Astonishingly little is common knowledge about the third, and the bloodiest Battle of Panipat (1761), apart from the sketchiest of basics. Course books don’t tell you much about what happened before Afghanistan’s Ahmad Shah Abdali came face-to-face against a small battalion of Marathas under Sadashiv Rao. Which, in case you were wondering, would be extensive in-house jealousy in the Maratha household, allies backstabbing each other, political intrigue within the Mughal royalty, critical diplomacy failures on the part of Sadashiv, a long stand-off between two unevenly matched armies, dwindling rations and ultimately, a starving Maratha army that *still* fought till its last man.
Too bad then, that only the barest of snippets of history make it to Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat. What takes centre-stage instead, is a romance so incredibly tedious, calling it a love story requires suspension of disbelief.
The film begins with Sadashiv Rao Peshwa ‘Bhau’ (an inadequate Arjun Kapoor) successfully capturing the heretofore unconquered, Udgir. Call it hope, but perhaps at a different time, with a less jaded Ashutosh, a lead actor breaking into a fortified castle and defeating an enemy who forgot to watch its back, would have made for a compelling watch. But in 2019 Ashutosh’s hands, Kapoor, climbs a human pyramid, jumps into enemy territory and five minutes later, wins the ‘fight’. Dude would have made to the Guinness Book of Records Hall of Fame, had such a thing existed back then.
We quickly move on to the royal Maratha court, where we meet Baji Rao I’s son, Balaji Baji Rao (a tepid Mohnish Bahl). Aiding him in running the empire is his stepbrother and Mastani’s son, Shamsher Bahadur (Sahil Salathia), Baji Rao and Kashibai’s younger son, Raghunath Rao (Kashyap Parulekar) and first cousin, Sadashiv, among others. But the most important player here turns out to be to Peshwa’s wife, Gopikabai (a memorable Padmini Kolhapure) who, jealous of the attention to Sadashiv instead of her young son and heir, Keshavrao, sets off a chain of events from which the empire never really recovers.
The first half is an arduous parade of Manyavar knockoffs, while the second is a whole lot of dress rehearsal-level sword fighting. One cannot escape the inevitable flashbacks to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani where Ranveer Singh played a Peshwa who does not hesitate to romance or fight. In contrast Arjun tries, but manages to do neither. His war face is one of sullenness, mixed periodically with spurts of incoherent yelling. His I’m-in-love face is, unfortunately, not much different.
Kriti Sanon as Sadashiv’s wife Parvatibai is surprisingly good, if somewhat too enthusiastic in a film where everyone looks like they’ve been hit with a Stunning Spell. Sanjay Dutt gets to shine as the fierce (and apparently savage) Abdali in just one significant scene, making do with angry grunting and cape-swishing for the rest of the film. Mantra as the conniving Najib-ud-Daula, Nawab Shah as Ibrahim Khan Gardi and Kunal Kapoor as Shuja-ud-Daula give standout performances in an otherwise lacklustre film.
There’s a lot to be said about Ashutosh Gowariker’s tenacity in continuing to make almost three-hour-long period dramas. One of which is, at what point does it get one too many?