Ashutosh Gowarikar falls flat in yet another period film, this time with Panipat, starring Arjun Kapoor and Kriti Sanon in lead roles, and Sanjay Dutt, in the negative lead.
Based loosely on the Third Battle of Panipat, which took place on January 14th, 1761, between the Maratha Empire, led by Sadashivrao Bhau (Arjun Kapoor), and the invading Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt), this film brings nothing new to the table, other than war politics, being played by characters taken from Bhansali’s period drama playbook.
Ashutosh Gowarikar is known for these large statured, magnum opus films, like Jodha Akhbar (2008) with lavishly mounted sets, spectacular locations, memorable characters and also an extraordinary line up of supporting casts. But with this one, he takes a safer route and mimics what is already there in Bollywood. A series of Ranveer Singh characters, from past Bhansali films, played by both Arjun Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt.
Gowarikar is no new player in the genre of history. He has always been scrutinized for altering history or using his dramatic liberties frivolously. However, the reactions have seen both extremes with love for his Oscar-nominated Lagaan (2001), to hate for his previously made Mohenjo Daro (2016). With Panipat, the latter reaction may be true as this time, he uses no dramatic liberties to a point where the screenplay seems to be like a checklist, ticking off all milestones leading up to the war.
Just like any of his previous period films, this also starts off with an expository voice-over, from the point of view of Parvati Bai (Kriti Sanon), wife of warrior Sadashivrao Bhau. The animated visuals for the opening montage set the tone to yet another Maratha story, filled with noble warriors, playfully feisty wives and selfless courage and pride towards the Indian motherland.
Sadashivrao, the nephew of Bajirao Peshwa, is one of the bravest and most selfless warriors in the Maratha empire at that time, for whom, the throne should be served rather than being sat on. He is a hardcore Maratha, who will fight till his very last breath and will not hesitate if his empire or motherland is in danger. When the empire notices a threat by the infamous Ahmad Shah Abdali, played by Sanjay Dutt, who looks similar to Ranveer’s Khilji from Padmaavat, it is Sadashivrao, who takes up this courageous responsibility to go to war and stop him from invading India again.
More than the actual, physical, blood laden war, which takes up only the last half hour of the film, the director focusses much more on the persuasions and politics that build-up to the war. The betrayal, the wager, the offers that couldn’t be refused, everything that paved the way to one of the biggest wars this country saw in the Maratha era. However, this plot of mind games feels too stretched out and choreographed to a point where it feels like a tiring game of chess, heading into a stalemate.
The problem lies in the writing of a film. From the start itself, the films seem to be stretched for 3 hours too long. The narrative doesn’t seem to flow seamlessly, and somehow, we just get a textbook history timeline leading up to the War of Panipat, stitched with voice-overs and animations. Most of the movie goes in the cat and mouse chase, but that also with no adventure, just pure redundancy. The metaphorical meaning behind this could be the taxing nature of traveling across the country in the ancient era, but even for the audience, that travel feels laborious and tests our patience. The characters too have no arc or journey that they go through and one could believe that the only layers they possess, were in their stellar costumes to make them look the part.
In contemporary hindsight, through an 18th-century war story, the director directly appeals to our hyper jingoistic climate for nationalism where the ultimate goal is to keep the saffron flag up high. The enemy is the Muslim, which fits like a perfect piece in the jigsaw of the polarised nature of our governance. This is why, Sadashivrao, an elite selfless warrior, employs a Muslim man in his army despite of being warned by his own men. But Abdali on the other hand pulls off a lunatic who smashes his own man’s face with his crown and later wears it unapologetically.
The performance also, all these big names, fall short in delivering a memorable performance, which again adds onto making this history lesson unduly painful. Kriti Sanon rises up above all in actually fitting her part and pulling off her character of a feisty but responsible Peshwin Bai with utmost ease.
Panipat becomes Ashutosh Gowarikar’s second consecutive period film which fails to hit the mark despite of stellar set and costume design thanks to flat writing and a history lecture far too laborious than that most of us have studied back in school, knowing how it ends…