Ashutosh Gowariker is a director with a love for history and a cinematic imagination that is pleasing to the eye, if nothing else. His latest film Panipat is another example of that, but with some highs and lows.
The film traverses the third battle of Panipat in 1761, when the Maratha Empire's rule extended to Delhi. Closer to Delhi, a contingent under Sadashiv Rao Bhau (Arjun Kapoor) clashed with the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the king of Afghanistan (Sanjay Dutt) in Panipat. The battle was one of the deadliest of the century, where more than 60,000 people died in a single day.
The Marathas lost as the odds were always against them. They were outnumbered from the outset, there was an internal power struggle and they had to cobble alliances with weak or other unreliable rulers to put up a fight against Abdali and his local facilitator Najib Ud-Daula, a commander with aspirations under the then-Delhi ruler.
Panipat, although partly fictional, is a more than a half-decent attempt at not being jingoistic about the individuals and yet, it falls into the trap of glorifying the protagonists, Kapoor and Dutt, a bit nonetheless. In this current period in Bollywood, where history has served only as food for misplaced chest-beating patriotism, Panipat, is more grounded to reality in comparison.
There is no denying that facts have been altered in Panipat mostly to adapt to a simpler screenplay.
One such change is to represent Kriti Sanon in the character of Sadashiv's wife Parvati Bai as a commoner - something that is debatable. She serves a dual purpose and emerges a bigger winner among actors. Not only does she breathe life into the monotony of male egos and their war duties, but she becomes the narrator of the story as an eyewitness to the battle.
There are shades of grey to everyone's character except for soldier Sadashiv Rao. Veterans Mohnish Behl as Maratha ruler Balaji Bajirao, Padmini Kolkapure as his queen and Zeenat Aman as a reluctant widow ruler Sakina Begum - all get to display their talent.
The 171-minute run time could still be curtailed marginally, but actors do like Gowariker because he gives them enough time on screen. However, unlike his past movies (Jodha Akbar, Mohenjo Daro), this one is quite bearable.
There is a good collective effort by the bit actors. The war sets, forts and accompanying grandeur get full justice from production designer Nitin Desai. Composer duo Ajay-Atul lend able support. Neeta Lulla has a simpler task of building on the costume drama by referring to Bajirao Mastani.
There is just the right dose of battle scenes, war strategy and politics to keep the viewer engaged with the story. Abdali, for example, does not get involved in fighting on the day of battle. Other directors would have definitely fell into the trap to give action scenes for Dutt, who is so convincing as an eccentric Afghan.
And Javed Akhtar's lyrics for Mard Maratha and Man Mein Shivay add that extra little flavour to the two songs that matter.
Ahead of the film's release on Thursday, Arjun Kapoor told The National that it was a story about martyrs who died for their country.
Sadashiv Rao was one such. Historians suggest the battle was lost because he was not a diplomat and did not have the right knowledge of north India.
If you keep the history books aside and ignore his flaws, the depiction of the undisputed valour of Marathas such as him is brought up nicely in Panipat.
Panipat is in cinemas across the UAE