Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior seemed to promise propaganda, but delivers a solid action-drama instead

Pradeep Menon

Jan 17, 2020 10:46:38 IST

The trailer of Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior was an abomination. With its references to ‘aurat ka ghoonghat’ and ‘brahman ka janeu,' and its bold proclamation about Tanaji Malusare’s capture of Kondhana fort being a 'surgical strike,' it seemed like yet another hyper-masculine exercise playing on the toxic pseudo-nationalist fervour that has gripped our nation. (Plus, Ajay Devgn can spell his name and his ‘ffilm’ production company any way he wants, but in our history books, the warrior’s name has always been spelled as ‘Tanaji’.)

Unfortunately, big Hindi films happen to be the easiest item to pull into a needless political controversy. Tanhaji also got into one because of the film it was releasing with Deepika Padukone’s Meghna Gulzar directorial Chhapaak. The two films were automatically pitted as choices against each other depending on who you side with politically.

 Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior seemed to promise propaganda, but delivers a solid action-drama instead

Ajay Devgn in a still from Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. YouTube

And it was thus that for some, Tanhaji became an easy film to dismiss, a film that was going to end up being branded as revisionist propaganda. Surprisingly though, what you get instead is a competent action drama that is significantly less jingoistic than its own trailer, one that largely focuses on the main character and his loyalty towards his king than anything else.

For starters, after some clear pushback post the trailer, the ghoonghat-janeu line has actually been changed in the film to not be casteist and regressive. Secondly, Tanhaji’s cause in the film is the cause historically espoused by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj himself - 'swarajya,' which means self-rule or freedom.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior recounts the Tanaji-led capture of the strategic Kondhana fort near Pune from Aurangzeb’s Mughals, headed by Udaybhan Singh Rathod, a Rajput.

The most striking aspect of the film is its action. It has, by a distance, some of the best-choreographed action sequences in a Hindi film ever. It has also been shot rather well by Japanese cinematographer Keiko Nakahara. (She also shot the Sonakshi Sinha-starrer Noor, which has captured current-day Mumbai better than most films in recent times.) The film has mostly been shot on green screen sets, which shows. But it does not jar, and actually looks better in 3D. (I watched the film in 3D, and saw the trailer on the big screen a few days earlier in 2D.)

Heavily inspired by the action in Zack Snyder’s 300 in terms of style, but given its own original spin in terms of shot-taking and blending the action with the story, the film does not overdo its set-pieces, spacing them out with the plot and its dramatic graph. Whenever they are used, they are executed well, with the ones in the climax of the film being quite innovative, considering that Tanaji was indeed known for being adept at inventive guerrilla warfare.

The film also takes into account the fact Shivaji had nothing against Islam as a religion. His grouse was against the rule of the Mughal empire, which he fought with all his might, inspiring thousands of others to fight for their freedom. Indeed, the Maratha society and army under Shivaji was a composite one, with all faiths being considered a part of his people.

The film is not completely free of either Islamophobia (it has references to 'outsiders') or majoritarian pandering, but I would rate Padmaavat higher on the former, with Uri: The Surgical Strike from last year setting the bar for the latter. (There is not a hint of doubt that as far as marketing the film is concerned, the makers went ballistic with its pandering but thankfully, the film itself stays largely clear of it.)

The other strength of the film is the character of Shivaji, played by Sharad Kelkar. I cannot think of a better-cast role in recent times. His voice and his personality go well with the mythology around Shivaji, even though he is half a foot taller in real life than the legendary king was supposed to be. Tanhaji’s loyalty to his king thus hardly seems incidental. It seems like a legitimate reason for his absolute commitment to reclaim Kondhana fort.

Where the film certainly does play out as expected is in its reliance on hyper-masculinity, a standard trope of the 'massy' Hindi film. Devgn has been a poster boy for this kind of cinema for a while. Here, it takes all of Kajol’s still-fabulous screen presence to blunt the blow of the big dick energy of the film. Interestingly, the post-credits sequence features Kajol shunning the enforced austerity on widows while reminiscing about her moments with and the words of her husband, Tanaji. It is a tender, symbolic sequence that seems almost like a compensation for largely skipping the women during the film because the story itself always had a male perspective. (It is also interesting to note how the Maratha women that feature in the film are not sexualised for even an instant, unlike in Bajirao Mastani, which did this blatantly.)

Kajol in a still from Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. Twitter

Kajol in a still from Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. Twitter

Devgn is as good or bad as he always is, never really shunning the action hero in favour of the Maratha warrior, the way an ‘actor’ ought to. Yet, he holds up his end of the film well enough, leaving a thoroughly amusing antagonist in Saif Ali Khan’s Udaybhan to do the rest.

Khan’s performance, in fact, is worthy of an analytical piece all by itself; not because the actor has pulled off something extraordinary from an acting perspective, but because he seems to have figured out the exact pitch of a commercial 'performance' in a film like this. So Khan’s own urban savvy is still there to see just beneath the Udaybhan exterior, but it only aids the film, drawing a contrast with the stoic Devgn’s intense-but-one-note Tanaji.

What is clear after the 134-minute runtime of the film is this was a project made with thought, intent as well as research. (The historians and sources mentioned in the opening credits seem to be experienced, credible ones.) That is a lot more than one can say about most commercial Hindi movies currently being made today.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior has its great moments, as well as its flaws, but the overall impact of the film is not the propaganda we were expecting. It does not glorify hate, focusing instead on Swarajya, or as we call it today, Aazadi.

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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2020 10:46:38 IST