Panipat movie review: Ashutosh Gowariker tweaks history into a Maratha fan fantasy sans Bhansali's insidious intent
Panipat is shorn of Padmaavat and Kesari's insidious intent, but it is not exactly an innocent, truthful chronicler of Indian history.
castArjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Sanjay Dutt, Mantra, Mohnish Bahl, Padmini Kolhapure, Zeenat Aman, Nawab Shah
languageHindi with a bit of Marathi
The bar for Hindi film historicals plunged to unprecedented depths last year when Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmaavat brazenly edited the truth to cash in on the anti-Muslim sentiment currently pervading India. Since then, Anurag Singh's Kesari has rivalled that all-time low, distorting a 19th century battle by a Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army against Pathan forces, demonising the Muslim Pathans and rewriting the episode as a long-term fight by the Sikhs for India's Independence.
History has been one of the many casualties of this era of fake news.
It is a measure of the abysmal state of Bollywood that it comes as a relief that Panipat is not an Islamophobic film. The Third Battle of Panipat was fought at that historic site in north India between the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas. Though the writing team and director Ashutosh Gowariker (maker of Lagaan, Swades and Jodhaa Akbar) do take liberties with crucial facts here, at least they do not falsely paint this as a war between Muslim monsters and Hindu saints.
This is not to suggest that the film is bereft of caricatures. Of course not. The point simply is that the caricaturing in Panipat is not along religious lines, it is employed instead to portray the Marathas - their Muslim associates included - as a cleaner, gentler, more likeable people than Abdali and his associates. Towards this end, for instance, the opposition soldiers who attack the Peshwa's young son Vishwas Rao and the Maratha general Ibrahim Khan Gardi on the battlefield are shown growling and contorting their faces like beasts of prey. It goes without saying that no Maratha in the film growls. No Maratha in the film is shown killing quite as viciously as Abdali either. Likewise, Abdali's Rohilla ally Najib-ud-Daula is designed, both in terms of acting and styling, as an in-your-face slimeball. Again, no member of the Maratha side is pointedly made to look like a snake.
Still, it is important to note that this lack of nuance is not one-tenth as blatant and tacky as Padmaavat, nor dangerous and hate-filled in the way that film was.
Panipat casts Arjun Kapoor as Sadashivrao Bhau, the commander of the Peshwa's Army who was sent to confront Abdali's forces advancing across north India. This is 1761, the Marathas hold sway over large parts of the Indian subcontinent, the last of the powerful Mughal emperors, Aurangzeb, has been dead for half a century, and the present occupant of the throne in Delhi is a weakling who owes allegiance to the Marathas. The Mughal court is divided though between pro- and anti-Maratha elements, and this is one of the sparks that leads to Sadashivrao's campaign against Abdali (played by Sanjay Dutt) which culminates in the historic Battle of Panipat on 14 January, 1761.
Gowariker's Panipat spends considerable time on how the rivals stitched together alliances with small rulers across north India, using material gain and religion as a lure. This part of the narrative - despite the melodramatic acting by the supporting cast, the narrative's penchant for overstatement and overcrowded as it is with new characters - remains interesting to the extent that it illustrates the impermanent, opportunistic nature of political relationships of the time, no different from the modern age.
Whether factual or fictional I cannot tell, but Sadashivrao's wife Parvati (Kriti Sanon) is portrayed as an intelligent strategist whose advice and negotiation skills stood him in good stead. She, in fact, is the prime narrator of her husband's story.
We know from Jodhaa Akbar that Gowariker has a gift for mounting lavish battlefield scenes, and here too the director does not disappoint although he is thankfully less self-indulgent in these passages in Panipat than he was in that earlier film. The actual combat and manoeuvrings at Panipat are surprisingly engaging, again, despite the amateurish acting of the bit-part players.
If Panipat remains a middling film despite this, it is because of its complete lack of finesse in addition to the needless romanticisation of the Marathas. A point once made is underlined and then re-underlined by the background score and the use of close-ups, which become particularly problematic when they end up focusing on hammy actors. Sometimes the tone of the narrative becomes ponderous while at other times tricky points are rushed over. This is especially disappointing when Abdali, angered by the Maratha takeover of one of his occupied territories, decides to cross the Yamuna although the river is in full flow. Showing how precisely he managed this despite the high and turbulent waters would have played up his smartness and determination as a leader, which Panipat obviously does not want to do, but as a consequence a potentially great scene with spiffing special effects just never happens.
Then of course there is the minor matter of facts. Contrary to what the closing text on screen says, avoids saying and implies, in reality the loss to Abdali in the Battle of Panipat grievously affected the Marathas, stalled the spread of their empire in India and in the long run laid the ground for the establishment of most of India as a British colony.
This much laypersons know if they paid attention to their school books. Hopefully a historian will watch this film and offer us a more detailed analysis, but until then a few hours of research even by a non-expert reveals reasons for the Marathas' failure at Panipat that the film intentionally skips, thus robbing it of additional layers. According to the film, Sadashivrao lost due to limited resources and betrayals by four key allies, a point stressed in the choice of title, Panipat: The Great Betrayal. What it does not mention at all is what critics of the Peshwa say, that among other issues, Sadashivrao was a poor diplomat and did not know the north well, which made him a bad choice as leader for this war.
Panipat shows a large contingent of women (companions, not fellow warriors) accompanying the Maratha Army and a character in passing mentions a number of pilgrims also with them. A common sense question from even a lay viewer would be, why would an army weigh itself down in this fashion? Historians believe this too was a factor in Sadashivrao's defeat, but Panipat is not a film to indulge in such a critique. The film's goal is clear: to dwarf the victor (because he came from what is even now a foreign land) and idolise the vanquished (because he is our desi boy, y'know), to claim that Abdali was motivated by greed while Sadashivrao had no selfish interests. With this in mind, Sadashivrao even gets to deliver a line about how "loot" has spurred Abdali to fight for Delhi whereas he, Sadashivrao, is there to offer "raksha" (protection). Ya sure, "raksha" and not a desire to expand Maratha rule.
The lack of gray in the characterisation of Sadashivrao makes him bland and pulls down the film in its entirety. Frankly, Parvati - the medicine woman he marries despite her lower social status - is far more fascinating.
Of the main cast, Sanon's spirited performance as Parvati proves once again that this youngster deserves more than Bollywood has been offering her so far. She is beautiful, has a commanding personality, towards the end of this film offers evidence of impressive fighting skills and can act. In Panipat she also has the benefit of a character who is better fleshed out than most of the rest.
In fact, Team Gowariker seems to be making a point to Team Bhansali when Sadashivrao is shown extracting a promise from her that she will not commit Sati if he dies, in sharp contrast to Padmaavat which glorified this regressive practice and treated Rani Padmavati's Sati like a fashion parade.
Kapoor as Sadashivrao is earnest, while Dutt deadpans his way through the role of Abdali. Zeenat Aman is wasted in a cameo. And this cannot be said enough: the casting of most of the remaining actors comes across as careless.
So yes, Panipat is shorn of Padmaavat and Kesari's insidious intent, but it is not exactly an innocent, truthful chronicler of Indian history. Add to that its lack of polish and spark, and for all its positives, it ends up as just an average affair.
All images from YouTube.