What’s a historical in Bollywood nowadays without alternative facts and jingoistic nationalism? Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior begins with the required disclaimers about creative liberties, etc... but don’t we all know the extent and trajectory of this azaadi? Is it possible for us to look at the Bhagwa (Saffron) flag as just Maratha identity? What about that solitary “innocent” Muslim in the Maratha camp and the one “evil” Hindu in the Mughal camp? In these times, do we just look at Tanhaji superficially or try to dust away the layers to find subtexts? And more importantly, do these questions change the fact that Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior boasts of path-breaking visual effects, and is the closest Bollywood has got yet to replicating Baahubali?
This is the voice-over the film could have started with instead of the cliched introduction that talks about how the “golden bird” called India lost its sheen over the years courtesy the invasions of “explorers” from different creeds and cultures.
We first see Tanhaji as a boy learning the ropes of warfare from his father, a Maratha soldier, who loses his life in one of the many battles against Mughals but not before passing on the proverbial baton to his son. Now, it is Tanhaji (a stoic Ajay Devgn) who picks up the fight for Swaraj, Sach, and Shivaji Maharaj, in that order.
Tanhaji, the trusted lieutenant of Chhatrapati Shivaji (an impressive Sharad Kelkar), vows to reclaim the Kondhana fort from the hands of the vicious Uday Bhan Singh Rathore (a happily-hamming Saif Ali Khan), a representative of the Mughal empire lead by Aurangzeb (Luke Kelly). There is no contesting what happened because it is well-documented.
It was a less-than-evenly contested battle. There was treachery as is common in battles. There was death. There was a winner. And then 350 years later, Ajay Devgn decided to retell this story for his 100th film. While it is interesting to see the iconic Kacche Dhaage-Omkara duo on the opposite ends of a visually rich battle, the not-so-subtle subtext is unsettling.
In Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, Ajay suffers from a classic case of Padmaavat-itis where the villain is more enterprising than the hero. Though Tanhaji, a true Hindu, is virtuous, god-fearing, dutiful, loyal, and an embodiment of sugar, no spice but everything nice, we are hardly invested in his emotions. Though he puts up a valiant fight for the Kondhana fort, Tanhaji has a hard time fighting off the uni-dimensional nature of his character. Kajol, as Tanhaji’s wife, Savitribai, matches her husband in resolve, but her arc isn’t fleshed out enough in this hyper-masculine film.
On the other end, we have the kohl-eyed, alligator-meat-loving, wife-snatching, elephant-trunk-cutting, sadistic Uday Bhan. He gets to shout a person to death, dance a person to death, heck even gets the better weapon to send Maratha warriors to death. Uday Bhan not only gets to use a massive phallic cannon, he also gets a sword that has a hilt which doubles up as a dagger and a hammer.
Incidentally, why should a Hindu Rajput be Khiljified to make him a villain? However, credit to the makers for getting away with that obnoxious line about how Shivaji’s sword protects a women’s ghoonghat and a Brahmin’s janeu. It is such small mercies that balance out jingoistic chest-thumping and overt masculinity parading as allegiance to the Bhagwa flag.
While the subtext is unsettling, as mentioned before, it is hard to overlook the visual spectacle that Tanhaji is. This Om Raut directorial is one of the very few Hindi films that uses 3D well. While it does help that Tanhaji is basically a series of battles, full points for not making the 3D effects just a gimmick by sending arrows flying towards us.
We also see piercing spears, dying embers, galloping hooves, slashing swords, and my personal favourite, a flaming coconut. Even the protracted battle sequences are treated with a very folk-tale-ish feel, in a good way. A sequence involving bamboo stems and scaling walls might seem science-defying but is an inventive idea, especially in 3D. Also, credit to the dialogues, which are not only filled with nationalistic fervour but score high emotionally too.
In Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, we get to see iconic warriors of India shed tears copiously. We get to see jingoism masked as Maratha valour.
There are a lot of things going for Tanhaji, but, deep inside, it is unsettling to see such polarising historical dramas.
Can we look at these films in a vacuum? Is it possible to overlook the war cries in times like this? And will all the opposing opinions be silenced and branded anti-national? What’s the point of all the josh if there is only khamosh in return?
'Tanhaji The Unsung Warrior'
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, Kajol, Sharad Kelkar, Luke Kenny
Direction: Om Raut