Here’s Why Tanhaji Is Bollywood’s Latest Islamophobic Period Film 

‘Tanhaji, The Unsung Warrior’ is the latest in the slew of Islamophobic period films by Bollywood in recent years.

6 min read

Video editor: Veeru Krishan Mohan

Spoilers ahead.

Okay, first things first. I’m going to make no bones about this one.

Tanhaji, The Unsung Warrior, directed by Om Raut, is the latest in the slew of Islamophobic period films coming out of the Bollywood stable in recent years.

Now, I can envisage trolls trying to school me about how the primary villain/antagonist in the movie is Udaybhan Rathod, a Rajput and Hindu, so what on earth is this Islamophobia I am talking about?

To those who intend to actually think this through, read on. The rest may proceed to the comments section already.


The Modern Context of a Period Film

In one of the movie’s powerfully written scenes, Shivaji’s aide Tanhaji Malusare (played by Ajay Devgn) delivers an impassioned monologue to a group of Hindu villagers who are loyal to the Mughals.

He talks about how their animals are stolen by “them”, how the way they are living (in servitude to outsiders) is equivalent to not living at all, and even mentions that “khul ke Jai Shri Ram bhi nahi bol sakte” (they can’t even chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ openly).

Now why does it feel like we’ve heard all of this somewhere recently?

Umm, I remember. It’s called “BJP leaders on the news”.

This Hindu-Muslim narrative for the war has been repeatedly reinforced through the film, both subtly and overtly. But was the Battle of Kondhana in 1670 (which is what the movie is mostly about) really fought on the basis of religion? Or was it a battle between (the armies of) two rulers over the territory under their dominions, with little to do about faith? After all, the generals on both sides of this battle (Udaybhan and Tanhaji) were Hindus themselves.

As an article in The Quint had noted after the release of Tanhaji’s trailer, “The poster itself shows Tanhaji, played by Devgn, looking visibly Hindu with a tilak, while Udaybhan, played by Saif Ali Khan, is made to almost look like a Muslim, with a beard and no religious markers. This, despite the fact that the both of them were Hindu.”

Author and activist Ram Puniyani had written about this phenomenon at large in an article in 2015, “One needs to realize that the shadow boxing around Shivaji is in a way a reflection of the underlying communal politics and caste struggles. Real Shivaji needs to be understood so that we can undermine these sectarian tendencies.”


The Use of Religious Songs

The underscoring of the characters’ religion however occurs most prominently during the songs. From ‘Maay Bhawani’ to ‘Shankara Re Shankara’, the songs picturised on Tanhaji and his wife Savitribai Malusare (played by Kajol) seamlessly integrate religious positivity with the side of the protagonists. By association therefore, Tanhaji and those fighting with him receive divine sanction in the minds of the viewers. They are the righteous. They are the ones fighting the good fight.

This technique of tilting the scales in favour of one side in the war is particularly insidious because it also helps establish the religion-based nature of the conflict that is being portrayed on screen.

Freedom Struggle for Hindustan?

The entire movie is presented as a freedom struggle for Hindustan. We are repeatedly told that this is a battle for “swaraj” (self-rule) of the people of this “mitti” (sons and daughters of the soil).

Except that a battle in the late 1600s couldn’t possibly have been branded at the time as a battle for Hindustan.

But portraying a battle like the one at Kondhana as a veritable freedom struggle for Hindustan and for “bhagwa” (yes, the movie literally says that time and again) achieves the feat of presenting the Muslim ruler as the other and the “bhagwa” as belonging to this land. Needless to say, this fits in rather perfectly with a certain ideology.

As Swara Bhasker recently commented on The Quint’s roundtable (though she wasn’t speaking about Tanhaji in particular), “It seems to me that the kind of historicals that are coming out of Bollywood in the last few years, they are totally playing into the Hindutva ideology, and the Hindutva writing and rewriting of history. We're sitting at a time when the entire Mughal period of this country is being disparaged, and it’s all factually incorrect. I think our historians will die if they sit and watch these 'historical' films that are coming out.”


