Cast: Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon
Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
Back in 1994, Sanjay Khan directed The Great Maratha for Doordarshan. For most of us, it was the first visual depiction of a battle that could not be won with flying arrows that emit electricity, as we saw in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata or Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana. That, and Jhansi Ki Rani, the Varsha Usgaonkar-starrer, which also reigned in the 90s.
Nearly 25 years later, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat tugs on those nostalgia strings. He has everything that we saw in The Great Maratha, which could have been an advantage, given we lap up everything 90s these days. The problem, however, is that our eyes are also 25 years mature. And now, Gowariker’s presentation seems lacklustre, borderline cartoonish due to terrible CGI work, and eventually, just not magnanimous enough.
All the comparisons with Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat the Panipat trailer had to face right after its release are justified. But in Gowariker’s defence, Maratha warriors dressed alike, so Ranveer Singh’s Bajirao and Arjun Kapoor’s Sadashiv Rao Bhau look similar (also, Sadashiv was Bajirao's nephew). Kriti Sanon’s Parvati Bai will remind you of Priyanka Chopra’s Kashi Bai. For she cannot be seen wearing Alexander McQueen, can she?
But when Sanjay Dutt’s Ahmad Shah Abdali reminds you of Ranveer’s Alauddin Khilji, your brows crease. You eventually forgive it because Dutt owns the character and at no point does he allow Khilji to seep into Abdali.
The streak of madness all Mughal, Afghan and by extension, Muslim rulers of yore are sketched with in Bollywood, however, remains. Abdali is as barbaric as Khilji when he crushes his own brother’s skull as punishment for plotting to kill him and usurp the throne. Afghan soldiers are crude, they make weird ghastly faces, and seem to enjoy inflicting pain on the battlefield, just as we’ve seen in Padmaavat, or even Kesari.
The Marathas are heroes, needless to say. They are protectors, not just fighters. They have a code of honour. Never do they stab an unsuspecting Afghan soldier in the back, while the Afghans do it at random until the enemy, Sadashiv, falls. Sadashiv, the Maratha, falls a martyr at war. He is, after all, fighting for his country.
Arjun tries, but he fails to deliver the whole of what was expected of him. He forever falls short. Just like his trapezoid breastplate that falls short of his broad (really broad) torso. His speeches fail to arouse any emotion, even though Sadashiv Rao Bhau was historically known to be a charismatic leader, only second to Bajirao.
Kriti Sanon shines even in a relatively small role. Her eyes speak, both in grief and happiness. She is strong and draws strength from the pureness of her love for Sadashiv. Even if that means to pick up a sword in the hour of need and discover an accidental warrior in herself. She flinches, almost gives up but fights on, and ultimately as she stares at the bodies she managed to slaughter, she is engulfed by a sense of guilt, fear and despair all at the same time.
The Third Battle Of Panipat, fought on January 14, 1761, stands out in history because of the war strategies used. Abdali’s camel-mounted canons, called zamburak, were unheard of back then and were effective in dismembering the Maratha line-up simply because the weapons were not stationary. On the other hand, Sadashiv’s European style of fighting and use of canons under the expert leadership of Ibrahim Khan Gardi, played to perfection by Nawab Shah, managed to throw Abdali’s troop off. All of this has been shown vividly, and that’s where Gowariker’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shows. He may not do grandeur as well as Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but he can do war.
Panipat, however, has two villains, and none of them is Abdali. It is language and history. Ranveer’s Bajirao had a Marathi twang that the actor honed. Arjun remains a Bandra boy throughout, save a few "ho," "me yeto" and "maiti mala." None of this is Arjun’s fault though, for Abdali’s limited Urdu is barely Lucknawi, forget Afghani.
And then there’s history. It’s not possible to go out and say the Marathas won the Third Battle Of Panipat (yet, but soon, maybe) but it is possible to paint a haar-kar-jeetne-wale-ko-Maratha-kehte-hai picture. And that’s what Gowariker did. We saw that in Bhansali's glorification of Rajput valour in the face of death at the hands of Khilji just last year in Padmaavat. In Panipat, Abdali is shown crumbling under pressure, his legs trembling in fear of these glorious warriors making music with their swords, his troop fleeing only for him to drag them back, slice a few heads to both satiate his own bloodthirst as well as help release his frustration. Sadashiv dies, we knew that. Abdali wins, we knew that too. But we have no way to find out if he wrote an appreciation letter for Sadashiv, addressed to Balaji Baji Rao Peshwa (Mohnish Behl).
And suddenly because of that, Gowariker’s Panipat becomes a happy ending’ wala film.