Thousands of miles from their respective homelands, the Maratha and Afghan armies stare each other down across the battlefield of Panipat. It’s 1761; the Marathas rule over most of India. Their general, Sadashiv Rao Bhau (Arjun Kapoor), gives a pretty speech about how theirs is a Hindustani sena, comprising Hindus and Muslims, people of different castes and professions. His opposite number, Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt), offers no words of encouragement to his troops. Instead, he simply calls for a start to the hamla (attack), a word whose most common usage today is to refer to terrorist attacks.
This contrast is indicative of the tug-of-war at the heart of Panipat – between the kind of historical film that’s popular today and the kind of film Gowariker likes to make. In Lagaan, Swades and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, a ragtag group comes together to work for the country. You see this in Panipat too, with Sadashiv stitching together an 18th century rainbow coalition. When Rao takes the Udgir fort from the Nizam of Hyderabad, he refuses to execute the enemy general, Ibrahim Khan Gardi (Nawab Khan), adding him to his army instead. When his commanders warn him that a Gardi is not to be trusted, he reminds them that Shivaji’s army also included Muslims.
But visions of togetherness alone won’t cut it in 2019. So Gowariker also plays up the divide. Before we even see Abdali, there are pointed shots of his courtiers being served meat, and a close-up of a knife being buried in a cooked bird. A little later, moments after Dutt’s frightening visage is revealed, there’s an assassination plot. Abdali survives, stabbing conspirators and beating the last one to death with his Kohinoor-emblazoned crown, which he then wears (Audiences will recall another Afghan making a murderous start to a film: Alauddin Khilji, perpetrator of treason in 2018’s Padmaavat).
Like other historical films of the last two years, Panipat is dominated by Hindu iconography: a Shivling, a song about Shiva, and – if my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me – an aerial view of the Maratha army in the shape of a saffron-and-green Ganesh. Abdali is shown offering namaaz once; Gowariker wisely opts not to frame his invasion as a holy war. The Afghan king is shown to be a smart, if brutal, leader, trusting his instincts over the promises of the unctuous Najib ud-Daulah (Mantra). Dutt, looming over the camera, is a wonderful heavy, certainly more of a force than Kapoor’s stiff-backed peshwa. Had the writers found ways to contrast them more subtly, this would have been a richer film. As it stands, you get Abdali murdering his soldiers in fits of rage, while Sadashiv dances with his compatriots and looks positively terrified by the frank advances of Parvati Bai (Kriti Sanon).
Panipat is made in the shadow of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani (2015). Not only is Bajirao’s son, Shamsher, a character in this film but Parvati remarks, when Sadashiv is set to leave, that she’s heard peshwas who go north “return with a Mastani". There’s even a leaf taken out of Bhansali’s love-is-pain handbook, with Parvati, a physician, makes overtures while tending to Sadashiv’s war wounds. But Gowariker doesn’t have the stomach for it. Sadashiv may win over his love by slashing his hand, but the blood-letting happens offscreen, and Parvati doesn’t cut herself in response, as Bhansali would have preferred.
Panipat does do something that Bhansali, and the other directors of recent historical films, didn’t bother with – which is to give the viewer a sense of history playing out. The film spends some two hours of its 170-minute runtime clearly setting out the events leading up to Third Battle. We see Abdali and Sadashiv entreat and threaten their way towards building their armies, meeting Rohillas, Rajputs, Mughals and anyone else who can help (the pick of these cameos is Kunal Kapoor as the much-sought-after Shuja ud-Daulah, his voice a sandpaper rasp). Some of these vignettes might stretch historical credulity, like Parvati asking for supplies from Sakina Begum (Zeenat Aman), but they give a sense of the political maneuvering that preceded any war in those times. Though Sadashiv sneers at politics, the film doesn’t, which is a relief.
The battle itself is a mixed bag. Some of the strategic decisions have the ring of authenticity – an “Eid ka chand" formation, cannons fired off camels’ backs – and most of the action conforms to the realm of earthly physics, which was not the case in Bajirao or Manikarnika. But the CGI lets Gowariker down, and there’s little sense of the ebb and flow that must have accompanied the real clash, one of the largest in 18th century India. Then there’s the unfortunate decision to make the Afghans comic villains, all bulging eyes and sneak attacks, while the Marathas are filmed fighting (and losing) in devotional slo-mo.
My favourite scene comes a little earlier in the film. The two armies are camped out on opposite shores of the flooded Yamuna. Abdali and Sadashiv get their first look at one other via telescope. The frame is a static iris shot, like early cinema. Both men talk aloud, addressing the other. Even though there’s miles of raging river between them, they appear to be having a conversation. It’s one of those moments which wouldn't work on paper. You’d have to see it on film.