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Panipat review: Ashutosh Gowariker's epic is rich in texture and layers of history, not drama

Release Date: 06 Dec 2019 / Rated: U/A / 02hr 45min

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Shriram Iyengar

Panipat thrives not on melodrama and hysterics but on the layering of political manoeuvring, historical detail and scale of battle.

History, Winston Churchill once said, is written by the victor. But with the advent of cinema, the writer and manner of writing has changed. Which is why we have Ashutosh Gowariker transforming the Third Battle of Panipat, a chapter of strategic blunders by the Maratha empire, into a tale of bravery and national pride.

Gowariker does it well with the use of layered detail about the political manoeuvrings and relationships within and outside the peshwa clan, at the magnificent scale that has become his hallmark. Yet, the script's length and a certain lack of tension and slickness make this a work for those interested in history rather than cinematic drama.

The story begins with the voice of Parvatibai (Kriti Sanon) narrating the rise of her 'raya' (king), Sadashivrao 'Bhau' (Arjun Kapoor). With the capture of Udgir and the defeat of the Nizamshahi kingdom, Sadashivrao returns with great pomp and celebration to Pune's Shanivarwada. Except, there is political intrigue afoot. Bhau's rapid rise is seen as a threat by Gopikabai (Padmini Kolhapure), who is watching out for her son Vishwasrao (Abhishek Nigam). This political game of thrones sets up the prelude to the arrival of Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt), founder of the Durrani empire in Afghanistan.

Yes, the film plays loosely with some facts. For instance, the dismissal of Najib-ud-Daulah (Mantra) from the court of Mughal emperor Alamgir II in Delhi is cinematic liberty to not show the entire Battle of Delhi (1757). The lack of support from the Sikhs and the Jats of Malwa is also skipped, for sentimental reasons perhaps. Based on the writings of TS Shejwalkar's Panipat 1761, the film follows the chronology of events as described in the book.

History narrated through a story, cinematic or otherwise, is not likely to be accurate. While it would be wrong to expect documentation, it would be misguided to not expect drama. Gowariker's screenplay does tick off the political players active in the Indian subcontinent in those days but does not exploit the drama and intrigue to the fullest. The only players who emerge as truly something of interest are Gopikabai, Najib-ud-Daulah aka Najib Khan Rohilla and Shuja-ud-Daula (Kunal Kapoor), the nawab of Oudh. The absence of their political play leaves parts of the second half limp with the lack of drama or tension.

The film's second half feels long and could have done without some needless deviations, which detract from the impatient wait for the climactic battle. When the battle does arrive, it begins and ends suddenly and with little fanfare.

The key revelation of the 'betrayal' hinted at in the title is also disappointing. This lack of drama at crucial moments takes away from an otherwise well-crafted story.

As a result, the burden of leading the film lies on the hefty shoulders of Arjun Kapoor as Sadashivrao 'Bhau'. He does well, surprisingly. The actor does not have the dynamism or chameleonic abilities of Ranveer Singh — check Padmaavat (2018) or Bajirao Mastani (2015) — but puts in a restrained performance.

The moments of flaw lie in the key battle sequences, where Kapoor appears more forced than natural in his movements. The same flaw hobbles his on-screen opponent, Sanjay Dutt as Ahmad Shah Abdali. The senior actor dominates the screen with his presence but seems to lack intensity in his dialogue delivery. This feels like a letdown during the crucial face-off.

The dialogues are also a weak point of Gowariker's film. The switch between Marathi and Hindi, made for easier understanding and relatability, is a bit jarring. For a film pitched as a tent-pole project, Panipat lacks the powerful dialogues that drove films like Bajirao Mastani (2015), Padmaavat (2018), or even Gowariker's own Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Lagaan (2001).

Kriti Sanon brings a certain vibrancy and lightness to her character, and it is through her memories that the film unfolds. She gets a crucial moment in the final battle to kill a few soldiers (tribute, perhaps, to the growing power of feminism) but is largely an outsider to the unfolding events. Her romance with Kapoor feels a little undercooked and pops up at unexpected moments.

The supporting characters, built up in the initial part of the film, are summarily dismissed as the battle draws near. Vishwasrao, Ibrahim Khan Gardi and Shamsher Bahadur are characters that are simply adornments to mark out key players in the historical saga. Gopikabai is a rare delicious character and Kolhapure plays her with menace and interest. The manipulative Najib-ud-Daulah is also played well by Mantra, though he occasionally overdoes the wiles.

The other interesting character is Kunal Kapoor's Shuja-ud-Daula. But while the initial build-up for the character promises the graph of a man who will play a key role in the story, he then takes a backseat as simply a standby.

The grand scale of the film lends itself to the big screen. The sets, cannons, battle formations and costumes are some of the things the director has paid attention to and it shows. Gowariker backs up his narrative with visual animations of troop movements, the presence of soldiers, etc. The only flaw, perhaps, is in the key battle climax. While the cannon fire is fantastic to look at and hear, it is the close combat that feels underdone.

Overall, Panipat is a fairly well-done reiteration of one of Indian history's great battles. It might not be accurate enough for the historian, or entertaining enough for the regular movie-goer, but it is certainly a detailed work of cinema.

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