NEW DELHI — It was a film that was expected to set the box office on fire.
The story of Prithviraj Chauhan — a handsome king who stole a beautiful princess, who had professed her love for him, from right under her treacherous father’s nose and fought valiantly in sweeping battles involving elephants, horses and larger-than-life men — has resonated with Indians for hundreds of years.
Often described as “the last great Hindu emperor”, Chauhan ruled over present-day Rajasthan and Delhi in the 12th Century. And the timeless love story of the king and his beautiful queen Sanyogita and the battles he won — and finally lost — against Muhammad of Ghor figure prominently in history textbooks.
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, who plays the titular historical role in the film and is one of India’s most bankable actors with legions of fans at home and abroad, recently said that playing the warrior king was “a matter of pride” for him and that if his mother was alive, she too would have been very proud of him.
But on Sunday, when BBC’s Geeta Pandey took her seat in a cinema hall in the Indian capital, Delhi, to watch Samrat (emperor) Prithviraj, the much-hyped celluloid version, she said her expectations were already tempered.
Just two days since the film’s release, there were plenty of tickets available, and the auditorium was at least one-third empty. Reviewers had trashed the film, calling it “soulless”, “tedious” and “dreary”. Shubhra Gupta, film critic for the Indian Express newspaper, described it as “simplistic, shorn-of-nuance, a film that is loud and lurid”.
By Monday morning, reports said, cinema halls were cancelling shows due to a lack of ticket sales and the film was deemed a spectacular failure.
So how did that happen?
Samrat Prithviraj was wrapped in controversy from the start.
In the run-up to its release last Friday, it had created a huge buzz on social media with Kumar’s controversial comment that “history textbooks are filled with information on Mughal invaders, but have little on the glory and valour of Hindu kings such as Prithviraj Chauhan”.
Kumar has made news in recent years not just for his films but for his growing proximity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, even earning the moniker of “poster boy for Hindu nationalism”. Three years back, he had attracted much ridicule for a TV interview where he’d asked the prime minister whether he ate mangoes and whether he chopped them up or sucked on them while standing over a sink.
No surprises then that the film got a big leg up from the government. Three BJP ruled states made it tax free — to bring ticket prices down and make it more appealing to audiences. And Home Minister Amit Shah, after watching it with Kumar at a special screening, described it as an important part “in the journey of India’s cultural revival which will take the country back to its glory days”.
But the film, historians say, is riddled with inaccuracies, based as it is on Prithivaj Raso — a poem by Chand Bardai who was said to be the king’s court poet. They say it was a fake account, written in the 16th Century, 350 years after Prithviraj’s death.
And critics say the film is the latest in a long list of movies being made under the BJP government to paint India’s Muslim minorities as “outsiders” and “cruel invaders”.
Historian Arup Banerji says these accounts were not written to meet historical accuracy. “You can’t judge historical writings by the standards of our time. These writings were mostly panegyrics, written to glorify the leaders and rulers.”
And films, he says, are being made for a particular audience and they have a certain purpose — “a politically-consciencizing role” — and the audience that goes to see Bollywood films such as Prithviraj or Jodha Akbar or Padmavat is not looking for historical accuracy.
But, Prof Banerji says, complexities of history cannot be reduced to the Hindu-Muslim binary.
“Prithviraj was fighting a war concerned with protecting his territory, he was not fighting Muslim invaders. To get to Delhi, the Turks from the west had to come via Rajasthan, his territory, so resistance was unavoidable for him, it was an accident of history. So he cannot be recruited into a camp now to serve the interests of the current ruling party.”
But with muscular nationalism at its peak now, “is it any surprise that a Hindutva-inclined Bollywood filmmaker finds Prithviraj an attractive personality to bring to the cinema screen?” he asks.
“They are co-opting figures from history and it’s a part of BJP’s ever-advancing campaign to colonise people’s cultural beliefs. The aim of this film is to capture people’s imagination, so they want to show Hindus who were victorious over Muslims.”
Shubhra Gupta says many films are made “to buttress the glories of the past”.
“The idea is to make them so shiny and formidable that the audience shut their eyes to all that’s happening in the present. It’s happening in many parts of the world, not just in India, where figures from history are being co-opted by the governments for their benefit.”
But the big question for Akshay Kumar, she says, is — “why has your general audience turned their back on you?”
“And to my mind, it seems that it’s not just because of the kind of film it is, but also that the narrative hasn’t got anything that leaps off the screen at me. Except for a few moments, this two-and-a-half-hour film is so dreary.” — BBC