Characters in Black and White, Zero Shades of Grey

Here’s a point I would like to stress on. It’s not that I have an objection to a film being made about the battle between Udaybhan and Tanhaji. My objection is to the black-and-white portrayal of these two commanders, one as the personification of the devil and the other as a man who can do no wrong.

From the way Udaybhan Rathod eats his meat to the way he dances, villainy exudes from every aspect of his body language and everything he does. It will remind you of Ranveer Singh, playing Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat, devouring meat like he was a demon. And well, we all remember Ranveer dancing in that movie. If we didn’t know better, we would have mistaken some of Saif’s moves to be an homage to Ranveer Singh’s portrayal of Khilji.

Raazi, directed by Meghna Gulzar, is a fine example of a movie in recent times having shades of grey in characters on opposing sides. Remember Vicky Kaushal as the Pakistani army officer?

So, it is entirely possible to have an engaging movie with a gripping plot and keep audiences hooked without resorting to the kind of absolutism we have grown accustomed to seeing in Bollywood’s recent period films.

Muted Dialogues, Re-Dubbed Bits, A Missing Om and An Omitted Matricide

  • A part of the first disclaimer during the movie said that though the film had been made after consultations with eminent historians, it does not claim to be historically accurate.
  • Another disclaimer that followed was that when the film speaks about Marathas, it refers to the whole army and not a particular section or community.
  • As per the CBFC’s instructions, a scene where Udaybhan is shown killing his own mother has also been left out of the film.
  • There were some muted dialogues as well, including a reference to Udaybhan being a Rajput.

Here is the full list of changes made by the CBFC.

‘Tanhaji, The Unsung Warrior’ is the latest in the slew of Islamophobic period films by Bollywood in recent years.
The list of changes made by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
(Photo courtesy: CBFC)

The fact that the mention of Udaybhan being a Rajput was omitted on the orders of the CBFC begs the question: Was the decision taken because the certification board did not want to take the chance of Rajput sentiments being offended?


Following criticism post the trailer launch, a couple of other things were edited in the film as well.

  • Savitribai Malusare’s controversial dialogue in the trailer was re-dubbed to something innocuous. In the trailer, she had said, “Jab Shivaji Raje ki talwaar chalti hai, tab aurto ka ghoonghat aur Brahmano ka janeu salamat rehta hai (When Shivaji draws his sword, it safeguards and supports the honour of women and the sacred thread of a Brahmin).” Thankfully, the makers of Tanhaji at least realised why that dialogue was problematic.
  • The Om symbol on the Maratha flag that was visible in the trailer, was removed from the film by the makers. In an interview to The Quint, producer Ajay Devgn had explained the reason for the removal, “It was technically wrong. Not because we came under pressure. We spoke to some historians and they said that there was never an ‘Om’ symbol (on the flag), so we removed it.”

‘The Surgical Strike’

Ironically enough, the point about modern context was underlined by actor-producer Ajay Devgn himself, in his tweet promoting the trailer of Tanhaji when it released.

Devgn had written, “4th Feb 1670: The surgical strike that shook the Mughal Empire! Witness history like never before.”

Appropriating a phrase like “surgical strike”, popularised in the context of India’s attack on Pakistan, to describe the Marathas’ fight against the Mughals, is unfortunately quite telling about what we see in the film and the narrative it pushes through.

The Many Ways in Which Islamophobia Percolates Through a Film

If you watched our Films & Politics Roundtable recently (shameless plug, but I would genuinely recommend that you watch it), filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan makes an excellent point about how Islamophobia is portrayed in films in various ways.

Ghaywan, who was talking about Islamophobic films in general and not particularly about Tanhaji, says, “It goes so subtly. You look at the colour palette, or how the production design is done. (While showing the Muslims) it’s mostly blacks, it’s mostly dimly lit, it’s shot at a low angle to have a demonising effect. But as you show the other side, it’s all flowery and bright lights and shot at an eye level.”

You saw it in Padmaavat in the stark contrast between how Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor) and Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) were portrayed and you’ll see it in Tanhaji too.

And for these reasons, unfortunately, Tanhaji, The Unsung Warrior leaves much to be desired and ends up being more reflective of the India we see than the India we would like to be.

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