Rating: Three stars:
It takes a certain amount of bravado to attempt a huge historical that does not have any obvious audience-pleasing hooks. Ashutosh Gowariker’s film, tells the story of the third battle of Panipat in 1761, that the Marathas fought against Afghan invaders.
Panipat is an earnest film made on a grand scale with spectacular sets and attractive costumes, but it lacks a focus that would help engage the audience through its three-hour running time. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has already put his stamp on the historical costume drama, and he gives more importance to emotional wrenching than military strategy.
The film begins with Peshwa Nanasaheb’s (Mohnish Bahl) cousin Sadashiv Rao (Arjun Kapoor), defeating the Nizam and expanding the Maratha empire so far north that the Mughals feel threatened. Part of the deal with the Mughals was that the Marathas would protect the throne of Delhi from outside attacks. Sadashiv is portrayed not just as a warrior, but also a natural-born leader. His success irks the queen Gopikabai (Padmini Kolhapure), who thinks of ways to undermine him and protect the rights of her young son Viswas Rao (Abhishek Nigam).
With some tweaking of history, Gowariker portrays Sadashiv Rao as a patriot who wants to unite Hindustan, when in truth, they fought the neighbouring kingdoms and made them to pay a hefty tax, which some of them resented. When the slimy tax-evader Rohilla Najib-ud-Daula (Mantra) plans to halt the power of the Marathas by calling Afghan ruler and habitual marauder Ahmed Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt) to India, it leads to the bloody Battle of Panipat, that weakened the Marathas and Mughals enough to eventually let the British colonize the country.
The first half of the film has distractions like celebrations of victory and Sadashiv Rao’s romance and marriage to medicine woman Parvatibai (Kriti Sanon–charming), also narrator of the story. When Abdali’s army threatens, Sadashiv Rao has to forge alliances with the smaller kingdoms to match the strength of the invaders, which also leads to broken promises (hence the tagline: The Great Betrayal), brazen displays of greed and haggling for power – so much of which reminds us of what our current political scenario is all about. It also overcrowds the film with too many characters to keep track of (Zeenat Aman and Kunal Kapoor have small parts).
It is already known that the Marathas lost the battle and many men were slaughtered, but Gowariker wants to glorify them and make Abdali and his men look like savages. Though it is not Islamophobia at play here, Sadashiv Rao earlier pardoned Ibrahim Khan Gardi (Nawab Shah) a general in the Nizam’s forces and invited him to join the Marathas, with his armory of canons.
Despite a display of some shockingly poor CGI, the battle scenes are well mounted and shot with befitting grandeur. Arjun Kapoor is unable to provide Panipat with a strong leading man, and Sanjay Dutt looks too old and jaded (Abdali died at 50) to provide any menace as the formidable antagonist. So actors in smaller roles stand out. It is worth a look for all the hard work put in and Gowariker’s sincere efforts to recreate an almost forgotten chapter of history, but if any viewer expects entertainment, this is not the film to watch.