The Akshay Kumar-starrer Samrat Prithviraj, directed by Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi, has flopped at the box office. The theorists are tweeting, for there is no pleasure greater than that of spinning observations into trends, stringy data into solid conclusions. Some liken its failure to the Kangana Ranaut starring action spectacle Dhaakad, noting that neither social media stardom nor bootlicking the regime necessarily works at the box office. Others linked the failure to previous Akshay Kumar flops— Bell Bottom and Bachchhan Pandey, the latter a remake of Jigarthanda, which had successfully revived the Cine Madurai genre of gore. They noted that Akshay Kumar’s star seemed on a steady wane.
But one Twitter account, Veer Sorry Worker, had a more sobering conclusion. Contrasting Samrat Prithviraj to The Kashmir Files, which in one vitriolic swoop could become one of the most profitable Hindi films of all time, the tweet said: “Misery of Hindus sells better than the Glory of Hindus.”
But I believe this makes little sense in the face of the most glaring fact—that Samrat Prithviraj is an ineffective historical film. If it wanted to instil Hindu pride, it needed actors with more dignified conviction, and a production and musical palette with more orchestral swells, more rapture. Akshay Kumar, known for his comic roles, his gummy smile designed to be laughed at, is now suddenly being invoked as regal by pasting on a waxed moustache? While playing Bajirao, Akbar, and Mastani, respectively, Ranveer Singh, Hrithik Roshan, and Deepika Padukone deepened their tones, almost relinquishing their voice, submitting to another tonal range and body language. You could, for example, see Ranveer Singh’s throat throb with intensity when he spoke, his dialogues would make him breathless, so angry he forgot to let air into his lungs, his muscles almost bursting through the cloth. Deepika Padukone did not so much walk as glide. Hrithik Roshan’s body ripped through the angrakhas, his voice so deep it was almost non-diegetic.
In comparison, there is something lazy and casual, almost contemporary, about Akshay Kumar’s performance and comportment. Besides, for a film whose bedrock is romance, the chasm between the 54-year-old and a 25-year-old Manushi Chhillar is a chaste, barren land. The love feels written and rehearsed, a meekness that saps the film of any possible erotic vigour.
What then can be said of a film for which candied folk history was not grand enough a canvas that it needed a dream sequence to depict love? That Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the baroque maximalist director who pushed the historical genre into vogue with Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, refused dream sequences because the reality he was puppeteering was dream-like enough.
If, on the other hand, Samrat Prithviraj wanted to peddle hatred, drip-feeding Kool-Aid into its viewers’ veins like The Kashmir Files—effectively, I might add, given that the Monday evening houseful theatre I was in sighed and grunted in union at the “right” moments—it is terribly banal. The most provocative thing about it is its endnote, written in cursive Hindi, white on black. That after Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Hindu king of north India, for 755 years Delhi was under “ videshi hamlavaron aur hukmranon”, foreign invaders and rulers, until it was wrested back to “Bharat Mata” after Independence.
Flattening Muslims to Mughals and then banishing them outside Indian history, peering in, has become the mainstay of the Hindu historical film—a trend that certainly isn’t new but whose full force feels entirely contemporary, for living through a moment makes it feel like the central, culminating ocean into which time has flown. Robert Sewell’s 1900 text, A Forgotten Empire, was one of the first on the Vijayanagara and described its kings as “a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests”. This narrative has always existed, even as its historical veracity was challenged and later discarded.
Bombay cinema, however, was always aware, perhaps too sentimentally, of its incursions into public discourse. The early pioneers—Raj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Mehboob Khan, B.R. Chopra, Guru Dutt—were extremely conscious of their role; many lyricists were from Marxist movements. There was always the awareness that cinema was performing a national identity, providing narratives of belonging and dislocation. There was something didactic about their art, which has moved to streaming now, with virtuous Muslim characters written across shows such as Paatal Lok, Guilty Minds and The Broken News.
Hindi cinema has always had historicals— Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan—whose preoccupations were secular or romantic, whose aesthetic grandness was always palpable, whose historic authenticity wasn’t important because the intent had no trace of poison. This innocence even reached beyond the millennium with Jodha Akbar, a film indifferent to whether Jodhabai existed or not, rooted instead in love—corporeal, spiritual, patriotic.
With Padmaavat, however, the genre sharpened its fangs. For Bhansali, a director who sacrifices politics, morals, feminist values for grandeur and beauty, the story of the evil Khilji and the righteous Rajput fighting over the Sinhala princess was exactly that. But it was easy to read it as the evil Muslim and the righteous Hindu. In the later context of the Modi regime’s insistent Islamophobia, when films like Manikarnika, Tanhaji, and Panipat made the dichotomy flagrant, Padmaavat became like the slit in a can of worms.
