Kriti Sanon (center) shines in “Panipat.” (photo provided)

MUMBAI — Historical films are dicey propositions for filmmakers. Alongside the grandeur and spectacle must come the content, preferably relatable to contemporary times, and since delving into research can be endlessly interesting and illuminating, a little extension of running time is always — I dare to use the word — mandatory.

It is in the last mentioned aspect that “Panipat” may be faulted. Not that the narration bores, but keeping in mind the contemporary preferences of the audience, perhaps the film could have been curtailed to 150 minutes instead of 171! The script could have eschewed something that was of lesser importance, or maybe the duration of the final — and admittedly spectacularly shot — battle.

The detailing is meticulous, and but for the occasional look of Kriti Sanon, transports the viewer to that era (1761 is when it all happened). In fact, viewers like me will be surprised to know a slice of history suppressed or / and ignored by history books—that there was a time when the Marathas ruled a major chunk of India, including Delhi, and that the Sikhs, as per their credo, valiantly supported them.

Gowariker makes contemporary statements, like how Indians will always fight among themselves, talks of ‘gat-bandhan’ (political alliances) and betrayal, and other trenchant points that are best experienced within the film in context. We have Sadashivrao (Arjun Kapoor) promising his queen Parvatibai (from a commoner Brahmin family) that he will never bring back a mistress or second wife from battle like Bajirao did, and taking a pledge later from her that if he dies, she will not commit ‘sati.’

Power struggles and political bargaining also form a watchable part of the film. The film’s release, by default of course, could not have been timed more correctly—the final betrayal mentioned in the film’s title instantly reminds us of what happened in Maharashtra’s politics in the last month!

At base, the film narrates a simple saga of the bravery of the Peshwas, and Sadashivrao’s vision of a united India by taking on the Afghans who have come in and keeping the Moghul empire in Delhi in place. It all starts when the warrior is “demoted” to being in charge of finance (as the queen fears he will take over the throne from her husband who regards him very highly, and leave her son nowhere!). Sadashivrao wants the revenue due from conquered kingdoms to come, sends reminders to all, and upsets the moghuls in Delhi who want to decimate the Maratha sweep.

In the end, Ahmed Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt), the Afghan brought in to break the Marathas, even tries to bargain with the idealistic Sadashivrao. Before that, as his men fall to the far-less-in-numbers Maratha-led army, Abdali even comments, “Lagta hai mera Khuda bhi unnke saath hai (Looks like even my God is siding with them)!”

Technically, the film is up there, with the best of camerawork (C.K. Muraleedharan), production design (Nitin Chandrakant Desai), VFX, DI and so on. The sweep is majestic, the background score largely impressive but occasionally alarmingly conventional. The lyrics have a surfeit of references to nature (a Javed Akhtar habit even when not indicated!) even in patriotic numbers, and the songs are average (both songs and BGM by Ajay-Atul). I liked “Mard Maratha” though, and welcome the fact that all the songs are sung by proper playback singers and not female crooners or high-pitched male voices.

Gowariker maintains his placid pace, but does not bore us the way he did in “Swades,” “Jodhaa Akbar” and “Mohenjo-Daro” besides his other washouts—this is his best work, without doubt, after “Lagaan” 18 years ago. He extracts good to great performances from his cast, though Padmini Kolhapure is too typically melodramatic and vicious (a hark-back to the ‘bad’ women in Marathi tearjerkers of the 1960s), and Zeenat Aman’s face is studiedly impassive. I particularly liked Ravindra Mahajani as Holkar, Kunal Shashi Kapoor as Shuja-ud-Daula,  Sahil Salathia as Shamsher, Bajirao and Mastani’s son, Mantar as Najeeb-ud-Daula and Nawab Shah as Ibrahim Khan Gardi.

Sanjay Dutt is a disappointment, largely because of his routine delivery of lines that needed to have more impact. In some case, we feel he is delivering more as if he is acting as Munna Bhai, the good-hearted ruffian. A more menacing and convincing choice here would have worked wonders.

The film, though Arjun Kapoor shines in his finest performance since “2 States,” and acts with great sincerity, belongs to Kriti Sanon. She is—in one word—dazzling. Impeccable Marathi lines, decidedly perfect expressions and nuances, and she etches a fascinatingly authentic character that will be remembered long after the film is over. Among the actors, “Panipat” belongs to Kriti Sanon more than anyone else!

However, Gowariker deserves a minus for Kriti’s voiceover. As a narrative device, it is faulty because the animated narration from scene one ends in an absurd way. A regular commentator, since one was needed, would have served far better.

That said, “Panipat—The Great Betrayal” deserves to be watched at all levels. Historicals (“Bajirao Mastani,” “Padmaavat,” “Kesari”) have been having a great run of late, and Gowariker must be lauded for making sure his film and all its action is decidedly different from not only those films but also from the fictional “Bahubali” franchise. For this, as well as for bringing us an unknown and neglected part of Maratha and Indian history, his team and he should be thanked.

Rating: ***1/2

Produced by: Sunita Gowariker & Rohit Shelatkar

Directed by: Ashutosh Gowariker

Written by: Chandrashekhar Dhavalkar, Ranjeet Bahadur, Aditya Rawal and Ashutosh Gowariker

Music: Ajay-Atul

Starring: Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Zeenat Aman, Padmini Kolhapure, Mohnish Bahl, Kunal Kapoor, Gashmeer Mahajani, Milind Gunaji, Ravindra Mahajani, Mantra, Abhishek Nigam, Nawab Shah, Sahil Salathai, Suhasini Mulay, S.M. Zaheer & others

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