Panipat Movie Review: Pans out like fun school-history

Updated: Dec 06, 2019, 08:32 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

More than a period film, a costume drama, a Bollywood musical, a war memorial, a battle-field actioner, Panipat is essentially a lesson in history that might have occupied at best a page in your NCERT/school text.

A still from Panipat
A still from Panipat

Director: Ashutosh Gowariker
U/A: Historical
Actors: Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon
Rating: Rating

In its timeline in history, this film falls only about 20 years ahead of when Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Bajirao Mastani (2015) is set, within the same empire/family (the Marathas), with actor Ranveer Singh playing the male lead in that one. Further, the antagonist Ahmad Shah Abdali from Afghanistan, as an invading Muslim ruler/commander, might seem to some as quite similar to Alauddin Khalji, if you may — although from over four centuries before, again with Singh in that part in Bhansali's subsequent release Padmaavat (2018).

Arjun Kapoor plays the Maratha warrior Sadashivrao Bhau in this film. Sanjay Dutt is cast as Abdali. He led the battle this film is named after.

Both lead actors play their respective roles very differently from how Singh interpreted the two supposedly similar parts, in the above-mentioned Bhansali movies. To be clear, they both in fact play it down — Kapoor, in particular, allows the narrative to overpoweringly take precedence over his presence on screen (alone). This is a smart thing to do, and a sure sign of confidence.

Size (for a warrior) matters. Both Kapoor and Dutt, in that sense, fit their roles like reasonably tight gloves. That said, where exactly does Panipat fit into the scheme of Indian history itself? Right on top, for the crackling story being told —of a conventional war, with possibly the highest number of casualties, over a single day. But the film belongs to an even more interesting space, given that history is inevitably told through the words/eyes of the victor. This one is from the lens of the loser, so to say.

We're looking at the Third Battle of Panipat (1761) — Abdali's army from Kandahar (and his local allies), versus the Marathas, based in Pune, along with military alliances they stitched with friendly/protectorate states. A similar sort of diplomacy played out to bring together various princely states against the East India Company during the Revolt of 1857, relived most recently with Kangana Ranaut's Manikarnika (2019) — also a story told from the side of the defeated.

The fact is that the Marathas lost the Third Battle of Panipat, even if valiantly so, as it were. Why did the battle take place, to begin with? Due to the Mughals in Delhi — in decline at the time; reduced to near tenants of the Marathas; looking to avenge hurt egos; and inviting Afghans for help in this regard.

And, then what happened? I could tell you more of all that I've learnt. But the fact is — that's really the whole point, purpose, besides plot of this entire picture. More than a period film, a costume drama, a Bollywood musical, a war memorial, a battle-field actioner, Panipat is essentially a lesson in history that might have occupied at best a page in your NCERT/school text. And so you know so little of what transpired between kings and their cohorts as they conspired and cornered each other to battle it out at a neutral field — laying to rest around a lakh lives, eventually!

Director Ashutosh Gowariker plays it even straighter than his actors, sticking to recreating facts as accessed/interpreted by him. The film, as a result, you might notice, feels flat in certain portions, lacking a natural rhythm of dramatic highs and lows, and seeming long overall.

Watch the trailer of Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, Kriti Sanon starrer Panipat here

Be that as it may, you can tell within this structure the germ of a global web series, that similarly delves deep into the minutiae of India's history, with massive production budgets and all technological wares in place — a luxury director Shyam Benegal couldn't afford, when he set out to make the 53-part historical drama Bharat Ek Khoj for Doordarshan in the late '80s.

And there's, in fact, plenty to admire about aspects that Panipat touches upon through its story-telling: Whether that be the significant role for women (actor Kriti Sanon has a strong part) — otherwise uncommon for a war/battlefield film. That we even peer at how armies running into tens of thousands would be fed daily meals, marching over a thousand and half kilometres, to take on the enemy in Panipat, from Pune, for instance.

Or indeed the fact that Gowariker doesn't overtly frame this battle into a uni-dimensional one between Hindus and Muslims — feeding into the 'invader-native' narrative, which morphs into a dangerous 'migrant versus locals' canard in present-day, populist politics. History, regardless of age, has been dictated more by insecurities, egos, greed and avarice, than religion or race. Even if subtly, the film does make this point. Does it hit home-run with all of it, moving you to bits and tears, taking you through exhilaration, and anxiety? I'm afraid, not exactly.

All said and done, did it surpass my personal expectations? Hell yeah. Both, Lagaan's Oscar-nominated director Gowariker (What's Your Rashee, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Mohenjo Daro), and the film's leading man Kapoor (Half Girlfriend, Namaste England, India's Most Wanted), haven't quite been having a great run with the said material they've put out in the recent past. If it helps for you to know, this is by far their most accomplished work in a long while. A better reference for you to judge this film by — it's infinitely better than its tardy trailer. That's most important to know.

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