Express press service
Was Prithviraj Chauhan, at the end of the 12th century, kidnapped by Ghazni, blinded in both eyes, chained and forced to fight three live lions in a medieval amphitheater? I do not know. Indeed, if the historical accuracy of the above footage has any consequence for you, you are probably not Samrat Prithviraj’s intended audience. The film states at the outset that it is based on “folk” and “literary” sources, primarily the epic poem Prithviraj Raso. Additionally, the poem’s author, Chand Bardai, is present in most of the scenes. So it’s never quite clear whether what’s happening on screen is real or the product of some imaginative mind. Respect, not accuracy, is an immediate concern for writer-director Chandraprakash Dwivedi.
A poster of Samrat Prithviraj had described the revered warrior king as the last Hindu emperor of India. The title track, Hari Har, written by Varun Grover, compares it to ‘Mohan’, ‘Arjun’ and, most amazingly, ‘Dashanan’ (another name for the ten-headed devotee Ravana). Played by Akshay Kumar, this pious and valiant king does not disappoint anyone. He is goodness incarnate. When Mir Hussain, the brother of the Ghurid dynasty ruler Muhammad Ghori, comes to seek refuge in his court, Prithviraj happily agrees. That’s not all. After defeating the brutal 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) – belong to an (unnamed) martial caste. They wear saffron headgear and accoutrements and often refer to their “dharma”. What’s interesting amidst the images is how Dwivedi recasts this religiosity in somewhat progressive terms. “It is my duty to give asylum to the needy,” retorted Prithviraj, when asked about granting refuge to Mir Hussain. His kindness transcends orthodoxy and communal divides. At the same time, however, there is a slight suspicion that this very warmth, this royal generosity, will be rewarded with damage. This happens when Ghori (Manav Vij) returns for a second attack and takes Prithviraj prisoner via stealth (read “deceitful”) means.
Between the two battle sequences, both lavishly choreographed and shot, the film’s pace slows. Much of the narrative is taken up with petty domestic skirmishes sparked by Prithviraj’s union with Princess Kannauj Sanyogita. Manushi Chhillar, in his debut in Bollywood, spends the first hour waiting for his “king”, then defends women’s rights in court in Ajmer. His clashes with an internal sarpanch recall a similar plot device in Jodha Akbar (2008), although unlike that film there is no palpable chemistry between the protagonists. Towards the end when the news comes that the Rajput side has been ambushed and captured, Sanyogita with fiery assurance leads several women to Jauhar (self-immolation). So much for equal rights.
Akshay plays Prithviraj with the same relaxed nobility of his social films. There is better camaraderie between Sanjay Dutt and the other warriors than when Prithviraj is around. Sonu Sood, whose eyes turn redder from the scene, is never dull. And whoever thought of making Manoj Joshi an intriguing middleman deserves praise. The production design and set extensions are impressive, though the same compositions and angles from DOP Manush Nandan are mind-numbing. 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, onlookers in the Afghan amphitheater begin chanting his name, shouting “Zindabad.” Exhibit A. Next, a title card appears on a black screen, informing that the murder of Prithviraj by Ghori banished 755 years of Hindu rule in northern India. Exhibit B. Combine the two exhibits and you have Yash Raj Studios trying to survive in the polarized climate of 2022.
Movie: Samrat Prithviraj
Starring: Akshay Kumar, Manushi Chhillar, Sanjay Dutt, Manav Vij, Sonu Sood
Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi