Tanhaji: The period film that attacked history
For filmmakers who think times are ripe to paint medieval India as a battlefield where Hindus were seeking to expel Muslims, the movie Tanhaji signifies the challenge, as it has to Islamise and paint as a beast Udaybhan Rajput, a Rajput commander of the Mughals.
Ajay Devgn-starrer Tanhaji has sought to relive the battle of Singhgarh, not just cinematically but also metaphorically. The battle, fought by Maratha king Shivaji's loyal warrior Tanhaji Malusare to recapture a fort held by the Mughals, was a difficult one. Finally, Tanhaji lost his life but the Marathas captured the fort.
The movie has also won the battle at the box office but has lost the battle for historical veracity, ending up caricaturing the past. It is a movie that engages in form -- the war scenes are decent, albeit with gravity-defying human flights -- but collapses in terms of content.
The problem here isn't the filmmaker's craft. Rather, it is the attempt to box historical complexities into a neat, Hindutva, narrative that proves to be the film's undoing.
What is the core argument of the movie? Tanhaji is wedded to Shivaji's idea of Swaraj (self-rule). He offers to lead a most dangerous expedition to recapture Kondana fort, guarded by the Rajput warrior Udaybhan Rathore, from the Mughals.
Historically, this battle, which took place in 1670, ended in a victory for the Maratha army, which is believed to have climbed a cliff to take on a larger Mughal force. The battle was a tough one. Apart from the larger army of the enemy, the Marathas had to take on Rathore, a little-known but formidable warrior.
Positivistic accounts of history say there was a long duel between Rathore and Tanhaji, and the latter lost his life. Immediately afterwards, an injured Rathore was attacked and put to death by the Marathas, who finally took the strategic fort.
But this "factual" account isn't in sync with the film's larger worldview.
The worldview is this: the Marathas are trying to secure Swaraj (self-rule) for India, which lies in the thrall of the alien Mughals. It tries to project nationalism, a modern phenomenon, into medieval times, just more than a century before the first warriors of independence in 1857 named the last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar the Shehenshah of Hindustan.
And this proto-nationalism is Hindu at the core, as per the movie. So, the climb from script-writing to production is understandably treacherous.
The story, predictably, hits a roadblock: a "Hindu" commander fought another "Hindu" commander in the battle. So, how to deal with Udaybhan Rathore has been the film's headache. Should he -- a Rajput warrior -- be branded anti-Hindu and a Mughal collaborator? But who would risk the ire of Hindus in north India?
The film could have been honest to the past and proclaimed that the medieval state was an entity that had its nobility drawn across communities. Akbar's commander was Raja Man Singh even when his adversary was Maharana Pratap, a king who led a valiant, almost lyrical, life. Aurangzeb's commander was Jai Singh, even as he faced challenges from the Marathas under Shivaji and the Sikhs under Guru Gobind Singh.
These alliances made histories messy, as they always are. They resist straitjackets.
But the film is intent on painting the past as a grand battle between Muslim rulers and Hindu warriors willing to lose everything for "Swaraj".
Udaybhan is the roadblock to this simplistic narrative.
The film takes the easy way out, reminiscent of the term "jugaad" in colloquial Hindi.
It Islamises Udaybhan, the Rajput, and also makes him a beast. Nothing in his dress suggests he is Hindu. He looks every inch the Muslim warrior. He is also a beast. He eats crocodiles, a scene even beating the large pieces of meat consumed by the Khaljis in Padmawat. And beating them by miles. In all such, recent, movies, Hindu warriors are never seen eating anything non-vegetarian.
Udaybhan Rathore is reconstructed, as it were, to fit the weak plot. He, we are told, fell in love with a girl from a Rajput royal family in his younger days. She was his childhood friend but rejected him, both because he was just from a feudal, and not royal, family, but also because his mother was "not up to the mark". We aren't told how. We are just shown a rare human streak in Udaybhan, as he embraces his mother with tears in his eyes. She faces away from the camera but her dress suggests she isn't Muslim. Was she from a "low" caste? We don't know.
Then Udaybhan, played with elan by Saif Ali Khan, is shown walking alone in the desert. A voice in the background announces that he left his village and was not heard of after that, till a few years later when he came back with the Mughal army, captured the palace, made his childhood beloved prisoner and kept her in custody wherever he went.
This flashback scene is Udaybhan's metaphorical expulsion as a Hindu. From here on, he is the only individual in the movie with no primordial ties.
He isn't Hindu. When Hindus sing and dance to celebrate a festival at the Kondana fort -- the one day when people from outside are permitted entry -- Udaybhan looks at them, enjoying with an air of obvious amusement. He isn't a devotee. He is just hedonistic.
The protagonist Tanhaji relentlessly declares and explains what Marathas are. The woman Udaybhan kidnapped asks the antagonist to fear bhagwan (god), even as he is seen to smirk. The woman's brother requests Tanhaji for help to rescue his sister, promising that he as a Rajput would never attack a Maratha if such help was forthcoming.
But Udaybhan, Aurungzeb's dehumanized and dehinduised commander, never says in the movie that he is a Rajput or a Hindu. He often says aloud that he will destroy the idea of Swaraj.
He does not believe in God, it seems. He also lacks humanity. He has a smirk on his face as its defining expression. When he is made to believe that his beloved has agreed to marry him -- a trap laid by Tanhaji -- Udaybhan dresses up like a proper, "Muslim-looking", groom, with Muslim soldiers dancing around him.
All these make the movie a caricature of serious cinema. It confronts the difficult truth that Mughal commanders were often Rajput not by rethinking its problematic Hindu-Muslim binary but by Islamising the Rajput antagonist. And also dehumanising him.
The Hindutva narrative seems headed for a difficult battle here, with the movie seeming a losing, yet loud, warrior. And even as it is cheered on by many who love the past without caring to read it, the narrative in Tanhaji collapses when exposed to reason.
The Marathas finally reclaim Swaraj and reclaim the fort, after Udaybhan is thrown off the fort, and is shown laughing as he falls to death. But the movie loses the battle to qualify as meaningful cinema.
Can an engaging movie also be a bad movie? Yes, it can. Watch Tanhaji to see how.