Friday, May 29, 2020

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior: Review

The flipside of all the racial stereotyping in recent Hindi historical films is that the antagonists are turning out more interesting than the heroes. Without Alauddin Khilji’s perversity and parrot noises, Padmaavat would have been 160 minutes of Rajputs telling each other how great they are. And Panipat would have been hollower without Sanjay Dutt’s attempts to wrest some dignity for Ahmad Shah Abdali from the film's savage conception of his character.

Udaybhan Rathod, a Rajput general in Aurangzeb’s army, is only Mughal by allegiance. This is enough, though, for him to be saddled with what Hindi cinema would have you believe are Mughal characteristics: rapaciousness, cruelty, sadism. The only problem is, the more outrageous his villainy, the more enjoyable Udaybhan becomes. The film needs this gleeful villain, played to the hilt by Saif Ali Khan, much more than it does Ajay Devgn’s dull, dutiful protagonist. Who would you rather watch: the guy singing devotional songs and keeping promises to his father and wife or the one tossing soldiers off ramparts and grilling crocodiles over a fire?

In the late 17th century, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is trying to make inroads into south India. He sends Udaybhan to assume charge of the strategically important fort of Kondhana, which the Marathas had had to give up. In response, Maratha ruler Shivaji sends the general Tanhaji to recapture it (there’s a bizarre scene where Devgn dresses up as a priest in order to convince his king to allow him to go and fight). The ensuing battle is a storied one in Maratha history – though the film leaves out one particularly crazy story: that the formidable walls of the fort were scaled with the help of a rope attached to a monitor lizard.

Unlike the recent Panipat, which took pains to lay out its historical context, there isn’t much political or social knowledge to be gleaned here. Everything’s rendered in broad strokes, and Raut and co-writer Prakash Kapadia don’t mind repeating things for the inattentive viewer. One bit of crosscutting results in this sparkling exchange. Udaybhan: “We’ll travel via Shirdhon." Tanhaji to Shivaji: “Shirdhon. Shirdhon. He’ll go from Shirdhon. Shirdhon."

Still, with its Prince of Persia physics and Amar Chitra Katha aesthetics, Tanhaji is surprisingly enjoyable. Raut is a fluent director of action, transforming ideas that must have seemed bizarre on paper into persuasively choreographed sequences (credit, also, to cinematographer Keiko Nakahara). The bees-and-bungee attack early on is as freakishly inventive as anything since Baahubali. If Hindi cinema is to keep churning out violent historicals, the least they can do is get the fighting right. Tanhaji, which has the same feel for bodies in violent motion as Padmaavat did for sari drapes, represents one kind of way forward.

The film is never far from silliness, but there’s often a reason attached. Tanhaji, on a recce mission, leads a celebration at Kondhana and a delighted Udaybhan mimics his moves. He’s captured, of course, but the point isn't sensible tactics; it’s a nod to the Hindi cinema tradition of the climactic dance. When an elephant trunk is sliced off, it’s a reminder of the scene at the start where a human hand is cut off, and a premonition of a later dismemberment. The one flashback in the film is used productively, giving us a look at a more human Udaybhan.

The mention of Brahmin janeu by Tanhaji’s wife, Savitribai (Kajol), in the trailer has been replaced by a line that isn’t caste-specific. But Muslim rulers and their collaborators, from the 12th century to the 18th, continue to be fair game. Aurangzeb and another king play a game of human chess ending in actual casualties. Udaybhan may be Rajput but he dresses like a Mughal. He eats meat off the bone, an insidious differentiator used in just about every recent Hindi historical. He captures a Hindu princess and places her in chains. He steps on a carpet that has a map of India on it. Traitor. Anti-national. If only he wasn’t so much fun.

This review appeared in Mint. 

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