By now, Bollywood has rubbed its superficiality and idiocy in enough. When the actor is a hamming Akshay Kumar and the banner is the romantic Yashraj Films, even a Chandraprakash Dwivedi cannot save the ship from sinking. Based on the historically unreliable Prithviraj Raso, made more untrustworthy by Bollywood masala, Samrat Prithviraj — the name itself is a problem, given that his kingdom was hardly big to consider him an emperor — shows the king galloping away with fictional Sanyogita (Bollywoodean Samyukta enacted by Manasi Chhillar) in a manner that might impress Chand Bardai and those who believe his ballad to be history. Do not ask why the eulogy that is still trustworthy, Prithviraja Vijaya written either by Jayanaka or Kashmiri poet Bihana in Sanskrit, did not make the plot of this film. That is beyond the grasp of the missing grey cells of the Hindi film industry.
What is worse in the film is going several steps astray even from Raso. It is hardly about the war with Islamic invader Mu’izz al Din Muhammad aka Shihab al Din alias Muhammad of Ghor. The impetus is on the supposed romantic life of the “last Hindu king” (words of the character played by Akshay Kumar).
While the stalwarts of BJP and RSS promoting The Kashmir Files was praiseworthy, their photo-op with Akshay Kumar evokes a cringe. Patriotism must be muscular in the times of a clash of civilisations, but it can cause embarrassment in the milieu of the educated with the pushing of PN Oak’s Tejo Mahalaya theory for the Taj Mahal or the inability to differentiate between the histories of Kashi Vishwanath Mandir-turned-Gyanvapi Masjid or Shahi Eidgah atop Krishna Janmabhomi on the one hand and that of the Qutb Minar on ruins of Hindu and Jain temples on the other. The “mat chuko Chauhan” folklore would put you in a similarly awkward position in the community of historians. But a business house that Yashraj Films is, it may have seen the time perfect for some display of brawn in the new age of Hindutva.
That merited the inclusion of Dwivedi as the filmmaker, of course. Not his feature film Pinjar or squeamish Mohalla Assi, but his television serial Chanakya had the requisite elements inspiring confidence that he could pull it off. But the producer might not have taken into account the problem with Akshay Kumar’s PR these days. While every time media posts his patriotic credentials, social media users remind everybody he is a Canadian citizen, whatever goodwill still remains is spoiled by the woke column of his wife Twinkle Khanna. Since family is integral to Indian culture, people doubt how serious the actor’s commitment to the nation is.
Nevertheless, in the two-and-a-half hours run-time of Samrat Prithviraj, the high-pitched drama and costumery could have offered a dazzling cinematic experience. But the glamour quotient need not turn a bad script into good — as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas proved years ago when the director got fed up with the stark reality he projected on debut with Khamoshi The Musical.
Muhammad Ghori (Manav Vij) here is a lesser Alauddin Khilji essayed by Ranveer Singh in Padmavat (which was a good film unnecessarily embroiled in a controversy that was of Bhansali’s own making). The pulp fiction part where a north Indian landscape turns into an arena for a kind of gladiatorial fight, leaving the ‘hero’ grievously wounded, warding off four-legged and two-legged beasts, could have been a show-stopper, but then, there was a Hollywood-like sequence of stealing gold from a moving goods train hanging from a helicopter also in the early 1990s’ Roop Ki Rani, Choron Ka Raja, a super-flop. And when the dilwale takes the dulhaniya away, the filmmaker forgets that for all the drama, that was not the audience’s expectation from Samrat Prithviraj.
Curiously, Chand Bardai (Sonu Sood) looks more in love with Prithviraj Chauhan than the king’s love interest Sanyogita who is not quite sure which era’s girl she is meant to be. And when there is Sanjay Dutt, he has to be a ‘misled youth’ doing drugs and guns today or a badass good-at-heart guy. He is Kaka Kanha here, the second type. For a change, he is a court jester in this film and also a doting uncle. An actor whose recitations of poetry in real life make one wonder what his politics is, Ashutosh Rana plays Jaichand [already told you this is not the historical Jayachandra who ruled what is today western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh]. Sakshi Tanwar plays his garrulous wife. And Dwivedi goes soft on the couple because the real baddie is supposed to be Ghori. But then, why was the top villain not given enough footage? Never mind!
Bardai finds in Samrat Prithviraj a Bhishma-Bheem combo. The woke ideology gets the better of the character of the king too, as he mouths some feminist lines, going to the extent of offering Sanyogita half his throne. That reminds one of the first episode of Mahabharat by BR Chopra who had to rope in Raj Babbar to play a ‘democratic’ King Bharat who would defy hereditary succession — because the serial maker wanted to pinch then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s dynasty. But the retrofitted feminism goes for a toss when Sanyogita does a ‘jauhar’.
Ah yes, the king breaks into song-and-dance sequences too. The ‘last Hindu king’ is not convincing even in the climax.
I wanted to say Samrat Prithviraj was a shade better than the downright nonsensical Jodha Akbar, but I need to recover from the trauma of the viewing experience before it.
The writer is a filmmaker who wishes to stay anonymous