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Bollywood filmmakers revere a reliable formula. Whether it’s the Swiss Alps romance, item numbers, a romantic declaration at an airport – it’s a long list. The latest formula is Hindutva nationalism.
So many films have been made in the last few years that its latest exponent, Samrat Prithviraj, elicits not revulsion but tedium. In fact, this subgenre has become so over fatigued that the whole thing has collapsed into a circle: no matter where you start, if you walk for long, you’ll end up at the same place. Maybe I’m experiencing the film critic’s version of seven stages of grief: If Padmaavat made me angry, then Samrat Prithviraj prods me to suck up and accept.
Because these films don’t just share (vile constricted) ideologies or communal dog whistling or broad plot lines but also inspirations and methods and nuance. Samrat Samrat Prithviraj is based on a 12th century poem, Prithviraj Raso, whose historical authenticity has been disputed for a long time. Remind me of a film with a similar design – well, just look four sentences up – Padmaavat.
The broad story is indeed the same. The son of the soil, a chivalrous Hindu king, Prithviraj (Akshay Kumar); the makers really hammer the ‘last Hindu king’ bit, referencing it even in the posters and the end credits. The alien marauder, a Muslim brute, Muhammad Ghori (Manav Vij). Their juxtaposition, as expected, is reinforced thorough cinematography and colour psychology: Hindus dressed in white and saffron, bathed in ample beatific sunlight; Muslims in much darker shades, shot in limited light, underscoring a foreboding ambience. Again, which film is this: maybe Padmaavat, maybe Paanipat, maybe Tanhaji – maybe, well, you get the idea.
The dialogues carry the baton, reducing the complexities of individuals, kingdoms, and conquests in two words: Hindu and Muslim.
Prithviraj is all about “Hindu ka dharma” and “dharma ka paalan” (‘a Hindu’s religion and how one complies with it’). In case you didn’t get it, pat comes one more: “Dharma ke liye jeeya hun, dharma ke liye marunga (we have lived for religion and will die for it)”. Why miss a chance to reference the destruction of Somnath temple, too (never mind that that happened more than one-and-a-half centuries ago)? A veteran soldier, Kaka Kanha (Sanjay Dutt), says, “There’s no difference between a Mir and a Muhammad.” The dog whistling is so relentless that even dogs are likely to take offence.
Smallest of scenes are manufactured to depict the bhagwa pride. Take an early Holi song for instance, blending elegant cinematography and poor timing to justify one main end: splashing saffron colour in the air. Even when Prithviraj’s captive soldiers are freed in the end, they’re still wearing the saffron headgear, as if it’s part of their uniform. Now what about the story, you may ask? Good question, I thought the same – and struggled to find something cohesive.
Still, I’ll try. The drama is pivoted on three battles (two between Prithviraj and Ghori, one between Prithviraj and Jai Chand, played by Ashutosh Rana) and one big gladiatorial contest, opening and closing the movie, set in Afghanistan, where the blind Hindu king must fight a series of lions. (We never find out the animals’ religion, which makes this film somewhat progressive.)
Everything else in between is just an excuse to waste time. We get a tepid romance between Prithviraj and Jai Chand’s daughter, Sanyogita (Manushi Chhillar); a bloodthirsty Kaka, who is almost always talking about killing someone; a saas–bahu drama between the heroine and her parents, for she protests and marries Prithviraj; and a lot of contrived lunges at making Prithviraj (and consequently this film) ‘feminist’.
That reminds me: there’s of course a song glorifying Sati (Yoddha Ban Gayi Main), which is as revolting as the climactic bit in Padmaavat. There’s absolutely no sense of character or plot progression throughout – people seem like tacky mission statements; subplots are heaps of propagandistic infomercials. There’s no sense of intrigue or discovery, turning the entire film into an insufferable road trip, where you know every bit of the journey (even the order of the songs on the car stereo).
Except for two small bits. Ghori isn’t as nutty as his counterparts in Padmaavat, Paanipat, or Tanhaji (maybe because there are only as many ways to depict a carnivorous villain). He even shows strains of humanity in a small scene, when he tells his soldiers that, unlike Prithviraj, they lack a solid motive to fight the war. It’s all swiftly undone, however, when his people slash the throats of Prithviraj’s soldiers when they’re asleep.
There’s another bit of complexity that is more lasting (and, if I’ve to be incredibly lenient, meaningful). At the start of the movie, the Afghani people are cheering on the imminent mauling of Prithviraj. But when he resists, in the final sequence, one of them is moved to say, “Teri bahaduri ko salaam hai (I salute your bravery)”, which soon turns into a standing ovation. Only a few seconds sure, but it’s one of those rare instances where the film doesn’t follow the Hindutva playbook. But even this is undone by a title card at the end that valorises the ‘last Hindu king’ and how it took 757 years for Delhi to come back to ‘Bharat Mata’.
But the most lasting disappointment lies beyond the last title card: the producer, Yash Raj Films.
Because it looked like the final bulwark against the relentless Hindutva invasion in Bollywood. Even though its films have featured predominantly Hindu characters and iconographies (including the regressive celebrations of Karva Chauth), its looked far away from the Hindutva brigade, because this ethos was embedded in its very being, helmed by Yash Chopra, so much so that a song from his 1959 debut, Dhool Ka Phool, ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman (you will be neither Hindu nor Muslim)’, played across many CAA-NRC protests.
Around three years ago, a YRF film, War (releasing on Gandhi Jayanti), featured a likeable Muslim protagonist and steered clear from the jingoistic clarion calls (though still sticking to the ‘good Muslim-bad Muslim’ trope). It wasn’t perfect but, in the rapidly plummeting standards of Bollywood, still admirable. No such pretence exists now. The ‘Hindutvafication’ of Bollywood is complete. They say there’s a Yash Chopra song for every occasion. There’s one for this detour, too: ‘Yeh kahan aa gaye hum (where have we arrived)’.