Laal Kaptaan’s textured portrayal of warrior ascetics brings a new, much-needed focus to an obscure history

Kartik Maini

Oct 22, 2019 09:41:43 IST

Rarely on the horizons of Hindi cinema does a film like Laal Kaptaan appear. This, however, is neither an extended comment on ‘historical’ films nor on the substantial quality of Laal Kaptaan in particular; in fact, reviews of the film have vehemently denied the latter. The rarity of Laal Kaptaan is as follows: rare in Bollywood is a historical film that chooses to illumine obscure and lost textures of history over picking at a rehearsed historical theme and then vulgarising it beyond recognition. Navdeep Singh’s film is one such project.

Lodged in the liminal period between the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the English East India Company, Laal Kaptaan follows the intrepid journey of a Naga sadhu — addressed almost throughout the film as gosain — as he pursues Rehmat Khan, a betraying turncoat, to avenge the resulting tragedies of the Bundelkhand state where Khan was employed before his act of treachery. The film straddles fantasy and gory action, animating the complexly structured world of the gosain ably portrayed by Saif Ali Khan. It is instructive that the film locates itself in the period before the full ascent of the Company, although it is in the film still a spectre that looms large — the Battle of Buxar (1764) has already happened, and understandably, it portends other ominous events.

 Laal Kaptaan’s textured portrayal of warrior ascetics brings a new, much-needed focus to an obscure history

Laal Kaptaan uncovers the subcontinent’s rich history of warrior ascetics

The mixt embrace of a gosain and violence may, at first, seem befuddling, even insensitive, but its historical fact is ineffaceable. Sketching this forgotten world is Laal Kaptaan’s most significant contribution. Although the presence of warrior ascetics has been known in some quarters, it has variously been attributed to the advent of Islam and the depredations of Muslim rule in the subcontinent. The fact that ascetic orders could in certain histories be violent was made intelligible and justifiable by nationalist discourse of the colonial period: in Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s Anandamath (1882), the rebellion of the sannyasis against the Company state was framed as a grandiloquent act of national and spiritual vigour.

Nationalists made peace with the historical presence of the warrior ascetic by situating the ascetic’s violence as an invention of necessity needed in its time to carve national resistance against foreign invaders — namely, the Mughals and later, the British. Such reconciliation froze the histories of warrior ascetics in unilineal frames; only afterwards could the warrior ascetics be forgotten.

Also readLaal Kaptaan movie review: Saif Ali Khan slips into the skin of a Naga sadhu in an overwritten, underdeveloped film

This discursive play presaged MK Gandhi’s complex engagements with asceticism. In Gandhi’s oeuvre and nationalist struggles, asceticism became a nationalist act and its expression necessarily nonviolent. Gandhian ahimsa had its own political and ethical moorings, but it was premised upon a serious historical forgetting of this time and history when certain ascetics roamed parts of the subcontinent and authored acts of spectacularly grave political violence. Asceticism since has been framed as such and such frames have, in the process, written out the rich histories that have made the subcontinent into the variegated political terrain that it is.

Scholarship has sketched the lives of warrior ascetics in considerable detail and with remarkable nuance — one key example is William Pinch’s work on gosain Anupgiri (later and more popularly known as Himmat Bahadur). Such scholarship has thrown into question the construction of warrior asceticism as a response to Islam or Muslim rule; in that it has been part of considerations that have complicated using ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ as authoritative labels for the premodern and precolonial periods. Furthermore, Pinch and others have shown that nationalist attempts to reckon with the violence of warrior ascetics were too hollow to capture their diverse and recalcitrant histories. Interestingly, Pinch’s work is based on a figure with some historical input in the same Bundelkhand region that is the premise of Laal Kaptaan. Pinch’s muse — Anupgiri — figures in many political orientations, but all eventually meet at his fundamental and all-abiding warrior-ness.

Contrary to simple nationalist calculations of warrior ascetics as patriotic actors against all foreign invaders, we find Anupgiri in service of the Marathas, the Afghans, and even the British — giving him and warrior ascetics, evidently, more comprehensive historical and political lives. Pinch quotes legend and argues that Anupgiri was, in effect, instrumental in the Company’s triumph over the Marathas and from that, over Delhi itself. Warrior ascetics figure in these historically-grounded scholarly narratives of the past not as ‘insiders’ against ‘outsiders’ but part of South Asia’s extremely unwieldy but ferociously effective military labour market.

Warrior ascetics were a resource of violence that the state could employ at various junctures of political and military need — thus, warrior ascetics appear in armies of the Mughals as well as in the more specialised military retinues of the regional ‘successor’ states of the 18th century such as those in Awadh, Banaras, and indeed, Bundelkhand. The state and its military infrastructure were clearly not divorced from society, but a universe made by several social actors, including the warrior ascetics of our consideration.

A source of awe and fear in equal measure, warrior ascetics were mobilised by military contractors and entrepreneurs to achieve key strategic ends; in that, warrior ascetics cemented for themselves an indelible place in history.

History rarely plays to the comfort of its subjects. Laal Kaptaan’s textured portrayal of warrior ascetics brings an obscure history into illuminating focus. It is as audacious as it is utterly fascinating, revealing with an immediacy, the tragically unharnessed potential of both Bollywood and the historical film.

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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2019 10:05:17 IST