durrani empire led the charge of Afghans.

History is more kind to victors than vanquished. What makes the third battle of Panipat important, it is not so much the result, but the betrayal by a few allies, chiefly Najib-ud-Daula [Mantra Mugdh] and Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh.  

For a guy who celebrated love and Hindu-Muslim unity in Jodhaa Akbar [2008], Gowariker picked a battle in history that traditionally carried a ‘us versus them’ connotation.  Well, Najib-ud-Daula coaxed Abdali into believing that the battle is for Islam.

 In the past, the social fabric of a now democratic India perhaps made it difficult for filmmakers to touch subjects that could disrupt communal harmony.  But the current political and social environment is favourable for ‘invader’ bashing.   Bhansali’s Padmaavat [2018] earned wide praise but it was also criticised by few left liberals. Panipat comes at a time, where the prevailing government is keen to implement a nation wide Citizen Amendment Bill, and the Union Home Minister has made it clear who is not welcome.

It would be wrong though to go into Panipat with this frame of mind for Gowariker’s film is anything but that.  Panipat simply talks about ousting the invader. Remember, the Marathas had the loyal support of Ibrahim Khan Gardi (Nawab Shah), the Dakhni [now Deccan] Muslim general who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with them.  

However, one ought to question the current trend in Bollywood where period films are pushed as nationalistic films.  Bollywood and it stars though should be reminded that the concept of India didn’t exist until the British came. Up until then, the land was simply divided into princely states, with each kingdom aiming to expand its empire.

Nationalism in Indian films is generally associated with tales of  freedom fighters, ordinary people who raised their voice against the British Raj.   Can nationalism be attached to monarch versus monarch epic battles? Remember, the Marathas infamously invaded Bengal six times during 1741-1751, where millions of innocent Muslim and Hindu lives were also lost.  Those were the days where each empire simply catered to their vested interests.  Thus an epic period film on empire wars ought to be viewed purely on its engagement, entertainment value. One must not attach any nationalism to it.

Historical accuracy is something that’s not often Bollywood’s biggest strength.  While Gowariker gives a fairly accurate account of the battle, but he doesn’t really go into reasons why the Sikhs and Rajputs didn’t support the Marathas.  While the Sikhs were more concerned at protecting Punjab from Afghans, they were unhappy with the Marathas for installing Adina Beg as Nawab of Lahore after evicting the Afghans in the battle of 1958.  In stead, we see a Sikh king praising the Maratha valour but regretting their inability to help out the Marathas. The director clearly didn’t want to upset the Sikhs.

Maharaja Surajmal, the Jat king, though had his reason for backing out at the eleventh hour.  Gowariker’s researched well on history, but the portrayal of Sadashivrao Bhau is intriguing. Not just a war hero, but in life, any loss is introspected.

War heroes, especially, Bollywood war heroes ought to be portrayed as righteous, brave men whose motives can never be questioned. The dead don’t come to defend themselves and so while history praised his valour, but Sadashiv Bhau did cop criticism for not being able to forge allies. The numerical disadvantage inevitably proved decisive. Bhau’s questioned by his own for refusing Surajmal’s offer that saw the latter pull out his troops. In hindsight, it wasn’t wise but Bhau chose honor over any petty deal.

Speaking to the media earlier, Arjun Kapoor was honest in admitting that he’s going through a tough phase and needed to achieve credibility as an actor. The unimpressive trailer saw Kapoor being viciously trolled. But the actor can now have the last laugh as he chips in with a commendable performance that will help him achieve credibility. Unlike Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani [2015], Gowariker rightly didn’t ask Kapoor to sport six packs. On the contrary, Kapoor looks on the heavier side. That perhaps slows him down in the crucial action scenes. Kapoor appears a slightly restrained, there is no unnecessary show of bravado, no Ranveer Singh-like chaste Marathi accent, but Kapoor still brings honour to his character, and earns credibility as an actor. Perhaps, he’s not that boisterous, but this is a measured performance by Kapoor.

Kriti Sanon has largely featured in romantic comedies. She breaks out from her shell to give a sincere performance as Bhau’s wife Parvati bai. She gets more Marathi words than Kapoor. Often her sentences are a mix of Marathi and Hindi, but Sanon doesn’t flounder in her lines or body language. She speaks in a more confident tone than Bhau. Sanon ups the intensity in the business end. However, Gowariker could have done away with the poor reference to Bajirao 1 and Mastani, and Parvati bai trying to lock swords with Bhau, reminiscent of Priyanka Chopra and Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani [2015].

Sanjay Dutt will be glad to get a meaningful role in a long time. The Afghan consulate in India had raised concerns over how their much revered former king would be portrayed in the Indian film. Well, the Afghan consulate and the people of Afghanistan needn’t fear anything for Gowariker doesn’t demonizes Ahmed Shah Abdali or his troops. If one has read the history, Abdali’s troops, especially his pikemen hoisted heads of slain Marathas. Gowariker has rightly stayed away from showcasing any such barbarism. In fact, his Abdali is shown as a reluctant king, who is more worried to return to Kandahar than battle in Panipat. Abdali was 39 when he went to battle in 1761. Dutt (60) shot the film when he was 59. Well, that is where creative liberty comes into place.

Abdali and his men slaughtered millions in many wars, but the Afghan king had written a letter to Nanasaheb praising the valour of Sadashivrao Bhau and his Marathas. Sanjay Dutt is only briefly intimidating , but he largely sports a worried look. The one to put him into this mess is Najib-ud-Daula [Mantra]. Well, it is easier to paint him as the evil than Abdali. Dutt doesn’t have the Pashto accent. He brings the physicality, but is largely underwhelming in his portrayal of Ahmed Shah Abadali. Could Gowariker have been better served by hiring a Afghan actor. Imagine, the pride an Afghani artiste would have derived in playing their much loved great king. If not the finesse, he sure could have brought passion than Dutt.

Mantra is perhaps a little overbearing in his act but the rest of the supporting cast, especially Mohnish Bahl, who played Peshwa Nana saheb Padmini Kolapure [as Gopika bai] do a fine job. Veteran actress Zeenat Aman, too, shines in her little cameo as Begum Sakina.

One ought to be critical of the poor CGI [Computer Generated Imagery], average playback music, the rather mundane final battle. The film is rich in production design, it has an impressive background score It’s bizarre to see Maratha character use Urdu words, while in Afghanisthan, a member in Abdali’s kingdom used the the Hindi word vidrohi [rebels]

While there is no single outstanding performance but it’s the collective effort, Gowariker’s simple but engaging screenplay that helps Panipat gain our respect. It sure is a welcome return to form for Gowariker. The ghosts of Mohenjo Daro [2016] are finally laid to rest.

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