Samrat Prithviraj movie review: Akshay Kumar’s film puts all its might behind a Hindu rashtra

Samrat Prithviraj movie review: Akshay Kumar’s film puts all its might behind a Hindu rashtra

Samrat Prithviraj movie review: Akshay Kumar’s film puts all its might behind a Hindu rashtra

Language: Hindi

Given the discourse around Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Samrat Prithviraj in the last few days, I shouldn’t be surprised by the text insert displayed in the film’s final moments. And yet, I find myself surprised and even mildly irritated. The text insert reads how after Prithviraj Chauhan’s death at the hands of Muhammad Ghori, “Bharat” gained independence from “outsiders” only 755 years later, in 1947. We’ve witnessed the steady saffronisation of mainstream Hindi cinema, but even that didn’t prepare me for how candidly Samrat Prithviraj ‘otherises’ a significant chunk of the Indian population. Dwivedi’s film narrows down the definition of an Indian as a “Hindu”. No wonder it’s getting the endorsement from BJP minister Narottam Mishra and chief minister Yogi Adityanath - who has declared the film to be ‘tax-free’ in his state of Uttar Pradesh.

Only last week, Akshay Kumar was seen pleading in an interview about how history textbooks need to be ‘corrected’ given how little information they have of ‘our kings’ compared to the Mughals. Kumar implies Hindu kings, but doesn’t say it in as many words. He refers to Muslim rulers as “invaders” and bemoans how hardly anything is taught about the Maharajas of “our culture”.

It’s probably no coincidence that a relatively ‘apolitical’ actor like Kumar said such provocative things in an interview, merely days before the release of his period epic with a reported budget of Rs 250 crore. In the famous words that were once said: Aap chronology samajhiye.

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Releasing only months after SS Rajamouli’s RRR, a film that also wasn’t shy about showering its audience with Hindu iconography, Kumar’s film is a 135-minute spiel on “veerta” (valour), “kaayarta” (cowardice) and “dharm” (religion/duty). Manav Vij, who played a similarly vicious Muslim in Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan (albeit under completely different circumstances) is unfortunately tasked with playing the kohl-eyed, backstabbing ‘Sultan’ from Ghazni. He doesn’t even get the lines or the care that Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji got in Padmaavat (2018) and neither does Vij have fun with his screen time like Saif Ali Khan’s Udaybhan (also dressed in black and similarly kohl-eyed) in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020).

Kumar, who has for some time been the poster boy of Hindutva politics, makes one of his most bald films advocating Hindu pride. Kumar has earlier made films championing the tricolour & patriotism, but this is probably a first even for him. And unlike RRR (or for that matter even Baahubali films) Prithviraj unfolds like a straightforward sequence of Wikipedia entries: early childhood, first battle, marriage, second battle, death, legacy. Kumar, who loves playing saviour (someone refers to him as purushottam during his entry in the film), spends half of the film repeatedly raising his right hand to stop loyal soldiers from killing messengers, conveying a threat. In a scene, because Prithviraj is the epitome of humanity, he releases the Sultan from his captivity and asks him to return. At the time, I remember thinking Prithviraj surely doesn’t put the ‘smart’ in ‘Samrat’.

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Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar makes her acting debut here as Sanyogita, the better half of Prithviraj. There’s a cruel irony between Chhillar being handed scenes with (surely?) revisionist gender politics, where she stands up for equal rights and paints Prithviraj as a feminist, even as her character remains a wallflower till the end of the film. Right before an important plot point, I hoped Sanyogita would be at least given one truthful scene – where she acts like a real human being, and where she’s not either pining for her man or going on a third-wave feminism tirade. At this crucial juncture comes… a song. I assume that’s the extent to which mainstream cinema can perceive ‘depth’ for a good-looking woman on screen, giving her an extra song to dance to.

I felt particularly bad for Sonu Sood – an actor who was hailed as a superhero only last year for his philanthropy initiatives, is still playing a supporting character like the one he played in Jodhaa Akbar, fourteen years ago. Ashutosh Rana playing the role of Jai Chand, Sanyogita’s father and the jealous king of Kannauj – is also seen singing praises of Prithviraj by the end. Probably borrowing from the Rajamouli cinematic universe - no arc is complete here until they have gaped at and sung praises of Prithviraj’s male bravado.

Walking into Samrat Prithviraj, I think most of us knew what we were going to be subjected to. And yet, I find myself surprised and disgusted by the bloodlust and hate that is so ingrained in the DNA of such a film.

A character is heard saying how he doesn’t see a difference between a Mir and a Muhammad – a powerful parallel for ‘new India’ – nor does the mob. In the same conversation, someone invokes how a ‘foreign invader’ desecrated a temple and went on to inflict further humiliation. Surely the film was made long ago, and the line was probably written even earlier, but it’s chilling to listen to a line like that in the aftermath of the Gyanvapi incident. More than a dozen scenes end with chants of Har har mahadev, something that wouldn’t arouse any suspicion a decade back.

But this is maybe what things have come to. Samrat Prithviraj is a film that probably ‘works’ and ‘what people want to see’. Unlike history, these films interpret as per their convenience, they will not be able to erase this phase of Hindi films. I wonder how history will look back at the films and the movie stars from this era - who fueled hate, who advocated war and disharmony, and who hid behind lies like “we’re only artists, we do what we’re told” – only to get ahead in life.

Rating: *

Samrat Prithviraj is playing in cinemas

Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.

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