Why Is Ashutosh Gowariker Making A Film On The Third Battle Of Panipat

Having taken place in 1761, estimates suggest the casualties from both sides easily touched the figure of 100,000 during the third battle of Panipat.

Three years after the commercial and critical failure of Mohenjo Daro, Ashutosh Gowariker’s next film will dramatise the third battle of Panipat. Starring Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon and Sanjay Dutt in prominent roles, Gowariker’s film is set to recreate one of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind. Estimates suggest the casualties from both sides easily touched the figure of 100,000. Taking place between Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Durrani (played by Sanjay Dutt) and Maratha empire’s Sadashivrao Bhau (played by Arjun Kapoor), the legendary battle of 1761 has gone on to become an expression to describe a debilitating loss.

In search of his first success since 2008’s Jodhaa Akbar, Ashutosh Gowariker has chosen an interesting tale to interpret in 2019’s Panipat.

Here are some basic facts around the third battle of Panipat you need to keep in mind, that will help you make sense of Ashutosh Gowariker’s film:

Why did the third Battle of Panipat take place?

The reign of the East India Company was just about to begin, with their first victory on Indian soil in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. With the Mughal empire in disarray after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the Marathas (especially under Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao) took back most of the lands they had lost to the Mughals. And the Maratha kept moving northwards, even briefly capturing Delhi from Timur Shah Durrani (Ahmed Shah Durrani’s son), and moving towards Lahore.

Angered by his son’s loss in Delhi, Ahmed Shah Durrani is believed to have recruited the Rohillas (Afghan tribals) and the Nawab of Oudh, Shuja Ud Daulah, to take on the Marathas. The Marathas, led by Sadashivrao Bhau, were fewer in number compared to the Durrani & Co, but they apparently had better armour and more innovative strategies.

How did the Afghans force the Marathas into exposing themselves first?

However, the Marathas were accompanied by an estimated 200,000 non-combatants (mainly pilgrims). Cutting off the food supplies for the Maratha army at one point, Durrani’s army managed to raise tension in the Maratha camp. Pleading with Bhau to die in battle rather than starvation, the Maratha chiefs left their camps on January 13, 1761, in an attempt to break the siege.

Who won? And how did the third Battle of Panipat impact the Maratha empire?

The third battle of Panipat is believed to have one of the bloodiest single-formation attack, where the Marathas faced casulaties ranging from 10000-15000. In spite of Sadashivrao Bhau’s valour late into the battle, it was Ahmed Shah Durrani who won the third battle of Panipat. Reclaiming Delhi as his own, the Durrani army is reported to have slaughtered an estimated (conservative) 40000 pilgrims in the aftermath of the war. The Marathas never quite psychologically recovered from the defeat in Panipat, even though they remained one of the most powerful armies in the region.

What does director Ashutosh Gowariker need to be careful about, while interpreting the battle’s story in today’s circumstances?

The third battle of Panipat was rooted in religious grounds, with a primarily Muslim army and allies taking on a Hindu army & allies. Given Bollywood’s casual Islamophobia and the ongoing “us vs them” debate, maybe Gowariker’s film could be a little more even-handed in its treatment. Using the power of retrospect, Gowariker’s Panipat should ideally identify the human factors of war, instead of saffronising the hell out of it… like Akshay Kumar’s Kesari did.

It doesn’t have to be the most fact-based film on an actual historical event (few Bollywood films are), but one can sincerely hope that the director of Lagaan won’t bow down to a poisonous sentiment like Hindutva-laced xenophobia.