Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon, Mohnish Bahl, Padmini Kolhapure, Zeenat Aman, Kunal Kapoor, Nawab Shah, Suhasini Mulay
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
It seems that unbeknownst to you and me, at some point in 2014 the luminaries of Bollywood were called to a secret meeting where a unanimous resolution was passed: As a crucial building block of New India, all of India needs lessons to internalise the greatness of India and Indians. Past and present glories, true or false, must be resurrected on screen, pronto.
The resolution set out the terms and conditions of the way these stories were to be told. All annoying crimps — of personality and character, of mistakes, misdemeanours and maleficence — that did not smoothly fit into the mould of Hindu, Patriotic, Maryada Purushottam (HPMP) were to be twisted into submission of the great Hindu Rashtra.
Several addendums were attached to the main resolution, and though it has been reported that Akshay Kumar decamped with a whole bunch of them, some did get left behind for the other eager beavers.
One such addendum was on the great Marathas. By great Marathas they meant (obvo) the intrepid, male, macho, chest-thumping desh bhakt warriors who killed and died for Hindu Rashtra.
The first lesson in the skewed history of Marathas came from Sanjay Leela Bhansali whose Bajirao galloped alongside an exquisite Mastani in the 2015 war-romance.
In a month’s time we’ll have Om Raut’s Tanhaji, where Ajay Devgn will slip into long dresses to portray Shivaji’s military commander.
And right now, on our screens, we have Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat: The Great Betrayal, which tells the story of Sadashivrao Bhau who lead the Maratha army to battle Ahmed Shah Abdali. Or into what’s better known as the Third Battle of Panipat.
Panipat’s story is narrated by the voiceover of a lady. She’s not Bharat Mata, yet she could very well be.
In Pune’s Shaniwar Wada, Nana Saheb Peshwa (Mohnish Bahl as the Maratha Prime Minister) presides. He has a wife, Gopikabai (Padmini Kohlapure), whose facial contortions tell us that she was not all sweet and soft on the hulking Sadashivrao Bhau (Arjun Kapoor) who he is being feted and fawned upon for winning several wars and qilas.
Though there are some aghast faces in the durbar when Sadashivrao presents his prisoner, Ibrahim Khan Gardi (Nawab Shah), as the man who will head the Maratha army’s cannon ball and fire brigade, upon his cajoling all agree.
Sadashivrao has no designs on the gaddi. He doesn’t even seem to have a healthy desire for the girl with the longest waist in Shaniwar Wada. Parvati (Kriti Sanon) flits around him carrying ubtans and jadi-booti to heal his wounds, but he is happy to focus on completing 1,500 Surya Namaskars and sing songs of Mard Maratha while prancing about in low-waist frocks.
But since Parvati insists so much and then goes home rooth-ke, Sadashivrao goes after her and they wed.
Marathas were Pune people, but their power extended to Delhi whose Mughal king was their puppet. But one man in Delhi, Najib ad-Dawlah, wanted more and so he invited his pal in Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt), to come to India and defeat the Marathas.
Abdali, a frequent visitor to India, obliged since he wasn’t really having a jolly time in his Kadhahar palace where every time he sat on the peacock throne and put on the crown with the Kohinoor, someone would attack him.
Word reached the Marathas who, it seems, didn’t have the soldiers, the stamina or the funds to travel so far up north. Yet, after much bombast about desh and Maratha mard from Sadashivrao, he is given 40,000 troops and sent off. Except that along tagged Parvati and about 1,00,000 pilgrims, all of whom he had to feed and protect.
Then it begins, the game of trying to stitch together a maha gathbandhan in which Najib beat Sadashivrao, and the few allies that he did have were lost because of his big fat Maratha ego.
Sadashivrao and his entourage march to Delhi, which they win, and then pause to sing a song while the jhanda, in true Ekta Kapoor style, rises up again and again… In Kunjpura, Marathas beat one contingent of the Afghans, but the Yamuna being in spate and all, stalls both the armies on either side, giving Abdali and Sadashivrao enough time to stare at each other through their one-eye binoculars.
But then Abdali outsmarts the Marathas and what follows is a long-drawn battle which for the longest time felt like the slowest match at Wimbledon. One gola of barood flies from this side to devastate that side. Then the devastated side despatches one gola barood to devastate the other… And so it goes on till Sadashiv is forced off his haathi for a dramatic sword fight.
Ashutosh Gowarikar has made eight films, of which three are memorable, including Lagaan, which set the gold standard of myth-making.
But Gowariker is no Bhansali.
This means, thankfully, that his bigotry is in check. He doesn’t turn all Muslims into meat-chomping barbarians lusting after Bharatiya naris and zameen. But he also doesn’t have Bhansali’s artistry and skill to tell his story with seductive cinematic sorcery and dramatic highs.
He has built elaborate sets and decks up all his yoddhas and ladies in exquisite clothes, accessorised by pearls and jewels that you can’t help but ogle at. And yet he doesn’t milk that beauty.
His laborious screenplay is so devoid of drama and thrill that even dramatic scenes lack tension. The film’s dialogue (by poet Ashok Chakradhar) are rather banal. Characters flit in and out of the frame saying their dialogue, but none of them acquire a personality. Not even Sadashirao and Abdali.
Arjun Kapoor gets a lot of screen time, but is just adequate. Kriti Sanon is pretty and pretty decent. But their chemistry and biology is non-existent.
Sanjay Dutt is terrible and pointless. He should have been sent off to get a shave and have a bath instead.
Panipat: The Great Betrayal is a proudly Marathi enterprise. Based on a book by T.S. Shejwalkar, it is directed by Gowariker and part produced by Rohit Shelatkar, a “London-based pharma magnet”. That it released on December 6, the day Babri Masjid was reduced to rubble 27 years ago, is not entirely coincidental.
In New India, it’s a date that is being written in a happy font.
If you have studied Indian history, you will balk at the story that Gowariker tries to sell here, especially when you realise that the great betrayal the film insinuates is actually by the writer-director himself.
Gowariker and his three screenplay writers have kept the names of the key players intact, but have taken leave of facts to create fictitious fiction about an epic, bloody battle and its main protagonists.
Panipat does show us how desperate Abdali was at one point not to fight, even trying to negotiate with Sadashivrao, and the proud Maratha not agreeing to his terms, but it omits the real reasons why Marathas lost the battle and changed the course of India’s history.
Sadashivrao did not have allies because he either rejected them (Jats), or ignored them (Sikhs and Rajputs). The only betrayal was by Shuja-Ud-Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, who was convinced by Najib and Abdali to join the “army of Islam”.
The film also tries to obscure the real reason the Marathas finally declared war on Abdali on January 13, 1761 — it was because the Maratha chiefs begged Sadashivrao to be allowed to die in battle rather than perish by starvation.
Gowariker’s Panipat claims that Abdali wrote a letter of commendation, hailing the brave Sadashivrao. Not true. But worse is Gowariker’s pronouncement at the end, that after the 3rd Battle of Panipat, Abdali never returned to India.
This was Abdali’s 5th attack on India. Two more invasions, involving at least five more battles, ensued, including the Sikh Massacre of 1762.
Directors like Gowariker do no service to the nation or their audience by twisting the truth, ignoring military, diplomatic, common sense follies and rewriting history with jingoistic fervour.
They condemn us to repeat historical wrongs.