Review of Panipat: The Great Betrayal: Gowariker at his finest

Subhash K Jha reviews the magnum opus Panipat, and says it is a well done piece of cinema. Let’s read in detail

Review of Panipat: The Great Betrayal: Gowariker at his finest

Starring Sanjay Dutt, Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon

Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker

Rating: ****

Costume dramas in Indian cinema frequently mistake flamboyance and bombast for nostalgic entertainment.  Panipat is the first film of its genre that doesn’t insult history by distorting and subverting it to suit the filmmaker’s massy purposes. Even when Sadashiv Rao Bhau,  Gowariker’s 18th century Maratha  warrior who  dreamt  of a  united India to fight  foreign  invasion and who craved  for no throne or crown, goes to war he carries himself with the dignity of a peacenik.

One of the film’s finest  dialogues—and  there many luminously written lines in this fine historical drama—comes when  Sadashiv catches his wife trying out the crown in front of the mirror.

Taj pehna nahin jata, pehnaya jata hai,” he gently tells his impulsive brave and devoted wife.

Elsewhere, before he leaves for war with the Islamic invader Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt, laden with unstoppable ferocity) he tells his wife, “If I die please don’t do Sati.”

The line almost seems a dig at Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s elaborate johar climax in Padmaavat.

But then you realize this is  Ashutosh Gowariker. Sarcasm and satire are not his style. This filmmaker’s epic dramas are blessed with long sturdy legs that walk that extra mile and talk the talk of national interest vis-à-vis the mistakes of bloodshed we’ve made in the past.

Thoroughly researched and rigorously true to the spirit of Maratha pride, Panipat is a remarkably restrained costume-historical drama. The director avoids all the pitfalls of overstatement even when confronting dramatic crises that call for a war-cry level of drama. He holds back. The relationships are delicately drawn, none  more so than the one between  Sadashiv Rao Bhau and his feisty wife Parvati. He is a doting loving protective husband. She insists on accompanying him to battle with an I-will-get-bored-alone logic.

Kriti Sanon is a revelation as Parvati.  Not only does she have a solid part to play in the drama, she plays it with such disarming intensity, her eyes often tell a thousand  untold stories. Kriti simply owns her role. I am afraid Arjun Kapoor for all his sincerity, falls short of his character’s expectations.  Kapoor puts in his all. But somewhere that energy and dynamism needed to portray a Maratha warrior whose heart is as pure as the royal blood that course through it, is missing.

Interesting actors  like Mantra (outstanding as the conniving  Najib-ud-Daula)  and an overweight wheezing Kunal Kapoor (Shashi Kapoor’s son now resembling his father in his later years) come and go in the mottled epic bringing their own charm to bear upon the characters’ doomed destiny. Then there is Zeenat Aman in a cameo as an empowered female ruler. Her heart-to-heart girl-talk with Sanon is lovely to behold.

That  vital  absence  of  bellicose  energy in the main lead  is more than  compensated  for  by  Gowariker’s uncompromising  vision. Unlike Bhansali who rushes through  the historical credibility  of his characters, Gowariker is in no hurry to get our attention or hold on it when  he does  get it. The lengthy narration flows with the inevitability of a determined river that winds its way through craggy mountains certain of where it is going.

The relationships between Sadashiv Rao and the people who determine his tragic destiny, are  mapped with a fertile  fluency. The way  Rao takes his king Nana Singh Peshwa’s  son  under his wings reifies the confidence with which this director charts  the  course  of  the human relationships  in  the drama of  power politics without  exaggerating his characters’ responses  to the volatile  milieu to which they belong.

Panipat is in many ways a great film. Its greatness lies in telling  a tale  of vehement  valour without  toppling over in self-importance. There is a gentle quality to the narrative broken when war finally breaks out at the end. Even then, Gowariker’s opts for a more reined-in treatment of the bloodshed. As the brave Marathas fell to the ground in a bloodied heap I could feel the futility of the savagery.

This is film and filmmaker that know how to respect our past without making frame belch with an over-saturated blast.

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