Films often reflect the politics of their time. If the Nehruvian era witnessed films with a socialist bent like Do Bigha Zameen and Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai , Narendra Modi-led BJP’s reign has seen a series of Bollywood films projecting a sense of muscular nationalism.
Films focusing on counter-terrorism like Uri: The Surgical Strike and Baby are the most obvious examples of films glorifying the Indian State. More important are a series of period dramas, mostly set in medieval India, that push the narrative of Hindu nationalism.
This was evident in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat (2018) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) and the latest examples of this are upcoming films Panipat : The Great Betrayal and Tanhaji: The Unsung Hero.
Let’s begin with Tanhaji, whose trailer was released on Tuesday, 19 November.
How a Maratha Vs Rajput Battle Became Communal
When actor Ajay Devgn released the trailer, he labelled it as “The surgical strike that shook the Mughal Empire”. The same tagline featured in the trailer as well.
The filmmakers’ use of the “surgical strike” analogy appears to be a deliberate ploy to equate the battle between Marathas and Mughals to India’s tensions with Pakistan. The underlying narrative, obviously, is ‘Hindu vs Muslim’.
But the Battle of Kondhana (now Sinhagad near Pune) of 1670, on which the film is based, was anything but a religious one.
The battle’s main protagonists were Tanaji Malusare, a Koli General of Chhatrapati Shivaji and Udaybhan Singh Rathod, the Rajput Commander fighting for the Mughal Empire. There was no Hindu-Muslim angle.
This fascinating battle is a part of Marathi folklore and its most dramatic aspects are how the Marathas used a monitor lizard to scale the hill fort, the duel between Tanaji and Udaybhan, and Chhatrapati Shivaji’s remark after the victory: “Gadh aala pann sinh gela” (We won the fort but lost a lion [Tanaji])”.
But the filmmakers appear to have deliberately tried to present the battle as being one of ‘good vs evil’, ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ and also one between Indian nationalism and foreign occupation.
The poster itself shows Tanaji, 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.
In the poster and throughout the trailer, the Maratha side is depicted with hues of yellow and saffron while the Mughal side is projected as dark and eerie. The Marathas are shown wearing white or saffron, while the Mughals are invariably in black or green, clearly in line with the “Good vs Evil” and “Hindu vs Muslim” theme.
The obsession with Bhagwa (saffron) is stressed repeatedly throughout the trailer.
Tanaji’s mother is shown as saying, “Jab tak Kondhana me phir se bhagwa nahi lehrata, hum joote nahi pehnenge” (I won’t wear shoes until there’s a saffron flag atop Kondhana).
Then, a captured Tanaji tells Udaybhan, “Har Maratha paagal hai Swaraj ka, Shivaji Raje ka, bhagwe ka” (Every Maratha is mad about self-rule, Shivaji and saffron).
Despite the filmmakers’ emphasis on the Maratha flag, they end up getting the flag wrong. Instead of a plain saffron flag like the original Maratha flag, they have shown it as a flag with “Om” written on it.
Was Panipat Really About ‘Saving India’?
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat will be releasing on 6 December, the anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid.
In terms of symbolism, Panipat is similar to Tanhajii.
The film’s trailer begins with the word “Maratha” who are glorified as defenders of India, while Muslims – not just Ahmad Shah Abdali but also Shuja-ud-Daula are shown as dark, sinister and scheming. The fact that the film’s title highlights “great betrayal” indicates that their focus is as much on the Muslim rulers who collaborated with Abdali as with the Afghan ruler himself.
Like ‘Tanhaji’, ‘Panipat’ glorifies Maratha masculinity. Leaving little to the imagination, the film even has a song titled ‘Mard Maratha’.
In contrast to the uber-macho young Marathas, Abdali played by Sanjay Dutt, is shown as old. This is actually inaccurate. At the time of the Third Battle of Panipat, Abdali was just 39, eight years older than Sadashiv Rao Bhau (played by Arjun Kapoor) and two years younger than Nanasaheb Peshwa (played by Mohnish Behl).
The difference between the trailers of Tanhaji and Panipat is that the latter goes to great lengths to build up the character of Abdali unlike how Udaybhan is underplayed in Tanhaji. This is understandable as from a ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ point of view, an Afghan invader makes for a far more stronger antagonist than a Rajput prince like Udaybhan Rathod.
While Tanhaji portrays the Battle of Kondhana as part of some kind of freedom struggle, Panipat showcases the third battle of Panipat as a fight to defend India from foreign invasion.
