The Third Battle of Panipat was fought in 1761. The period was marked by the disintegration of the Mughal Empire and the rise of Maratha domination in India. Peshwa Bajirao, also known as Baji Rao I, had defeated the Mughals and brought much of their territories under Maratha rule.
Then, in 1758, his son Balaji Baji Rao invaded Punjab, bringing him in direct confrontation with Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan. Assisted by his Indian allies, Abdali returned to Delhi and recaptured the enemy garrisons. The Marathas, in response, rallied northward, led by Balaji Baji Rao’s cousin and commander-in-chief Sadashiv Rao Bhau.
“The entire journey to stop Ahmad Shah Abdali was all about India coming together,” says Arjun Kapoor, who essays Sadashiv in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Panipat. “Before this battle, we had people coming to India, plundering and going way. Nobody could do anything about it. Sadashiv Rao Bhau was the first man who had the vision of a united India standing against its invaders.”
Panipat is Arjun’s first historical film, a genre almost synonymous with Ashutosh Gowarikar in Bollywood. He calls the filmmaker an ‘encyclopedia’, crediting him for the in-depth research required for the part.
“My job, primarily, was to make the character human. You can be awed by the costumes and the scale of the film. But unless you care about the character, you won’t feel the emotions. My research was to bring out the human aspects of Sadashiv — his strengths, his confusions — so that you care for him when he goes into battle.”
The trailer of Panipat sparked a meme fest online. The film was compared to Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani, and several memes were aimed at Arjun’s transformation into a Marathi warrior. The actor says he is cool with jokes being made on him, but finds it ‘rude’ and ‘uncouth’ to make fun of martyrs. “I don’t see anybody making fun of Saheed Bhagat Singh.
I’ve never seen a meme on Subhas Chandra Bose. But I’m seeing memes on Sadashiv Bhau, who is as much of a valid soldier for our country.” He also points out the difference between constructive criticism and trolling.
“Criticism is part and parcel of our profession and I appreciate it. But very few people in India can do it simply and respectfully. Often, in a country of one billion, it’s hard to have a logical conversation with someone. Everything gets lost in the noise and the negativity. In the film, Kriti Sanon plays Parvatibai, the second wife of Sadashiv Rao Bhau. Like the rest of the Hindi-speaking cast, Kriti had to pick up the Maharashtrian dialect for the part. “Fortunately, I have a good grasping power,” says the Delhi-born actor.
“When I had done a Telugu film (1: Nenokkadine), I didn’t know the language but could pronounce the words well. Similarly, when I started my dialect training for Panipat, I wanted to sound authentic. I feel Marathi is a beautiful language, with a mix of sweetness and spark. I became a different person on set, especially in that nauvari saree and that khopa (hair bun) and nath (nose ring).
Parvatibai belonged to the Kolhatkar family of Pen, a town in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. She was married to Sadashiv after the death of his first wife Umabai. When the Marathas left for Panipat, Parvatibai accompanied her husband on the journey, and was present in the final battle fought on January 14, 1761.
The trailer shows her fighting off enemies with a sword near a camp. “Ashutosh Gowarikar cannot write weak women characters,” says Kriti, “His films are period but his characters are quite contemporary. He has made Parvatibai into a fighter, someone who can protect her own people. There’s a point in the film when she steps up and helps in an important way. Giving that stature and power to a female character is very empowering. He did the same with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Jodha Akbar.”
Kriti’s only regret, though, is not having a scene with Sanjay Dutt, who essays Ahmad Shah Abdali. “I was a little heartbroken… but I made up for it by shooting with Zeenat Aman, who has a special role. It was a long, important scene with a lot of dialogues. I was nervous to shoot with such a legend, but she eased me with her warmth and appreciation. It was also inspiring to see her hunger to get everything right, despite having so much experience. It makes you want to become like that.”