‘Panipat’ seeks to illuminate a neglected period of India’s history, but comes up short

The politics of history plays out everywhere in India today, including in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s new film which revolves around the third battle of Panipat between the Marathas and the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali.

ByNiraja Rao
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‘Panipat’ seeks to illuminate a neglected period of India’s history, but comes up short
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The eighteenth century was for long dismissed among scholars and historians as a Dark Age in India. There was a greater focus on Mughal rule before it, or colonial rule after. Rectifying this are William Dalrymple’s new book The Anarchy and Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film Panipat, released this past Friday. They overlap in covering the interlude between Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and the British Crown’s takeover of India in 1857. 

It was a century of strife, plunder and violence, caused by the breakdown of authority and rule of law due to the decline of Mughal supremacy. Many chieftains and nawabs who had been chafing at the tight Mughal hold on their fiefdoms declared themselves independent sovereigns.

The ones who succeeded the most – and even got under Aurangzeb’s skin when he was alive and afterwards consolidated their power throughout Mughal India – were the Marathas under Baji Rao, also the subject of the 2015 Bollywood movie Bajirao Mastani, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. 

Baji Rao consolidated Maratha rule across Central and Western India. Dalrymple notes in The Anarchy that the marauding Marathas destroyed Mughal villages all over, leaving them “little more than piles of smoking cinders”. “The ruthlessness and cruelty of these guerilla raids were legendary”, Dalrymple adds, and yet “if the Marathas were violent in war they could in times of peace be mild rulers”. The key to their effectiveness was “their extreme mobility and the ability to make sorties far behind Mughal lines”. Even though the Maratha Army comprised what a contemporary chronicler noted were men “unendowed with illustrious birth and husbandmen, carpenters and shopkeepers”, they succeeded in battle after battle.

This consolidation also meant that Maratha rule was now spread wide and had to be organised into an empire of sorts. The Marathas did so, adopting Mughal administrative practices. They centralised communication and power, yet kept it diffused enough to empower and control their subjects. Dalrymple notes, “They were organised under five chieftains who constituted the Maratha Confederacy. These five chiefs established hereditary families which ruled over different regions.” 

The Peshwa, who controlled Maharashtra from Pune, headed the confederacy while Holkar controlled Central India and Scindia and “was in command of a growing swathe of territory in Rajasthan and North India”. These clans are the subject of Gowarikar’s film Panipat. Yet, the film does not do enough to lay out a historical background for the viewer to understand the complexity of the times or the uniqueness of Peshwa rule and Maratha ascendency in Mughal India. There is not much historical context of the build-up to the third battle of Panipat either. It is depicted simply as a clash of personalities and this is why it’s not as engaging as it could have been. 

The film tells the story of the battle fought between the Marathas led by Sadashivrao Bhau and the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali, who styled himself and his clan “Durrani”, or pearl.

“This story intrigued me because even if we were defeated, there was a certain spirit in that entire battle and the journey, which can’t be ignored,” says Gowarikar. “My motivation came from that place; I wanted to capture that spirit. I wanted the audience to get a cinematic version of the most important battle of the 18th century.” 

The film does well to focus on a battle that is considered a pyrrhic victory for Abdali because although he won the war he never returned to India. In fact, he wrote a letter to the Peshwa after returning to Afghanistan appreciating the courage and bravery shown by the Marathas in battle even though they were outnumbered and humbled. 

It was a battle that taught the invader a lesson in the courage and spunk of the Indian defence; it also taught the Indians the necessity of unity and strategy in war. 

Having learnt their lesson, the Marathas resurrected themselves and were able to reconquer Delhi a decade later under their Peshwa Madhavrao I

In the film, the court of Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao, played by Mohnish Behl, breaks into song and dance and empty posturing after a minor victory in the Deccan while Sadahivrao Bhau, cousin to the Peshwa, played by Arjun Kapoor, is a brooding and sullen presence making him unrelatable and uninspiring. 

There is an attempt at romance between Sadashivrao Bhau and his paramour Parvati Bai, played by Kirti Sanon, but it neither moves the plot forward nor is it iconic. Parvati Bai is not given her due as a vaid, or healer, and warrior on the battlefield either. 

The reasons for the Maratha defeat could have made for interesting drama, and should have got more than a cursory mention. One version of the Maratha loss in Panipat is attributed to the lack of military experience and strategy by Sadashivrao Bhau, who replaced the Maratha general Raghunath Rao with half the required resources. The very composition of the army would have been a factor in defeat because apart from the regulars there were Maratha pilgrims heading to the holy sites of the north. Then, there were the actions of the other Maratha chiefs, Holkar and Scindia, as also the Jats who ultimately did not fight the battle as a united army under Sadashivrao Bhau. 

The visuals and production design are a throwback to Gowarikar’s 2008 film Jodha Akbar. This is his third historical film after Mohenjodaro and Jodha Akbar (not counting Lagaan) and yet he’s not able to master the art of war and the soul of history. The director also made Swades, an introspective and lyrical ode to patriotism. In Panipat, he seems to be floundering among stereotypes and the weight of his production design.

At a time when the Indian government is seeking to rewrite history from “our own point of view” and there’s some resistance to the idea of an ideological mentoring of facts, it is interesting to see a mainstream film guided by historians and based on research. 

In an interview, Gowarikar says, “My reference point was historian TS Shejwalkar, who wrote the book Panipat 1761. He wrote specifically about this battle. I have created my screenplay from the way it has been narrated in his book. There is another Pune-based historian, Pandurang Balkawade. I took him on board officially for the film, for inputs on various matters.”

While there have been protests from Jat groups, against the representation of their leader Maharaja Surajmal, the home minister of Haryana, Anil Vij, rather ironically told reporters that “filmmakers who make films on historical characters should thoroughly go into all historical facts associated with various characters they are going to show in their film”. 

Under pressure from the Rajasthan government and staring at a loss of revenue from restricted exhibition, the film’s distributors have forced an 11-minute edit, removing the “offending portions”. 

The Afghan government also sent in their protest over the possible depiction of Abdali: “Any insensitive/distorted depiction of his character might provoke emotions of Afghans which could be unfairly exploited by others to adversely affect the trust and harmony that exists so well among the people of two countries.”

Every country seems to be in search of the perfect past. Where it does not exist we must create a work of fiction and feed the beast of ultranationalism.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his 1994 book The Age of Extremes, “The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. This makes historians, whose business it is to remember what others forget, more essential at the end of the second millennium than ever before. But for that very reason they must be more than simply chroniclers, remembrancers and compilers, though this is also the historians’ necessary function.” 

In India today, we should not let our historical memory die. We must encourage our films and filmmakers to show historical facts because if we tailor history to suit political reality that would be far more damaging to our national heritage than inventing soothing myths for vainglory.

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