After making his debut with a romantic thriller ‘Pehla Nasha’ (1994) and following it up with an action thriller ‘Baazi’ (1995), actor-turned-filmmaker took a brief pause and pondered for a while to figure out the kind of story he really wanted to tell. Both the two films were inspired from Hollywood hits and now, he decided that he would like to be known as a filmmaker with an original voice. After facing a lot of challenges, he managed to his historical sports drama film ‘Lagaan’ (2001) on the floors and the rest, as they say, is history. History is the key word here. The filmmaker has a passion for reading about history and thus, a few of his films he directed thereafter – ‘Jodhaa Akbaar’, ‘Mohenjo Daro’ and now, ‘Panipat’ take the audience through a part of Indian history which has not been portrayed earlier on the big screen. His new film ‘Panipat’, featuring Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon and Sanjay Dutt, among others, in principal roles, is based on the Third Battle of Panipat, fought between the Marathas and the Afghans.
It’s the year 1760 and the Maratha rule as its peak. The Maratha army, led by Sadashivrao Bhau (Arjun Kapoor), manage to capture the Udgiri Fort earlier in possession of the Nizamshahi rulers and now, they have another important conquest to boast of. A fair-minded Sadashiv Rao even decides to induct the army members of the Nizamshahi rulers into the Peshwa army as they believe they possess skills which could help them strengthen their own army. Back home, Nana Saheb Peshwa (Mohnish Bahl) is extremely pleased with the way Sadashiv led the Maratha army towards victory. His wife Gopika Bai (Padmini Kolhapure), though, is not very happy with the kind of importance and reverence Sadashiv is getting by her husband and the Marathas around. Gopika fears Sadashiv will be made to sit on the throne in the future and her son Vishwas Rao (Abhishek Nigam) will end up getting a raw deal. Owing to the pressure put on him by his wife, Nana Saheb makes Sadashiv the finance minister and decides to keep him away from the battlefield for the time being. In the meantime, Sadashiv, who was initially wary of getting married, settles down with Parvati Bai (Kriti Sanon), who has been in love with him since the time they were children. The Marathas are enjoying a lot of authority in the country and have good support from rulers from different parts of the country. Everything is going well until that one day when the Maratha clan realises that Ahmad Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt), a powerful ruler from Afghan, under the persuasion and support of Najid-Ud-Daula (Mantra), is out to capture Delhi. Sadashiv gets an opportunity to get back on the battlefield with his army again.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s last film ‘Mohenjo Daro’ was based on a chapter in history which one knew very little about. Because of that, the director took a lot of creative liberties while recreating the era the film was set in. The filmmaker received some flak from a certain section of the audience for the same and the film, largely, received a tepid response. This time, they had enough material available with them to do research on. Of course, even while making a film taking certain liberties becomes unavoidable and the disclaimer/note at the beginning of the film states the same. It is important not to deviate from the world the film is set in while weaving in a fictionalised story around it. Gowariker does the same here very skilfully. He has an eye for detail as evident by most of the films he had directed in the past. He makes it a point to bring in a sense of authenticity to the milieu his film is set in and makes sure each and every character is fleshed out properly. He plays to his strengths here again and unlike, his last three films, manages to narrate the story in a very coherent manner. In the (almost) three-hour runtime of the film, you are served with lots of information but Gowariker and his team of writers (Chandrashekhar Dhavalikar, Ranjeet Bahadur, Aditya Rawal, Ashok Chakradhar and Gowariker himself) make sure that, at no point, the information comes across as too overwhelming or difficult to process for the audience. Most of the events, as depicted in the film, manage to arrest your attention as a viewer. The tone of the film is set in the very first scene and the momentum continues well till the very first frame.
Talking of negatives, the dialogue is inconsistent at times. While the Maratha characters speak in chaste Hindi and in Marathi at times, there are times when they use Urdu words – Parvati using the word ‘khaas’ (when Sadashiv comes back home with his army after winning the war), Sadashiv saying ‘taqleefein’ (when he sees Parvati bringing in a large number of food items and other things with her on their way to Delhi) or the use of the word ‘zanjeerein’ in the song ‘Mard Maratha’. The pace dips slightly in the second at certain portions when the narrative becomes a bit verbose and one awaits a sense of heightened drama to kick in.
Arjun Kapoor delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Sadashiv Rao Bhau. He understands the gravitas of the man he is portraying on the screen and does justice to him. There is very little information available about Parvati Bai in the historical documents but the writing team has done a very good job at fleshing out her character. Kriti Sanon looks ethereally beautiful in traditional Maharashtrian attire and gets enough scope to get the audience’s attention to her prowess. She gets a bunch of difficult scenes to play around with again and yet again, the actress delivers a knock-out performance. Sanjay Dutt delivers a decent performance as Ahmad Shah Abdali. His character should have been etched out better and there is not much he brings on the table as an actor either. Mohnish Bahl is brilliant as Nana Saheb Peshwa. His diction, intonation, body language – everything is impactful. Padmini Kolhapure’s performance is fair. Zeenat Aman leaves an impact in her one-scene cameo.
Ajay-Atul’s music is good and creates a very strong impact with the visuals. All the three songs have been picturised very well. Nitin Chandrakant Desai, who had put together some splendid artwork for Gowariker’s earlier films, does a very good as a production designer here again. He, along with cinematographer Muraleedharan C K, make sure that each and every frame in the film looks good. Of course, a part of the credit goes to the VFX team (AGPPL VFX) which makes sure that the visual effects do not look tacky. The costumes (Neeta Lulla) add to the visual splendour of the film. The editing (Steven Bernard) is good but could have been crisper in the second half.
‘Panipat’ is the best film directed by Ashutosh Gowariker since ‘Jodhaa Akbar’. The filmmaker had been going through a rough patch in his career since the last couple of years and with this film, he proves that he has the talent and the desire to continue making quality cinema. He might have erred with his last few outings but this film should get him back in the game. Dexterous storytelling meets visual splendour in Panipat.