The last time he was here, the Yamuna ran red for seven days. This time he has come with one lakh soldiers.” That’s a line from Ashutosh Gowariker’s upcoming Hindi movie Panipat, the lodestar battle that Home Minister Amit Shah loves to slide into his conversations.
But as battles go, the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 is an odd choice for a newly patriotic, flag-waving, cheerleading Indian film industry. After all, the most significant and popular memory of the battle between the forces of the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas is that it was a military debacle. It drove the Marathas out of the north for a decade. (Not that you would get the sentiment if you saw the trailer of the Sanjay Dutt, Arjun Kapoor and Kriti Sanon-starrer film.)
So, why would a new India, supposedly still suffering from and still avenging the psychic wounds of hundreds of years of foreign rule, want to revisit the Panipat battle through Ashutosh Gowariker’s ninth film, releasing on December 6? Do Indians in 2019 really want to see the brave Marathas, led by the Peshwa’s cousin Sadashiv Rao Bhau, being brutally destroyed by Abdali, who invaded India nine times between 1747 and 1769?
It’s not a simple memory of victory and loss. This was a decisive battle that changed history, humiliated the Hindu Marathas even as they were on a winning spree, and signalled a shift in power, the fallout of which reverberated for centuries. The battle, as Amit Shah said, “paved the way for foreigners to enter India”. At a BJP meeting in January this year, he said the Lok Sabha elections this year were like the battle of Panipat, and they just could not afford to lose it.
The key lies in the geopolitics of the time.
‘The great betrayal’
The Marathas were virtually ruling Delhi by the middle of the 18th century. The much-weakened 16th Mughal emperor, famously blind Shah Alam II, had been installed by Sadashiv Rao Bhau after deposing Shah Jahan III. The British East India Company was hovering around Delhi, and in 1764 would defeat Shah Alam II in the Battle of Buxar, a blow from which the crumbling Mughal empire would never recover.
But as the Panipat trailer hints, and the tagline emphasises (“The Great Betrayal”), instead of battling the growing power of the British, the Mughals considered the Marathas their real enemy. The movie appears to be based on Marathi historian T.S. Shejwalkar’s work, Panipat 1761, where he argued that the Marathas sacrificed themselves to save the Mughals, who were busy surrendering to the British.
The trailer shows an emperor, clearly Shah Alam II, convinced that no one would dare go against the Marathas. Until a Mughal courtier says: “Ek hai, Jahapanah”. It also shows another Muslim ruler handing over his guns to Abdali. “Ham Maratha ka safaya kar denge. (We will remove all evidence of Marathas from here),” to which the Muslim ally, either from the Rohillas or Awadh, says: “Phir hamari bandookein aapki (Then our guns are yours)”.
The Muslim ‘invader’
Abdali fits the Alauddin Khilji mould of “otherness” – tall, imposing, and dismissive of Hindu martial prowess. The two manifest the stock Muslim “invader” tropes that dominate the 21st-century Hindu psyche. As one of the Panipat posters on Abdali says: “Death strikes where his shadow falls.”
“Why are you throwing your life away for such a small piece of land,” Abdali asks Sadashiv in the trailer, and he answers even more dramatically (or at least as dramatically as Arjun Kapoor’s acting will allow him): “I am ready to die for even a single grain of dust of my motherland.”
Despite Sadashiv’s best intentions, as historian Audrey Trushcke puts it: “The battle was a bloodbath. A standard number given is that 40,000 or 50,000 Marathas were slaughtered. As a Bollywood film in 2019, I would expect to see a strong Muslim vs Hindu storyline and glorification of the Marathas.” Which would mean the demonisation of Abdali. No wonder the Afghan embassy has already written to the Narendra Modi government fearing misrepresentation of Abdali in the film.
Abdali was the first king of Afghanistan, founder of the Durrani dynasty, but not their greatest ambassador to India. As popular historian Archana Goradia Gupta points out to ThePrint, even now in Punjab, which Abdali looted so thoroughly, a saying goes: “Khanda peenda lahe da, baki Ahmad Shahe da (only what we’ve eaten and drunk is ours, the rest belongs to Ahmad Shah Abdali).”
Fact and fiction
For Reliance Entertainment, the distributors of the film, “all the three main cast are looking exciting in their roles”. “The story is patriotic. So, I expect it to do well. In India, traditionally costume dramas do well and in this case, the story is established,” Reliance Entertainment CEO Shibasish Sarkar told ThePrint.
Indeed, unlike Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) and Gowariker’s own Jodhaa Akbar (2008) – which were part-myth, part-real – there is no ambiguity about anyone’s existence here. Gowariker has been earlier criticised by many Hindutva advocates for greenwashing Mughal history and introducing distortions in the portrayal of Akbar.
It was finally the Supreme Court that intervened as the fact-checker for Jodhaa Akbar.
Panipat has been produced by Ashutosh Gowariker Private Limited and a new company started by London-based pharma professional Rohit Shelatkar, Vision World. Shelatkar has been quoted as saying: “The hardships Marathas faced reaching Panipat and fighting the battle with the mighty Afghans 1,000 miles away from their homes in Pune just to protect our motherland from the invaders is something our youth can learn from. There’s a lot to take from Panipat — bravery, might, loyalty, discipline, and patriotism.”
And chest-thumping patriotism is an evergreen winner – in cinema, in deodorant ads or TV channel debates. Especially when it is invoked against the foreigner in history.
The subtext in these polarised times is simple: when it came to the crunch, it was the Hindu Marathas who defended India, not the Muslim Mughals. Is it a coincidence that the movie is being released on 6 December, the day when the mosque built by Babur — who established the Mughal empire after the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 — was demolished in Ayodhya 27 years ago?
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.