A Historian’s Perspective: ‘Panipat - The Great Betrayal’ Indeed!

Reading between the lines of ‘Panipat: The Great Betrayal’

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The plot of this film revolves around the Third Battle of Panipat (January, 1761) fought between the Maratha general Sadashivrao Bhau and the Afghan adventurer Ahmad Shah Abdali. The tag-line of the movie: ‘The Great Betrayal’ and in some posters ‘The Battle that Changed History’ gives ample clue to the ideological underpinnings of the makers of this historical drama.

Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and produced by Reliance Entertainment, the movie begins in a remarkably similar manner to Bahubali. The entertainment model of the southern blockbuster period drama combining surrealist hyperbolic narrative and VFX- aided stunning visual effects seems to have percolated deep into the psyche of Indian directors. Using this deadly blend, there have been increasing attempts to render a highly skewed version of the past in both cinema and on television. All this has blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction and the problems posed by such a post-truth trend have enormous civilisational implications.

Arjun Kapoor in Panipat: The Great Betrayal.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Fact vs Fiction

The hero’s (the Maratha General Sadashivrao Bhau played by Arjun Kapoor) entry reminds the viewer of Ganesh Chaturthi festival with its matka breaking antics, albeit performed on the battlefield of Udayagiri Fort. The Qila falls and so does the arch-enemy of Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad.

This claim that Bhau’s victory extinguishes the main rival power centre in the Deccan is absolutely incorrect. True, Bhau’s tactics did occasion reversals for the Nizamat but it was a cat-and-mouse game where even the Marathas were handed heavy blows in return.

Despite this enemity, Bhau decides to pardon their chief gunner Ibrahim Khan Gardi on the condition that he will join Maratha forces. Doubts are raised on his future loyalty and set aside by the general. It is significant to mention here (an omission by the scripting team) that Gardi was an Afghan mercenary and belonged to the same clan as Abdali. Despite his tribal/clan allegiance, Gardi fought the hardest which is indeed depicted on screen. However, by masking this fact, a trope of ‘good muslim’ is recreated. So, right from the first scene stereotypical binaries are established, nuance is brushed aside and facts nullified; a historian like me is left wondering how much further distortion will follow.

The plot thickens and so do distortions. Bhau’s victory is celebrated in the Peshwa’s court, called Ganesh Darbar.

A liberal dash of saffron and red is thrown at the viewer with lyrics Yug Yug ki zanjiron ko humne hi kata re, bol utha yeh jag sara Jai Mard Maratha re! Udaygiri’s capture fulfils an old dream of Shivaji to ‘liberate the south’ and yes no prizes that the ‘oppressors’ were Muslims.

Historical Inaccuracies

This is just one of the several inaccuracies depicted in the screenplay. Let me spell out a few prominent ones:

  • There is a suggestion that the invitation of Rohilla Chief Najib-ud-Daulah to Ahmad Shah Abdali had the concurrence of the Mughal Emperor (‘Marathon ke khilaf jaane wala koi hai hi nahin is sarzameen par’). No ruler would like to let his capital be at the mercy of a plunderer. The reputation of the Mughal court had already been severely undermined by Nadir Shah’s sacking of Delhi in 1739. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the Mughal emperor facilitated Abdali’s entry.
  • Next up, is the scene marking the entry of Abdali (played by Sanjay Dutt). The Afghan warlord is represented as a ruthless blood thirsty king who kills rivals with splendid abandon, sometimes even using the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond to smash their skulls and faces. He claims to have acquired (‘haasil’’) the famed jewel and the iconic peacock throne from his master Nadir Shah, suggesting a hand in the latter’s assassination. This is a pure figment of the writer’s imagination.
  • At one point, Abdali has been referred to as a rakshasa (demon) and at another a ghuspaithia (intruder). This is far from the truth. Sure, he was a marauder, but blood, avarice and greed was a hallmark of the political culture that he lived through. He came repeatedly to India in search of wealth which was plenty in surplus producing river-valleys of the North Indian plains rather than the mountain fastness of the Afghan land. Having said that, Ahmad Shah never desired to become the Emperor of India which is a prominent myth perpetrated by the script. All power structures ultimately flourish on resources and raiding was a part and parcel of Indian political landscape both for powers within and without.
  • As a testimony to Sadashiv Rao Bhau’s supreme sacrifice, the film shows Abdali as never setting foot in India again. The truth is less convenient and he did lead campaigns into the subcontinent in the years after the Third Battle of Panipat as well.
Sanjay Dutt in Panipat: The Great Betrayal.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The Depiction of Muslims in Panipat: The Great Betrayal

The negative portrayal of Muslim figures using dark black robes and hoary voices (including Siraj-ud-Daulah of Awadh) does not end with here. When Najib-ud-Daulah goes to enlist the support of Siraj-ud-Daulah who had already pledged allegiance with the Marathas, the latter says ‘ek musalmaan bhai doosre musalmaan bhai ki baat unsuni karega to kaise chalega’. Of course, the appeal works and the Nawab of Awadh switches sides to join Abdali. This clear religious appeal for a seeking allies hundred years before the 1857 revolt (when Hindus and Muslims fought the British shoulder to shoulder) should be seen as using the lens of today to view a by-gone past. Historians call this tendency as ‘anachronism’. For the past to be viewed analytically, a period must be critically looked at on its own terms and this movie falters on this litmus test throughout the narrative.

On the battlefield itself, there are hugely problematic depictions. In response to the square shaped troop formation on the Maratha side, Abdali first commends Bhau for his astute strategy and then directs his commander to create an Eid ka chand formation. The use such blatantly religious semiotics must be discredited.

