By Poulomi Das Jan. 10, 2020
Ajay Devgn’s self-seriousness in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior is unbearable. But Saif Ali Khan’s gleeful irreverence makes the villainy of Udaybhan Rathod, a Rajput general in Aurangzeb’s army, extremely enjoyable.
Until yesterday, if someone had told me that there would be very little to look forward to in this new decade, I would have scoffed at that level of pessimism. We’re only 10 days into the new year; the possibilities are endless, I’d argue. But today, in the two hours that I have had to sit through Om Raut’s Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, I’d concur with that defeating outlook. It’s hard to be optimistic about a new year that starts with Ajay Devgn finding yet another excuse to urgently leap around forts, walls, cliffs, and common sense as if the world would come to an end if he decided to sit still for a moment.
Of late, Bollywood has taken to historical biopics that open with disclaimers absolving them of all responsibility of staying true to history with the same blindfolded devotion as actors have taken to being apolitical. It was only a matter of time before Ajay Devgn, who has in the last few years serenaded mountains (Shivaay), ghosts (Golmaal Again), Indian bureaucracy (Raid) and women out of his league (De De Pyaar De) would come around to romanticising hyper-nationalism. On its part, Tanhaji goes all out: It implies a good Hindu as someone who’s morally conscious and puts the nation over self. The film boasts of ample endorsements to saffronisation, and is peppered with chants of “Jai Shri Ram”; it casts any adversary of the Marathas as the root cause of evil (the words used are “shaitaan” and “darinde”).
Set in the mid-17th century, Tanhaji revolves around the storied battle of Singahad as per its convenience – its main premise is being a paean to Tanaji’s (Devvgn) bravery. It was Tanaji, Shivaji’s trusted aide who recaptured the Kondhana Fort right from under the nose of Udaybhan Rathod (Saif Ali Khan), a Rajput general in Aurangzeb’s army. That the director doesn’t care much for historical accuracy is evident from the fact that Tanhaji is unabashedly revisionist. Like Padmaavat, Panipat, and Manikarnika, Tanhaji also equates nationalism solely with Hinduism. There’s another easy but commercially profitable target that Om Raut chooses to champion – Maratha pride. Even though the film will have you believe otherwise, there’s nothing unsung about this approach.
Like Padmaavat, Panipat, and Manikarnika, Tanhaji also equates nationalism solely with Hinduism.
Like its predecessors, Tanhaji is also unbearably one-note and Islamophobic. Yet, unlike Padmaavat and Panipat, its antagonist isn’t Muslim; he is a Rajput. The film’s Islamophobia is far more insidious, given that it implies, in as many words, that there is nothing worse than a Hindu who sides with Muslims. By extension, it makes a distinction between who is really a good Hindu and what a traitor looks like.
Tanhaji is a dutiful family man has no vices, and is dedicated to such an extent that he leaves his son’s wedding to wage a war. On the other hand, Khan’s Rathod is given identifiers that are usually reserved for Mughal villainy: He is built up to be a brutal sadist who holds a young Hindu woman hostage, has an entire year’s worth of kohl around his eyes, and boasts of a diet that includes a roasted crocodile. Even his wardrobe – he is only dressed in black as opposed to Tanaji’s saffron – is designed to underline how perverse he really is. But just like Padamaavat, Tanhaji’s inherent stereotyping works against it. Khan’s gleeful irreverence makes Udaybhan’s villainy extremely enjoyable. Khan, an actor who’s always up for being the joke, has so much fun with his character that it single-handedly rescues Devgn’s unbearable self-seriousness.
Yet, despite the broad strokes that it adopts, Tanhaji is surprisingly fun in the same way as watching your drunk friend make a fool of himself: You enjoy the mess despite yourself. I rolled my eyes at the film’s Cartoon Network-ish rendition of the past when clear skies hadn’t yet faced the wrath of pollution. But even my interest was piqued when the film brought forth its trump card: the inventive action set-pieces that make two adult men fighting with swords seem cool. Hindi cinema rarely gets scale right, but Raut comes very close, crafting a pulpy action entertainer that could have been so much more had its makers chosen to read a history book.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.