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Samrat Prithviraj is a historical play that does justice to neither its source nor its subject. The Chandraprakash Dwivedi film attempts to revive cultural nationalism, but fails to serve the purpose of those looking to reap the past for a political harvest. Despite the best of intentions, the big-budget company fails to provide a true insight into the minds of Prithviraj and Ghori, nor does it succeed in recreating the spectacular poetry of war and valor on the big screen. The handsome king galloping off with his bride, her knight in shining armor, has an ancient Indian context: Prithviraj Chauhan, ruler of Ajmer in the early 12th century, claimed Rajkumari Sanyogita after she had lost her heart to him . Details of this love story are recorded in Prithivaj Raso, written by Chand Bardai, who is said to have been the poet laureate of Prithviraj. The beautiful princess was not only saved from the wrath of her father, the traitor Jaichand; The power of the Mughals was held in check until his last breath, so brave was Prithviraj. After a while, Dwivedi seems to lose sight of the historical context of the story and instead focuses on popular sentiment. In a story set in the 12th century, when the country was divided into kingdoms that put their self-interest first, he repeatedly invokes Hindu sentiments. But Dwivedi’s attention to detail shows in his costumes, production design, and the construction of forts and palaces. However, there’s nothing new in the war scenes – just a repeat of what we’ve seen before. There is little insight into Ghurid strategy or motivation, save for a line about how Native Americans love their motherland too much that they have to cheat to win.
This is a popular legend that most Indians will vividly remember from their childhood. But there’s never been a better time to make a movie out of it: muscular nationalism is at its peak, and around every corner we’re reminded of the atrocities of the Mughal invaders who ‘trampled on our temples and turned them into mosques’ . Samrat Prithviraj, in which Akshay Kumar plays the title character, wastes no time in telling us that he was the “last Hindu king”: after him came centuries of oppression that only ended after India’s independence in 1947. Was Chandraprakash Dwivedi managed to polish the legend to match the prevailing national mood: Prithviraj is representative of a Bharat when it was primordial, pure and unpolluted. How did a director who also directed the amazingly subversive “Mohalla Assi” pull off this switcheroo? (Dwivedi has said on record that this is his passion project and he’s been trying to get it off the ground for a decade and more). Or is it just a matter of convenience? Dwivedi is also a filmmaker who knows how to dramatize situations. The two and a half hour running time of ‘Samrat Prithviraj’ is all high pitched drama, row upon row of costumes in place, huge proportions filling the screen. Mohammad Ghori (Manav Vij) is the main antagonist, and while he’s not shown as much of a thoroughbred monster as Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji in Padmavat, he can narrow his eyes and punch a man when he’s down, as befits these insidious invaders. The question is: given the nature of the film, does it work? A room like a Roman arena in which a badly wounded Prithviraj fights beasts both four-legged and two-legged is a showstopper that crowns and rounds off the film: there are few other impactful moments in between, notably the one where the ‘dilwala takes’ his “dulhaniya” gone.
But at no point is the plot or any character given any significant respite, so she is intent on glorifying her subject matter: Chand Bardai (Sonu Sood) has more fervor in his gaze than Prithviraj’s lover (Manasi Chhillar, who comes across as more contemporary than period and leaves little effect). Sanjay Dutt’s Kaka Kanha, whose undying allegiance to Prithviraj is tested more than once, fulfills the dual duties of court jester and loving uncle: how do you make a mainstream film without a comic book character? And then there’s Ashutosh Rana as Jaichand, whose name has long been synonymous with traitors, and Sakshi Tanwar as his talkative wife, who carry their scenes but are treated more gently than they deserve because, hey, we know who that is is Here are real villains.
Not only does Prithviraj’s bravery make him a combination of Bhishma and Bheem (in the words of the ever-worshipping Bardai), he also becomes an early feminist, inadvertently writing comical lines in support of women in general and his sanyogita in particular that he has says he is encouraged to share his throne and listen to the people. Did anyone else feel any dissonance as the same sword-wielding ‘Veeranganas’ leaped to their deaths and committed ‘Jauhar’? That lets Akshay do his thing: cleave through ‘dushman fauj’ (enemy soldiers), twirl in song and dance, repel the inexorable advance of the treacherous outsiders. As befits its simple, nuanced tone, the film is loud and garish, vacillating between dialogue-baazi and mellow, while remaining resolutely true to its stated purpose.
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