In contrast to the patriotic and chivalrous Marathas, Muslim soldiers adorned in black uniforms are depicted as back-stabbers showing stealth rather than courage in slaying their enemies. The forces under Abdali are shown as almost exclusively Muslim which is another inaccurate depiction of this clash as a Hindu-Muslim battle.

Marathas vs Mughal Empire

Another gross misrepresentation in the movie is the fall of Delhi at Maratha hands en route to Panipat. This victory is represented as the first fatah (conquest) of Delhi in many centuries. This implies again the trope that the death of Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan in the twelfth century signified the end of the ‘Hindu’ rule. The Marathas here are seen as reclaiming the long lost throne which is utterly inaccurate as they had been part and parcel of Delhi politics of dependency for several years prior.

In this context, it must be stated that the representation of the Marathas as torch-bearers of Hindu resistance against Muslim rule came from the British imperial historians. This trope was adopted by scholars like K.M. Munshi and today is widely disseminated in print and social media, despite its inaccuracies.

Imagining Sadashivrao Bhau

An interesting aspect of Panipat: The Great Betrayal is the construction of Sadashivrao Bhau’s character. It is a strange amalgam of Brahmanical virtue and Kshtariya valour. He sports a choti appropriate to his caste status.

A master yoga practitioner who can perform 1500 Surya Namaskars (which in cinematic depiction is plain and simple dand-baithak or push-ups). Bhau, affectionately called Raya, is firm, loving, loyal, kind and dedicated to the interests of the Peshwaship.

It is important to highlight here that the Peshwas belonged to the Konkanasth Brahmin community. Literally speaking, they were equivalent to the Prime Minister of the Maratha empire whose seat was at Satara where the descendants of Shivaji were kept under strict watch by the powerful Peshwas. The Peshwas were the de facto rulers while the formal or de jure power rested in the Maratha king who were sidelined. This fact is never mentioned in the movie. Thus, through deft machinations and clever use of faultlines within the Maratha confederacy, the Peshwa usurped political power from the actual Maratha rulers and the office became hereditary. Here, it must be highlighted that the equivalence depicted in the film between Maratha = Peshwa is deeply problematic. It should be seen as an underhand attempt to bestow a legitimacy to Brahmins as rulers undermining the legacy of a strong anti-caste movement in the western India led by the likes of Jyotiba Rao Phule, Vithal Ramji Shinde and Babasaheb BR Ambedkar.

The Women of Panipat: The Great Betrayal

Kriti Sanon and Arjun Kapoor in Panipat: The Great Betrayal.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Perhaps the only refreshing aspect of this overtly masculine movie is the depiction of women. Firstly, the Narrator’s voice is feminine (Kriti Sanon) and she remains the Sutradhar for the entire movie. The women are shown as having an agency in politics.

Even in the high echelons of power, women like Peshwin (or the wife of Peshwa played by Padmini Kolhapuri) made deft manoeuvres. In this instance, she undercuts Bhau’s position in order to safeguard her son’s interests and smooth succession to the Peshwaship. The depiction of Bhau’s partner also as a vaid bearing useful medicinal knowledge is also progressive. Zeenat Aman’s depiction as Sakina Begum is not convincing but it is factually correct that there were rare woman rulers in the subcontinent who displayed tremendous political acumen and maintained their autonomy.

Of Cinematic Liberties

Perhaps the moot question to ask at this juncture is: What aspect of India’s chequered past that has for long elicited academic interest, debate and discussion is dramatised on the silver screen? Depending on how fine a balance may be struck by the director/producer between imperatives of truth, commerce and entertainment, the results can vary drastically. In this age of post-truth and hyper-nationalism in India, credible information about the present has been in short supply. Now, the onus of the prevailing powers seems to be controlling the past in a manner which legitimises the present as an inevitable turn of time! Even the release date of this movie on the 6th of December seems like a deliberate throwback on time (1992). In post-Ayodhya judgement scenario, such historical dramas have to be seen as feeding and reinforcing certain binaries that have been created by the contemporary game of thrones in India.

The release of the movie Panipat: The Great Betrayal constitutes another instance of mass political propaganda and feeds into a schizophrenic notion of our collective past. This is worrisome especially at a time when a new religiously defined citizen is being crafted through the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the about to be inaugurated all India exercise of the National Register for Citizens. In such a polarised polity, such cinematic narratives will only reinforce current stereotypes.

Kriti Sanon and Arjun Kapoor in Panipat: The Great Betrayal.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

My final verdict: If the viewer is fine with reinforcement of old stereotypes, then (s)he should watch the movie. This is not a movie for a discerning audience. If anyone has an inkling of getting hold of valid historical interpretation through seeing this film, then they are going to be disappointed. It is best to avoid it.

Context is the essence of the history. To start the story of the Battle of Panipat only three years prior to the truly iconic clash does gross injustice to this thumb-rule of historical reconstruction.

Further adding salt to the wounds of hurt Hindu pride seems to be the chief motive of this cinematic exercise. The makers are guilty of superimposing contemporary religio-political lenses and further blurring the lines between past and present. Besides creating a chimera of past, the repercussions are likely to extend into the now, here and the immediate future. It is time that historians take up analytical cudgels to deconstruct the truth-claims of these simplistic narratives. Maintaining a studied silence in such times would amount to letting in an jingoistic misrepresentation of our shared past. Otherwise, India might continue as a warped nation, it will cease to be a civilisation.

Dr Saagar Tewari teaches at the OP Jindal Global University and is a historian of modern India. He is currently preparing a public history intervention on cinema and history. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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