Bollywood nationalist dramas in recent times are of two types: a) “bhaavnaon me behna” (letting the emotions get the better of you — being melodramatic) or b) “bhagvaon me behna” (getting swayed by the saffron spirit). Om Raut’s Tanhaji, starring Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, and Kajol, is latter, a thinly veiled tribute to Hindu Rashtra.
The conceit remains the same: a Hindu kingdom (Maratha) facing the threat of invasion from the outsiders (obviously Muslims, and in this case, Mughals). The dog-whistling begins right from the first scene. Tanhaji opens with a voiceover by Sanjay Mishra where he likens the land — written on screen as “Bharat” even though it was just a cluster of kingdoms then, and not identified by a geographical boundary or even a name — to “sone ki chidiya (the golden bird)” that has been ravaged by “baahri aakraman (external invasions)”.
Set in the late 17th century, Tanhaji is centred on the battle between the Mughals and Marathas; Aurganzeb wants to conquer south India, setting his base at the fort of Kondhana. His nemesis is Shivaji, who sends his military leader Tanaji Malusare (Devgn) to protect the fort. Aurangzeb sends his troop headed by Udaybhan (Khan), thereby, according to the movie, “pitting a Hindu against a Hindu”.
Seeing nearly everything through the lens of religion — a trait normally associated with fanatics, not filmmakers — makes Tanhaji remarkably discomfiting. Early in the movie, when Tanaji’s father dies, he collapses with the wail of, “Har Har Mahadev”. The Maratha flags are marked by the symbol of Om; Tanaji’s shield has a trident. The word “bhagva” is repeated throughout the movie.
Later, Tanaji, while encouraging the fellow soldiers for the upcoming battle, reminds them of their current status, that they’re imprisoned in a land where they can’t even say “Jai Shri Ram”. Like Panipat, Tanhaji extrapolates these distinctions right down to the colour of costumes: Marathas are usually dressed in white, Mughals black. Hindi nationalist dramas are known for their Hindu iconography, but Tanhaji is marked by numerous references, often speaking to us beyond the confines of its story.
Which brings us to the Padmaavat trick: the film’s final card, its villain, Udaybhan. What’s truly notable — and difficult to miss in Tanhaji, for it’s repeated throughout — is the characterisation of Udaybhan and how similar he feels to Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh, Padmaavat) and Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt, Panipat). Three rulers, across three different decades and three different kingdoms, who share vicious commonalities. This blatant religious profiling alone should tell you a thing or two about the moral bankruptcy of modern Bollywood.
So Udaybhan, in the new Muslims-are-brutes subgenre of cinema, eats meat. If Alauddin and Ahmad Shah liked their meats big and fat, then Udaybhan is a step further: he likes them long as well. In one scene — I’m not making it up — he’s roasting a crocodile. Later in the movie, when Tanaji is captured and tortured, Udaybhan bites into a piece of meat, confirming his animalistic traits. Not just that, Udaybhan relentlessly pursues and imprisons a woman, Kamala Devi (Neha Sharma), who rebuffs his romantic overtures multiple times — a fiction invented for the film. Granted, he’s a villain, and so can’t be expected to be virtuous, but in light of the movie’s constant religious segregation, the traits of Udaybhan (a symbolic Muslim) are in place to reinforce a misleading stereotype.
Besides, some crucial character motivations that change the course of the story — including one linked to Kamala Devi — have blatant religious connotations as well. All of this could have been still glossed in a historical drama made in any other era, but not in 2020, not with Narendra Modi at the centre, not with anti-CAA protests intensifying by the day, not in a movie produced by Devgn, a star who has been always sympathetic to the regime. Personal is not merely political; it is cinematic, too.
The above demerits are not just ideological differences; they contribute to the film’s mediocrity. Propaganda — by the very virtue of it being tied to an ideology — trails the rigid dictums of a worldview, as opposed to following the natural rhythms of a story. As a result, such pieces of art are predictable and insular, monotonously hammering the same point again and again.
Tanhaji does come from a parochial mindset but it is not shoddily made. Its cinematography in particular (by Keiko Nakahara) is striking and impressive, producing frames of gorgeous magnificence. Many scenes come to life through wide and long shots, emphasising the expansive landscape, reducing people to mites. The battle scenes, too — especially the second one introducing Tanaji — are cinematographic delights, producing original dazzling scenes of coordinated action. A lot of it, though, looks like a blend of live action and CG, but it works regardless, because Nakahara’s visual language is consistent and compelling.
But these flourishes are not enough — not even close — to save a film like this. Less of a feature film and more of a presentation to Modi and Amit Shah to realise their deeply egregious ideas about India, Tanhaji tells a deeply divisive story when the country is on the brink of getting torn.