For instance, in the trailer, Sadashiv Rao Bhau’s mother is shown as saying, “Iss baar Abdali ko aisa sabak sikhao ki woh Hindustan ki taraf dekhne ki himmat bhi na kare” (teach Abdali such a lesson that he won’t dare to even look towards India).
Then there’s a face-off between Abdali and Sadashiv Rao Bhau which goes something like this:
Abdali: Tu iss chhoti si zameen ke tukde ke liye apni jaan dene jaa raha hai. (You are about to lose your life for a small piece of land).
Sadashiv Rao: Mai iss dharti ki mitti ke ek kan ke liye bhi marne ko tayyar hun. (I am ready to die for even a simple grain of dust of my motherland.)
Again, this unnecessarily makes the battle about ‘saving India’ even though the existence of such a nationalist sentiment at that time has no historical basis. Had that been the case, the Peshwas wouldn’t have spurned an alliance with Sikhs and Jats against Abdali.
Call for ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in a Bhansali Film
However, the makers of Tanhaji and Panipat are both following the template put in place by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Padmavat (2018) and Bajirao Mastani (2015).
From the way in which battle scenes are shot to the dialogues and sets – both films appear quite similar to Bhansali’s period dramas. What is also similar is a clear Hindu nationalist thrust and the emphasis on a Muslim villain.
Padmavat got into trouble with Rajput groups for the portrayal of Rani Padmini but actually, the film completely distorted the portrayal of Alauddin Khilji. Khilji was shown as savage, lustful and treacherous on the battlefield. In contrast, the Rajputs were shown as honourable and brave.
Khilji was, in fact, a stellar administrator and saved the sub-continent from Mongol invasion. And, in the original Padmavat written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi in the 16th century, Khilji never had direct confrontation with Raja Ratansen, leave alone killing him by deceit as has been shown in the film.
But the most obvious example of a movie advocating Hindu nationalism was Bajirao Mastani, which was supposed to be a love story.
Right in the beginning of the film, Bajirao (played by Ranveer Singh) says his dream is “Hindu Swaraj”.
The exact line was “Apni dharti apna raj, Chhatrapati Shivaji ka ek hi sapna – Hindu Swaraj.”
The film also begins with a rather problematic map which shows only the Peshwa Empire as “Hindustan” and the Nizam dominions to the South or Sikh-ruled Northwest as being outside of Hindustan.
It’s not surprising that Bhansali is now reportedly producing a film called Mann Bairagi that is on the “lesser known aspects of Narendra Modi’s life”.
Not Just Hindu, But Upper Caste Supremacy
There is another subtext to the narrative of Hindu nationalism being pushed by Bollywood’s new period dramas: supremacy of Brahmins and other Upper Castes like Rajputs and Marathas.
For instance in Tanhaji, the character played by Kajol says, “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 sacred thread of a Brahmin).
It is strange that at least in the trailer, the filmmakers chose to glorify Shivaji Maharaj for “protecting Brahmins” rather than emphasising that their protagonist – Tanaji Malusare – belonged to the marginalised Koli community. If at all, Shivaji should be hailed for giving space to less- and under-privileged communities like Kolis and Mahars and following inclusive policies towards Muslims.
Then, take this line from Bajirao Mastani, where the hero, Bajirao, is being introduced as having, “Talwar mey bijli si harkat, iraado me Himalay ki adakta, chehre pe chitpavan kul ke brahmano ka tej...” (Sword as fast as lightning, intentions as strong as the Himalayas and his countenance like the glory of Chitpavan Brahmins).
This glorification of Brahminism ignores the fact that the rule of the Peshwas stood for the worst kind of caste atrocities.
“Under the rule of the Peshwas in the Maratha country, the Untouchable was not allowed to use the public streets if a Hindu was coming along, lest he should pollute the Hindu by his shadow. The Untouchable was required to have a black thread either on his wrist or around his neck, as a sign or a mark to prevent the Hindus from getting themselves polluted by his touch by mistake. In Poona, the capital of the Peshwa, the Untouchable was required to carry, strung from his waist, a broom to sweep away from behind himself the dust he trod on, lest a Hindu walking on the same dust should be polluted. In Poona, the Untouchable was required to carry an earthen pot hung around his neck wherever he went – for holding his spit, lest his spit falling on the earth should pollute a Hindu who might unknowingly happen to tread on it.”*
This is the truth about the Peshwas in the words of one of the most prominent Marathis to have been born in this land: Babasaheb Ambedkar. But then, only a few of today’s Bollywood filmmakers will have the courage to make a film about him, leave alone speak the truth about Peshwas.
*(From BR Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’)