Was Prithviraj Chauhan, in the late 12th century, abducted to Ghazni, blinded in both eyes, placed in chains, and made to battle three live lions in a medieval amphitheatre? I don't know. Indeed, if the historical accuracy of the above sequence is of any consequence to you, you're probably not the intended audience for Samrat Prithviraj.
The film states up front that it's based on 'folklore' and 'literary' sources, mainly the epic poem Prithviraj Raso. Also, the poem's writer, Chand Bardai, is present in most scenes. So, it's never quite clear if what's unfolding on screen is for real, or a figment of an imaginative mind. Reverence, not accuracy, is of immediate concern to writer-director Chandraprakash Dwivedi.
A poster of Samrat Prithviraj had described the venerated warrior king as India's last Hindu emperor. The title song, Hari Har, written by Varun Grover, compares him to 'Mohan', 'Arjun' and, most stunningly, 'Dashanan' (another name for the devout, ten-headed Ravana).
As played by Akshay Kumar, this pious and valiant king doesn't disappoint in person. He is goodness incarnate. When Mir Hussain, the brother of Ghurid dynasty ruler Muhammad Ghori, comes seeking refuge in his court, Prithviraj happily assents. That's not all. After defeating the brutish Ghori in the First Battle of Tarain, he spares his enemy's life, urging him to show bravery next time, not cowardice.
Prithviraj's virtues are inextricably linked to his religion. The king and his samants - led by the figure of Kaka Kanha (Sanjay Dutt) - are of a martial caste (unnamed). They wear saffron headgear and accouterments, and frequently reference their 'dharma'.
What's interesting, amid the imagery, is how Dwivedi recasts this religiosity in somewhat progressive terms. "It's my dharm to give asylum to the needy," Prithviraj retorts, when questioned on granting Mir Hussain refuge.
His goodness transcends orthodoxy and communal divides. At the same time, though, there's a niggling suspicion that this very warmth, this kingly generosity, will be repaid in harm. This happens when Ghori (Manav Vij) returns for a second attack, and takes Prithviraj prisoner via stealthy (read 'deceitful') means.
Between the two battle sequences, both sumptuously choreographed and shot, the film dwindles in pace. A bulk of the narrative is occupied by the petty domestic skirmishes sparked off by Prithviraj's union with Kannauj princess Sanyogita. Manushi Chhillar, in her Bollywood debut, spends the first hour expectantly waiting for her 'king', and then bats for women's rights in the Ajmer court.
Her clashes with an in-house sarpanch recall a similar plot device in Jodha Akbar (2008), though, unlike that film, there's no palpable chemistry between the leads. Towards the end, when news arrives the Rajput side has been ambushed and captured, Sanyogita, with fiery self-assurance, leads several women into Jauhar (self-immolation). So much for equal rights.
Akshay plays Prithviraj with the same relaxed nobility of his social-issue films. There is better camaraderie between Sanjay Dutt and the other warriors than when Prithviraj is around. Sonu Sood, his eyes getting redder by the scene, is never dull.
And whoever thought of casting Manoj Joshi as a scheming go-between deserves praise. The production design and set extensions are impressive, though DoP Manush Nandan's same compositions and angles have a stultifying effect. At one point, briefly, the action shifts to Kannauj (in present-day UP), and the difference in architecture and clothing is hard to tell.
In the final scene, as Prithviraj's body is carried away in an orange robe, the spectators in the Afghan amphitheatre start chanting his name, shouting 'Zindabad'. Exhibit A. Then, a title card appears on a black screen, informing that Prithviraj's slaying by Ghori banished 755 years of Hindu rule in North India. Exhibit B. Combine both exhibits, and you get Yash Raj Studios trying to survive in the polarised climate of 2022.
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Manushi Chhillar, Sanjay Dutt, Manav Vij, Sonu Sood
Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi