Panipat Review: When Will Bollywood Get a Historical Epic Right?


Panipat Review: When Will Bollywood Get a Historical Epic Right?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In recent years, Hindi cinema has made a cottage industry out of historical fiction. These are films whose plots are mined from history books but which readily sacrifice accuracy at the altar of creative liberty. More often than not, filmmakers adopt this route of fictionalising the past to suit the present narrative – evoking an irrefutable sense of national pride. But in the last one year, this tendency has acquired a dangerous additive. Nationalism is no longer a collective ideal. Now, Hindi films are routinely rewriting pages of history to manufacture a record of “Hindu pride”.

If last year, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat – revolving around a queen whose existence is disputed – valorised the Rajputs as protectors of the motherland, then this year, Kangana Ranaut and Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi’s Manikarnika, a biopic on Rani Laxmibai, primes her as an unfailing spokesperson for Hindutva values. A viral scene from Manikarnika has Laxmibai save a calf from being killed – perfect evidence of a subplot being fashioned in a period film to serve the ruling government’s aggressive cow vigilantism.

This week, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat continues tradition: In here, the Marathas are unabashedly mythologised as the model of Indian heroism. It’s interesting to note that these are films that essentially chronicle tales of defeat. Yet, the revisionary approach of their onscreen adaptations interpret the defeat of its Hindu protagonists not as losses but as sacrifices. They demand not only the average Indian viewer’s sympathy but also their unfaltering allegiance.

arjun kapoor

The severely limited Kapoor tries mimicking Singh’s restraint as Bajirao from Bajirao Mastani but falls flat on his face, in part due to his robotic body language.

Ashutosh Gowariker Productions/Vision World Films

Panipat reimagines the “Third Battle of Panipat,” widely considered one of the biggest clashes of the 18th century between Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt) and the Marathas, led by Sadashiv Rao (Arjun Kapoor). The film is based on Panipat 1761, Marathi historian TS Shejwalkar’s record of the illustrious battle, although an opening disclaimer predictably washes its hands off historical authenticity. Naturally, the director revisits the battle from the perspective of an underdog tale, a filmmaking trope that he mastered in Lagaan and Swades. Except it does more harm than good in Panipat.

Gowariker doesn’t alter the eventual result of the battle, which ends with Abdali defeating the Marathas and Sadashiv being killed on the battleground, as much as distorts it. Panipat is foremost, a justification: It is centred around the implication that Sadashiv’s defeat is derived entirely out of circumstances outside his control (the film’s tagline, “The great betrayal” is a dead giveaway). The blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Indian kings who backstabbed him as well as on the unrestrained greed of Abdali himself.

Gowariker plays into the ultimate Bollywood period film stereotype: Hindus are the saviours of Hindustan.

The narrative is disjointed – a host of subplots and plot twists crop up with alarming frequency and Gowariker isn’t adept at keeping track of most of them. The screenplay (Panipat is written by Chandrashekhar Dhavlikar, Ranjeet Bahadur, Aditya Rawal, and Gowariker) is lacklustre and the battle sequences are terribly unimaginative, failing predominantly to translate the heat of the moment. Characters wait for each other to fire instead of immediately attacking; hand-to-hand combat scenes don’t have the smarts to sustain one’s interest, and Gowariker skims through the battle so haphazardly that you have very little idea of its ebb and flow.

Moreover, the story of a Maratha sacrificing his life to protect India from invaders despite obstacles, loses its steam soon, considering Gowariker stays away from any moral conflict by absolving Sadashiv of all responsibility. That, as per history, Sadashiv’s unfamiliarity with the politics of North India and his inability to form alliances with the neighbouring kings were the prime reason for the disastrous defeat is all but ignored. There’s only so much you can write home about a bloated three-hour-long battle epic whose protagonists always seem supremely surprised at either being betrayed or being attacked by their rivals. 

There’s also the fact that everyone in the film gives a washed out, budget performance of an already existing performance. Dutt attempts to channel the unhinged energy of Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji from Padmavaat but instead conjures up a caricature. The severely limited Kapoor tries mimicking Singh’s restraint as Bajirao from Bajirao Mastani but falls flat on his face, in part due to his robotic body language. In what comes as a surprise to no one, the actor glare-walks through the entire film, perennially contorting his cheeks to express a range of emotions from rage to romance. Kriti Sanon on the other hand, continues playing an iteration of every Kriti Sanon performance – a happy-go-lucky girl who can’t stop falling in love with men who either die or break her heart. Even the supporting acts (Mohnish Behl, Zeenat Aman) are so ineptly miscast that they make Panipat’s sacrificial tone an even harder sell.

In this insistence to play by the usual beats of the “us v them” battle epic, Gowariker forgoes any pertinent commentary on the syncretic politics of the 18th century. Panipat also gives in to some of the unseemly impulses of a Hindi period film, which end up obscuring the full picture of the past. For one, the film is littered with overt Hindu iconography – it includes two songs (“Mard Maratha” and “Mann Me Shiva”) that exalt the Marathas as ideal men and eulogise the sacrifices of Shivaji. The Shiva ling is a recurring motif as well. And in the same vein as Padmavaat, Panipat portrays Muslims as barbaric meat-eating antagonists. Dutt’s face is kohl-eyed and blood-streaked, he pounces on food instead of eating it, his men make animal-like growls during battle and Abdali’s den – and religion – is introduced with the camera training its gaze on plates of chicken..There’s barely any time spent in allowing the Muslim invaders to boast of any character arcs. Their inner motivations remain a mystery even as the film has Sadashiv repeat his devotion to his motherland. Not even once does the director put any of the Marathas under any scrutiny, reducing Panipat to an emotionally vacant exercise of glorification. 

The only silver lining in this current climate of period epics which are only too happy to toe the “anti-national” tone reserved for Muslims is Gowariker’s hesitance to distrust Indian Muslims. Sadashiv’s army includes a Muslim man whose character is afforded grace notes (Sadashiv is given a line that reminds the Marathas that even Shivaji’s army had Muslims) even though the film makes a big deal of the fact that the kings who chose to side with Abdali were all Muslims. There’s also a surprising absence of displays of hyper-patriotism even when Panipat fusses over Hindu bravery; for instance, the words “desh” and “Hindostan” are not uttered more than two times in Panipat.

Even then, Panipat reinforces the dangers of a Hindi period epic with its insistence to sugarcoat failure as martyrdom. These films remain least bothered about the consequences of history. Instead they pander to virtues. Panipat isn’t the kind of film that underlines Sadashiv’s blunders as a probable cause for the loss. Instead, it takes refuge in reminding you that Sadashiv, a loyal Hindu, died to protect the country from Afghan invaders. Like its predecessors, Panipat goes to town about the nobility of a loss – it allows the Marathas to claim moral superiority over the Afghans even in the face of loss and gets Abdali to admire the undying spirit of his defeated, dead opponent. In doing so, Gowariker plays into the ultimate Bollywood period film myth: Hindus are the saviours of Hindustan.