Somewhere in central India in the mid-17th century, the only force that is holding up the advancing soldiers of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, are the mighty Marathas.
Maratha valour has always been in vogue, but suddenly it seems unstoppable. Last month, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat had the rousing battle cry of ‘har har Mahadev’ ringing across the screen; Tanhaji treads the same paths, more or less, only with a heavier-weight trio in the lead: Devgn as the all-good, valiant Tanhaji Malusare, Kajol as his dutiful, beautiful wife Savitribai, and Khan as the all-bad, utterly villainous Udaybhan Rathod.
There’s a lot of thunderous speechifying combined with thundering hooves, as befits an epic which toplines a historical figure who was chiefly a warrior. The opening credits tell us that eminent historians were consultants for this resurrection of the hitherto ‘unsung’ Tanhaji, to give him his rightful place in the pantheon of Maratha braves.
With this caveat out of the way, the film is free to pile up the songs and dances and non-stop action sequences, always circling back to heavy dialogues about the sanctity of the ‘bhagwaa dhwaj’ and ‘desh prem’, just in case we are in danger of forgetting the kind of film we are watching.
By now, we are so steeped in Bollywood’s patriots re-creating paeans to our glorious past, that to even bring up the fact that the bad guys are your Muslim ‘outsiders’, seems to belabour the point. For this film, it’s simple; either you are on our side, or theirs.
Things start hotting up when the ambitious Aurangzeb (Kenny, adorned in heavy brocade) appoints the ‘wafaadar’ Udaybhan as his man in the Deccan. Shivaji (Kelkar, nailing the look) counters with his main man Tanhaji, and we are set. Except we never know just who Udaybhan is, where he comes from. We don’t know why his loyalties lie with the Mughals. None of these niceties bother Udaybhan, as he goes about vamping it up with great zest, cleaving through body parts, slavering over an imprisoned young woman (who is she? Where does she come from?), and chomping into braised crocodile meat. Yes, that’s right.
Given the times we are in, as long as we get an array of costumery, and our noble ancestors rattling their sabres, flag-waving period films will get audiences. Or will they? Whatever happened to provenance? I enjoyed Saif’s maniacal bad guy, which comes off as yet another variant (Ranveer Singh, Sanjay Dutt) of the flesh-devouring, diabolical, ruthless enemy that Bollywood currently delights in. Devgn and Kajol have a couple of soft moments.
And then there’s the kinetic climax, all strategy and battle and CGI. Scores of soldiers are shown scaling impossibly steep cliff-sides, and running into a rain of bows-and-arrows; Tanhaji himself races towards certain doom, but also victory, and the ‘maukaparast darinda’ is handed out an end with a bang.
Just the film for those who long for a simplistic, dressed-up slice of the past.