Three things had the grabbed the attention in the promos of Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. First, the sheer lavishness of the film’s frames, and the fact that it had been prepared for 3D consumption. Second, the real-life couple of Ajay Devgn and Kajol, returning together on screen after close to a decade. Finally, Saif Ali Khan’s menacing look as the arch villain of the piece.
Watching Ajay Devgn’s self-produced latest effort, you realise the actor-filmmaker’s intention was not just to create largescale action drama seeped in lavish visual delight. The film, directed by debutant Om Raut, tries reimagining the Bollywood historical genre at a scale far more extravagant than we have seen so far.
If commercial cinema is largely about impressing with visual delight, the unapologetically larger-than-life Tanhaji manages to craft the right spectacular impact.
But there is a very different aspect of creativity associated with mainstream cinema that also needs to be fulfilled to set up a stellar watch. A visually striking film also needs assured writing, and characters that arrest your imagination.
Prakash Kapadia and Om Raut’s writing could perhaps have done better while setting up roles that justified Ajay and Kajol’s on-screen reunion after such a long time, as Tanaji and his wife Savitribai. Granted, the film centres on war drama – which means the scope of romance and chemistry automatically gets curbed. Also, Kajol gets very limited screen time here, though she is still a delight to watch. Tanhaji is mostly about Ajay Devgn’s machismo, and about redefining his vintage action hero avatar with a twist of history.
And then there is Saif, relishing his anti-hero act with the right balance of cold menace and fiery rage that borders on insanity. As Udaybhan Rathod, who was Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s trusted commander, Saif has just delivered a performance that must rank among his career best.
Raut and Kapadia’s screenplay is basically about setting up Tanaji and Uday Bhan’s battle royale. The setting is the 1600s. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (Luke Kenny) has plans to extend his reign into south India. For this, he needs to gain control of the strategic Kondhana fortress, which falls in Maratha domain and which he fancies as the western headquarters of his empire. The Mughal warrior aide Udaybhan is sent with troops to gain control over Kondhana, and he succeeds. Maratha regent Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (Sharad Kelkar) decides to sends his trusted general Tanaji Malusare to re-capture Kondhana. The stage is set for the ensuing Battle of Sinhagad.
Historians believe the battle of Sinhagad was one of the pivotal chapters that would go on to shape the course of today’s southern India. The film, like most Bollywood historical, does not seem overtly interested in understanding the socio-political subtext of history. Rather, the focus here is more on using slices of history to create scope for drama and battle action.
Overall, the film’s action sequences are outstanding, adeptly choreographed (by international action director Ramazan Bulut), creatively photographed (Keiko Nakahara), and bank on smart CGI effects. Technically, the storytelling would seem sluggish in parts of the early hour, but Om Raut’s narrative, aided by crisp editing (Dharmendra Sharma), picks pace as the film heads towards its climax.
An important aspect that ought to be mentioned is Sandeep Shirodkar’s outstanding background music. It works as a malleable entity for the narrative, never too imposing to distract attention from the drama that unfolds on screen.
Tanhaji is substantially enriched by its technical crew that has worked to create a splendid canvas for the cast to shine upon. It tells the story of a lesser known hero from the chapters of Indian history, which makes this an intriguing film.
There will always be the questions raised about authenticity of facts, of course. Not much is known about Tanaji Malusare in any case, which is why any debatable aspect of his story might just be fended off with the statutory disclaimer right at the start. Watch Tanhaji as a well-crafted piece of Bollywood extravaganza, more than an authentic lesson in history.