Samrat Prithviraj Review: Lacking in Scale, Imagination and Performance

POV

Samrat Prithviraj Review: Lacking in Scale, Imagination and Performance

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The various skills and facets of filmmaking apart, conversations and choices lie at the heart of getting a movie made. While watching Samrat Prithviraj, it often feels like the choices were fast-tracked, while the conversations were kept to a bare minimum, if at all. It should have started with a simple ‘why are we making this’? What do we have to say and show that wasn’t already done quite recently, say in Padmaavat? The beats of the story are largely the same: A brave Rajput ruler, a queen who he loves. A Muslim invader from Afghanistan. Valour, honour and dharma; but an unfair loss for the righteous king, nevertheless. Even a lengthy mass self-immolation ‘jauhar’ sequence featuring women, led by the queen. You’re not going to out-craft Sanjay Leela Bhansali, so you’ll have to out-story him. Samrat Prithviraj does no such thing.

The telling is rather bland, and if the attempt was to glorify a great king who hasn’t gotten his due in our history books, then this film is a thorough disservice – starting with the choice of actor for the title role. Akshay Kumar in this part is only slightly better than a caricature. He last disappeared into a character in 2017’s Jolly LLB 2. Otherwise, he tends to carry the same set of quirks and expressions from film to film. Here, if you rapidly move your eyes from Kumar to a bald Sonu Sood standing next to him and then quickly back, you’ll suddenly see Bala, from Akshay’s last Housefull.

This film needed a younger, more dynamic lead.

Then, there is the glaring question of age. This film needed a younger, more dynamic lead. Someone with a yearning deep within, to prove something to the world. The character demanded that sort of internalised restlessness. Instead, our hero is almost exactly the same age as Ashutosh Rana, who plays his father-in-law. It shows, despite the airbrushing. If your eyes wander over to Kumar’s thick grey chest hair under his outfit in one particular shot, then at least I can live with the knowledge of not having suffered alone. Nearly everything about the protagonist of this film is a cause for cognitive dissonance.

It doesn’t help matters that there is no clear antagonist either. Rana phones in his ‘angry dad’ staple, while the ‘invader’ Muhammad Ghori, played by the usually excellent Manav Vij, is a flavourless, poorly conceived villain. If the rest of the film is dialled up to 11, he’s trying to recall what he had for breakfast. Sanjay Dutt appears as Kattappa-lite, a sidekick who is loyal to a fault but ultimately of no consequence in the film, apart from being the only source of its sparse, banal humour. The surprise bright spark in the cast is Manushi Chhillar, as the young queen Sanyogita. The debutante is confident and occupies the screen with striking ease. Thankfully, she also gets to do a little more than merely ride pillion on horseback.

I can imagine a couple of moments in Samrat Prithviraj possibly finding favour in a packed cinema hall.

Sanyogita is part of an extensive force-fit feminist message in the film. Women should be allowed to make their own life choices. They should be a part of the public space, debating policy and welfare. Who else will other women take their problems to? It’s tough to speak to the intentions of such messaging when there isn’t even a pretence of making it subtle, or at least organic to the story. Was it to throw the ‘wokes’ a bone, considering the rest of the film certainly isn’t catering to that particular base? Or was it simply because nari-shakti sells today, left and right? Either way, young Chillar acquits herself gracefully. I hope to see her in more films soon, hopefully with filmmakers that push her to inhabit fully defined characters, because the building blocks seem firmly in place.

Personally, I rather liked the only proper battle sequence in the film, at least conceptually. It is an early, brief set-piece displaying Prithviraj’s tactical chops (and Ghori’s incompetence, in turn). Still, even in the best of times, the technique lets the film down like much else. The background compositing is obvious. In many cases, you’ll even see Akshay Kumar’s face pasted onto an ostensible double in the long shots of action.

I can imagine a couple of moments in Samrat Prithviraj possibly finding favour in a packed cinema hall, among audiences of a certain dispensation. These moments appear in what I call the paan-masala scenes, the ones awash in orange, red and Akshay Kumar. The ones meant to rouse passions and invoke pride. Extolling the glorious virtues of the motherland, the willingness to die for it and so on. I can also imagine many such attempted moments falling flat in front of any audience, no matter how sympathetic they are to the sociocultural project underpinning the philosophy of Samrat Prithviraj. If the film had one job, it doesn’t do it particularly well.

Samrat Prithviraj feels like it will be forgotten by tomorrow.

The buck stops here with the director, Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi. Firstly, there is the muddled perspective it comes from. The film is based on Prithviraj Raso, a Brajbhasha poem which is often credited to Chand Bardai (the poet and part-time clairvoyant played by aforementioned bald Sonu Sood). But it also claims to be based on historical research. Only one of them can be true, because of the vast discrepancies between the work of art and generally accepted history. Secondly, there is the structure. What should have been the most impactful scene of the film, something you build up to after getting your audience invested in the protagonist, appears at the start of the film. A flash-forward, if you will. This device is now abused so often, filmmakers appear to not know when it works and when it doesn’t. Except in this case.

I tried hard to find a point of view, something Dwivedi wanted to say, apart from making a big- banner, big-ticket film glorifying a scarcely recalled historical figure. It ends up more like a checkbox in its leading man’s resume than anything else. The three-decade old TV series Chanakya created by the good doctor still holds up relatively well. Samrat Prithviraj feels like it will be forgotten by tomorrow.

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