Samrat Prithviraj follows the Padmaavat road map and is based on a hagiographic poem written centuries after the events it describes. ‘Prithviraj Raso’ is reincarnated, with an inordinate use of the word dharm and the eventual death of the Hindu king not because of cowardice or weakness but the Muslim enemy’s stealth. Padmaavat, of course, did extremely well at the box office, because it was so shamelessly beyond politics, so exhaustingly beautiful that it was easy to forget that the river of red running towards the flames was actually women jumping into their funeral pyre in the climactic jauhar scene.
The historical genre allows for exaggeration, maximalism, extravagance, poetry, indulgence, selling myth as history, hagiography as biography, creating a line between the present and the past. It is this last that is most troubling.
It was in this context that the rationalist Govind Pansare in his book Who Was Shivaji asked two pertinent questions. First, should a king be revered in a democracy? Second, how can miracles be done away with in stories of historical figures made for audiences of the present?
These are complicated questions. On the one hand, they recognise the need to spin stories of morally awe-striking characters. On the other, they cast doubt over the utility of these characters, this awe. Part of this doubt is a worry of reading too much of present politics into past events. Take the politics of colour, for instance. In Bajirao Mastani, Mastani, a Muslim woman, stands up to an arrogant Brahmin and says that while colour chooses no religion, religion, with a poisoned heart, has chosen its colour.
Watching a historical today is to shudder at references that feel contemporary, squirming at their distillation, like the weaving in of cow slaughter in Manikarnika or the throwaway reference to Somnath in Samrat Prithviraj. The body stiffens, caught in the vortex of the intent of the film-maker and the impact on the audience. The film, like water, flows through the cracks.
When I spoke to Chandraprakash Dwivedi, he was disturbed by the reactions to his film—why are the Chauhans speaking Persianised Hindi? Why isn’t Muhammad Ghori shown in more twisted shades of evil? Why isn’t the rape of Sanyogita shown? For Dwivedi, the Somnath reference—where Prithviraj is reminded by his courtier of the sacking but decides to give his protection to a Ghaznavi Muslim anyway—allowed the film to argue that Ghazni’s actions were no reason to extract vengeance from the contemporary Muslim. That there is no cascading cultural debt they have to pay off.
Dwivedi has worked on historical subjects since the 1990s; in Upanishad Ganga, he used Dara Shukoh to introduce the Upanishads. But he seemed discouraged about the historical genre, whose spurt he attributes to Baahubali, which gave producers the confidence to put their heroes in dhotis. Historicals, said Dwivedi, allowed audiences to expect from cinema a validation of their present politics. His film, however, is based on a text and whether that text is myth or history is of little relevance to him as artist. He is clear that his film has drawn extensively from Shyam Benegal’s celebrated Bharat: Ek Khoj. Why the swerve in audience response? Probably because there is today such a vast economy of hate that art can either be banal or provocative, with no middle ground.
History has thus ceased to be a space of awe, becoming instead a contested battleground where one argues the politics of the contemporary. Amartya Sen desperately clinging to Akbar and Ashoka in his essay The Argumentative Indian was one manifestation of this. As historian Upinder Singh in her book Ancient India: Culture Of Contradictions said, “The past has always been as complicated and disaggregated as the present”, but there is something about how history is shown in cinema that completely yanks it out of that reality. The past becomes a mythical place.
How, then, to speak of history in art? There is no answer, and perhaps only examples we can extract vague ideas from.
Take Girish Karnad’s play Tughluq (1964), which looked at the 14th century Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, infamous for eccentric decisions such as moving the capital and moving it back again or issuing token currency and completely devaluing it. Yet, Karnad described him as “the most idealistic, the most intelligent king ever to come [to] the throne of Delhi”, who was undone “because of contradictions within his personality and the self-defeating nature of his politics”.
Karnad humanised a totem, creating striking parallels between his and Nehru’s autocratic idealism. But central to Karnad’s conception was giving voice to the disenchantment of a generation, the erosion of their trust in public institutions, the sapping of hope for a future. He wanted to spotlight not a character—historical or contemporary—but a rumbling feeling he could poke through these characters. He created what Professor Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker called, “a complex ideological and intertextual connection between history, historiography, and his own fiction… to not perpetuate but to problematise received history”.
That, too, can be a product of the now tainted genre of historical drama. To problematise received history.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.