Samrat Prithviraj Review: Lost in resurrection and contradictions

All other quibbles aside, Samrat Prithviraj is most interesting but concurrently unconvincing in its contrived feminist reinterpretation of the times, particularly in the light of the practice of sati

Akshay Kumar in Samrat Prithviraj
Akshay Kumar in Samrat Prithviraj

Namrata Joshi

There are elements in Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Samrat Prithviraj that come as no shock or surprise. The enemy Muhammad Ghori (Manav Vij) and his people in Afghanistan portrayed as an uncivilized tribe of brutes with their perverse justice system and kangaroo courts as opposed to the brave and righteous upholders of dharma—in religious, moralistic, militaristic, judicial and every other sense of the term—on the Indian side, the kesariya (saffron colour) drenched frames, a soundscape awash with war cries and mantr uchharan (religious chants) and the placard in the finale ruing the end of Hindu rashtra with the death of the last Hindu emperor Prithviraj Chauhan (Akshay Kumar), underscoring how the country was subsequently marauded by “Outsiders” and how it took 700 odd years for the nation to finally reclaim itself in 1947.

There can be no reason to doubt that Dwivedi’s film is an out and out eulogy for the Rajput king, deriving from Chand Bardai’s “Prithviraj Raso”. In fact, Sonu Sood as Bardai in the film keeps giving cues for audience empathy for the king, even as he seems to have signed a death pact with him.

That aside, when it comes to the second battle with Ghori near Delhi, Prithviraj can do no wrong and Ghori can do no right. It is Ghori who is shown going against the rules of engagement with his devious ways. And no, Prithviraj doesn’t flee the battlefield to later get captured and executed. He has a superhuman, gladiatorial finale mounted all for himself wherein he saves his people even with his dying breath.

The jury will remain out on how much of the film is history or fantasy. Especially telling in the light of the daft talk by Akshay Kumar on history and its teaching, learning, and reading and Yashraj Films’ patronizing infantilization of the audience in the promotions with its claim to authenticity and its portrayal of “lesser-known facets” about Prithviraj.

All I could think of was Hollywood, in the way these scenes are imagined, mounted, and executed. However, the special effects and CGI, specially in the opening shot and the following sequence leave a lot to be desired. Be they crowd scenes or war sequences or song-n-dance set pieces, there is a cardboard flat and tacky feel than any sense of life. Dwivedi seems to resort to slow motion ever so often to make things feel slick, unsuccessfully at that.

He also tries hard to marry his celebration of masculinity with the tropes of a musical but doesn’t quite hit the right notes. At times Samrat Prithviraj seems like belonging to a wannabe Sanjay Leela Bhansali universe—decorated, choreographed but lacking drama, flair and energy of Bhansali and needlessly protracted at that with all the actors serving their parts fairly, but a dullness hanging heavy through it all.

There are small mercies. Unlike an out and out demonization of Allauddin Khilji by Bhansali in Padmaavat, Dwivedi plays safe by not dwelling too much on Ghori. In fact, he keeps Ghori at bay for a large chunk of the movie. Instead, he focuses on the internecine conflicts and internal rivalry amongst the Rajputs as the real reason for the downfall at the hands of the foreign intruder.

But what’s most interesting is the portrayal of Sanyogita (Manushi Chhillar) and how she is positioned in the male universe. Dancing in her bellowing ghaghra, flirting with the emperor through her letters, questioning her father and lover alike, having her own voice and mind. The woman has a right to love and marry whoever she wants to and you can’t play politics with her wedding, the film says. Prithviraj himself is shown to be a feminist, giving his wife a place in the

darbar, underlining equality and respect in all possible ways. She is not just an object of desire or the one to sire your progenies, he says. So where to situate the unsettling tradition of sati in this seemingly progressive world? Dwivedi portrays Jauhar as though it was like fighting a battle, turning the woman into a dancing warrior, choosing her own death than getting claimed by the enemy.

Tough to buy that. For me the inherent contradiction loomed large and felt unconvincing. This seeming feminist reinterpretation gives the film its most persuasive moments on screen but also feels like a defensive resurrection (if you chose to be polite in describing it), or a total whitewash (if you want to be blatant) of an otherwise patriarchal, feudal, conservative, and regressive body politic. Is the film flattering to deceive while wearing a contrived feminism on its sleeve? I am still debating as I write this piece.

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