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Samrat Prithviraj review: A dull and small-minded historical

Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s film about Prithviraj Chauhan continues Hindi cinema's obsession with 'invaders' from centuries ago 

Akshay Kumar in ‘Samrat Prithviraj’
Akshay Kumar in ‘Samrat Prithviraj’

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Yesterday, Yash Raj Films put out a plea on Twitter to viewers not to share Samrat Prithviraj spoilers. “Since it’s an authentic historical, there are many facets of Samrat’s life that are lesser known to the people of our country,” it said. I’m all for messing with history, but let's be clear: Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s film is based on Prithviraj Raso, an epic poem by Chand Bardai, who was (maybe) in the court of the 12th century Rajput king. Historical accuracy takes a hit when you’re writing poems about your patron. Maybe YRF should have called it authentic fanfiction. 

We’ve played this game often enough to know our parts by now. Padmaavat was based on an epic poem, which didn’t stop people from pretending it was fact. That film, and Panipat, were framed as foreigners-versus-patriots. Prithviraj does this as well. In an interview with ANI, Kumar said school textbooks have only a few lines about Chauhan but a lot of information about ‘invaders’. “I’m not saying we should not know about Mughals… but we should know about our kings also,” he adds. Why Mughals? Because 'Ghurid dynasty' isn’t an effective dog-whistle.

Also read: How Bollywood is rewriting history

The film opens in a stadium in Ghazni, Afghanistan, with prisoner Prithviraj blinded by Muhammad Ghori’s men and presented before a baying crowd. He fights and kills three lions—animal-human duels are to Indian historical films what meet-cutes are to romcoms. Dwivedi then jumps back in time. We see Prithviraj take up arms against Ghori because the brother of the Afghan king asks him for help. He defeats Ghori easily, then spares him: a very Rajput move in that it costs him his life but allows him to make a bunch of pretty speeches about Rajput honour before that. 

If you were bored to tears by the Rajputs in Padmaavat and kept waiting for Ranveer Singh’s Khilji to show up, consider yourself warned. Prithviraj drones on about integrity and sacrifice and motherland as much as Shahid Kapoor does in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, and the dead-eyed Manav Vij as Ghori is way less fun than Singh, or Saif Ali Khan in Tanhaji. Prithiviraj is joined on the pulpit by Sanyogita (Manushi Chhillar), daughter of the ruler of Kanauj (Ashutosh Rana). She’s a feminist—or as much as one could be in 12th century Rajasthan—choosing Prithviraj against her parents’ will and presiding over the Ajmer court with him. Not for the first time, jauhar is sold with a song and evident pride, as if there’s nothing horrifying about a group of women jumping into fire.

Recent Hindi historical films have been so consistent in their Islamophobia that Prithviraj seems a bit restrained in this area. Sure, the Muslim king is duplicitous and sadistic and bearded and grumpy, and the Hindu protagonist is a virile feminist warrior. There’s a pointed mention of the sacking of the Somnath temple by an Afghan king. But at least Ghori isn’t gnawing at huge hunks of meat like Khilji in Padmaavat, or playing murder chess like the royals in Panipat. Dwivedi, instead, makes a distinction between good and bad Hindus. The king of Kanauj slaughters a buffalo; later, he joins forces with Ghori.

The most interesting thing is the ornateness of Dwivedi’s writing, delivered with particular relish by Rana and Manoj Joshi, who plays a wealthy powerbroker. But the 62-year-old director can’t find any momentum; the film keeps getting bogged down in talky scenes and dull songs. Prithviraj is compared to a host of Hindu gods and mythological figures, which is par for the course for recent Hindi cinema, and for Dwivedi, whose previous work includes adaptations of the Mahabharat and the Upanishads. 

Kumar is more than twice Chhillar’s age, and five years older than Sakshi Tanwar, who plays Chhillar’s mother. I miss when stuff like this was the big problem in Hindi cinema. Prithviraj closes with a note informing the viewer that, after its protagonist’s death, India was enslaved for 755 years. This, of course, is the language of the Sangh. After a screening of the film, Home Minister Amit Shah echoed this view of history, saying, “Prithviraj Raso has been one stage of a long fight that went on from 25th September 1025 till 15th August 1947... aggressors and invaders who had never been defeated had to admit that they drowned when they reached the mouth of the Ganga-Jamuna.” Invaders were defeated but also ruled India for over 900 years. Authentic history.    

Also read: Film Review: Padmaavat


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