In a First, a Tale of Hate from Yash Chopra’s House of Love
YRF’s latest film stars Akshay Kumar playing the role of a ‘samrat’
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Sonu Sood, Sanjay Dutt, Manushi Chhillar, Manav Vij, Ashutosh Rana, Sakshi Tanwar,
Direction: Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Playing in theatres
In 1959, Yash Chopra, then a 27-year-old Punjabi refugee from Lahore, directed his first Hindi film, Dhool Ka Phool – a story about an unwed mother and her “illegitimate” child. He followed that up in 1961 with Dharmaputra. A film about a Muslim boy brought up by a Hindu family, it told the story of rising Hindu fundamentalism against the backdrop of Partition. Then came Waqt in 1965, a film that defined “Bollywood.” Waqt straddled the quaint and the modern with ease. Its stellar cast and powerful story of a separated family reuniting was like a soothing balm for a ruptured nation.
It was in 1973 that Yash Chopra broke away from his big brother BR and made his first film under the banner of Yash Raj Films (YRF). Daag was a story of rape, pregnancy and polygamy with an aura of The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Thereon, YRF and Yash Chopra gave Indian cinema some of its most memorable films, iconic characters, unforgettable dialogue and songs. The nation’s disenchantment was expressed often, including through Deewar and Kala Patthar, but love remained the overriding emotion in all his films. There was the cool kind (Doosra Aadmi), the taboo (Kabhi Kabhi and Silsila), and the impossible (Veer-Zaara). In his oeuvre, love crossed divides of religion, caste, geographies. It challenged social norms, broke familial promises and commitment. It even attempted an incestuous dalliance.
Forty-nine years later, under the aegis of his son Aditya Chopra, Yash Raj Films has regressed and for the first time the film studio that stood for and taught India how to love, has put out a story of hate.
Samrat Prithviraj is an unintelligent pack of myths and lies that spews and incites hate. And to do this it has engaged the services of Akshay Kumar, put him in long, pleated frocks and slapped a thin moustache on his upper lip. But since his reputation precedes him, to give the film some legitimacy and heft, it has got Chandraprakash Dwivedi to direct it.
Dwivedi – the man who in 1991 wrote, directed and played Chanakya and fired a nation’s imagination with a tuft of untied hair – devotes himself to peddle lies and fiction. The end result is a film that should have been highly offensive were it not so dim, dreary and dull.
Samrat Prithviraj is well-made but vapid. It is so wimpish about its own rightwing propaganda that reacting to it would be giving it credit it doesn’t deserve.
The film opens in an amphitheatre in Ghazni, Afghanistan. The stands are occupied by Afghani men while Muhammad of Ghor (Mannu Vij) is presiding over the proceedings. The plan is to let out some Schedule H animals on a prisoner of war for cheap thrills.
The movie takes its own sweet time to bring us face-to-face with Prithviraj (Akshay Kumar). First there is foreboding, then a shadow hovers and we see tears quivering in the red eyes of Chand Bardai (Sonu Sood) – Prithviraj’s aide and compatriot, and also the man who wrote Prithviraj Raso, the poem that eulogizes Prithviraj while casting the poet as the man who helped him kill Muhammad of Ghor. That’s not true, but that’s what a blind Prithviraj Chauhan proceeds to do.
The film is bookended by this scene. In between are flashbacks to events that brought him and us here, i.e. the story of Prithviraj Chauhan, the king of Ajmer who lost the second Battle of Tarain and pretty much laid the foundation stone of the Delhi Sultanate.
In Ajmer, we are mostly in Prithviraj’s mahal where men in long frocks, saffron pagris and bushy moustaches talk about threats while one Kaka Kanha (Sanjay Dutt), an aide who is blindfolded for reasons that remain unclear to me, engages in bombast.
The story meanders. We meet a lady called Chitralekha and her entirely dullard of a lover, Mir Hussain. We also meet Prithviraj’s pen pal, princess Sanyogita (Manushi Chillar), the daughter of Jaichand, king of Kannauj (Ashutosh Rana). There is a regular exchange of letters and gifts between PrithviR and SanyoG, unbeknownst to her mummy and daddy. The Chitralekha episode pisses off Muhammad of Ghor, and the secret affair makes Jaichand aag-baboola.
In between all this there is talk of Rajput moonch, mandir, masjid, Shivling and Somnath. Apparently no one can touch their moonch in PrithviR’s presence even if they feel an itch to scratch, but when SanyoG rides pillion to PrithviR and arrives in Ajmer, many moustaches twitch in rage.
But a happy honeymoon and coital bliss yields a freshly minted feminist king and PrithviR arrives in his durbar with missus in tow. A fiery exchange on masculine, moustachioed Rajputani sanskar versus the virtues of feminism ensues, but the king and queen declare themselves as staunch feminists. However, as soon as her hubby loses the battle, Ms Feminist Queen is the first one to don the clothes of male Rajput soldiers and gather other ladies to accompany her as she jumps into a well of fire to save the honor of Rajput moonch.
Samrat Prithviraj, based on Prithviraj Raso, is a film powered by lots of blindness – on screen and behind it. It is blind to facts, beginning with its title. “Samrat” is an honorific title reserved for kings who either conducted the Rajasuya Yagna or those who controlled a massive empire, a la Samrat Ashok. Not PrithviR of tiny Ajmer.
The film claims that it doesn’t aim to glorify sati and jauhar, but goes on to do exactly that with a song and dance. And it commits historical omissions, including the missing heads of his enemies that Prithviraj liked to hang on the gates to his kingdom. But then, all that is the raison d’etre of this rather pointless film.
Chandraprakash Dwivedi is a fine director and Samrat Prithviraj has decent actors who are cast very well. Its CGI is slick and it has a high production quality, but the film is entirely soulless. There is not a moment of joy or thrill in it, including those with Miss India Manushi Chillar. The film has many songs and she gets to dance around a lot. There are also some romantic exchanges. She has a neat figure but no personality. She just gets by on that dreary class-monitor goodness.
Once upon a time I was a huge fan of Chandraprakash Dwivedi. Before Samrat Prithviraj, that is. I loved the way he told epic tales – preserving their weightiness while humanizing them and making them accessible. From meshing Arthshastra with the story of Chankya and Chandragupta Maurya, to Amrita Pritam’s 2003 novel Pinjar, and especially the 2018 film, Assi Ghat (based on Dr Kashi Nath Singh’s novel, Kashi Ka Assi), he demonstrated the skill to keep his stories specific to their time and context, while making them universal through their politics and humanity.
With Samrat Prithviraj, which he has written and directed, Dwivedi has undone all that. The lies and hate he peddles here will dominate and mar his legacy forever.