Samrat Prithviraj: A still from the film. (courtesy yashrajfilms)

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Manushi Chhillar, Sanjay Dutt, Ashutosh Rana and Sonu Sood

Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi

Evaluation: Two stars (out of 5)

A film that does not hide its purpose, Samrat Prithviraj is exactly what you would expect: a whimsical story purveyor draped in Bollywood finery. But for all its desperate distortions, the film would have been considered a passable vehicle for mass entertainment had it not been so utterly tasteless. It’s colorful, action-packed and peppered with music, but it’s spectacularly soulless.

Lead actor Akshay Kumar, transported to the 12th century, dons elaborate period costumes and delivers homilies holier than thou aiming to conjure up a portrait of unblemished righteousness. But, unable to ignore his starry ways, he’s far from compelling as the titular historical figure.

Except that Samrat Prithvirajwritten and directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi, plays fast and loose with facts, it reduces its main characters to convenient caricatures prone to gratuitous bombast.

The declamatory pomposity of the lines they spout, no one more provocative than Sanjay Dutt’s blindfolded Kaka Kanha, a man who’s always eager to get into battle, takes the bloated narrative even further away from any semblance of relatability.

Produced by Yash Raj Films, Samrat Prithviraj is a drama of a laborious and dreary period that can only be described as the extravagance of a poor Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The meaningless pomp and pageantry and superficial drama it serves up in an attempt to push a timely narrative about India’s past add up to a shattering boredom.

The film begins in 1192 in a dusty gladiatorial arena in Ghazni, where Sultan Mohammad Ghori (Manav Vij) and his soldiers happily watch a blinded Prithviraj Chauhan fight hungry lions. The brave prisoner, encouraged by his court poet Chand Vardai (Sonu Sood, playing the balladeer whose epic poem Prithviraj-Raso is allegedly based on this film) of the gallery, not only holds his ground, but also kills the feline attackers.

In the next scene, while almost lifeless, Prithviraj utters the name of his wife Sanyogita, which is a cue to take the film back a few years to medieval Ajmer and Kannauj. It’s time for a long tale of the king of Ajmer’s impromptu marital union with the daughter (newbie Manushi Chhillar) of the treacherous Jaichand (Ashutosh Rana).

But before reaching this point in the saga, the army of Prithviraj Chauhan faces the men of Mohammad Ghori on a battlefield. The battle is triggered by Prithviraj’s decision to give refuge to Ghori’s brother who fled with the sultan’s mistress. It is a war between good and evil.

The main purpose of Samrat Prithviraj is to highlight the virtues of a Hindu warrior-king attached to his dharma (religious) and whata (country). In one scene, someone asks the virtuous king if he is ready to hear the truth. His answer is: he who is afraid to hear the truth is not a true king. Well, wouldn’t that be a really ideal world? One wonders if it still exists if it did at the time of Prithviraj Chauhan.

Samrat Prithviraj celebrates an impartial ruler who shows great heroism and courage in the face of the twisted ways of an invading sultan, who does not hesitate to resort to subterfuge, in his own words, “makkari fareb (fraud and deception). One is a man of impeccable morality; the other is a simple marauder. It is history reduced to a simple and selective binary, as Bollywood so often does these days.

The construction of the good Samrat-bad Sultan constitutes the heart of the film when it does not get lost in anachronistic debates on the right of women to decide their own fate. Not that the film has many female characters – aside from Sanyogita, the only other woman allowed to say a word or two is the princess’ mother (played by Sakshi Tanwar). However, gender equality is an issue that Samrat Prithviraj addresses with great enthusiasm.

The tampering with history reaches new heights when the script cuts out a long, wordy sequence that follows Prithviraj’s decision to share power equally with Sanyogita. This decision sparks a heated discussion with an elderly courtier about whether it is right for a woman to have a say in matters of politics. Sanyogita wins the argument.

His joy is short-lived. All great speeches soon fail. Prithviraj Kingdom women enlist jauhar when the Ghori army arrives at the gates and is about to invade Delhi. The film strives to portray mass suicide as an act of bravery.

Led by Sanyogita, who sings Yoddha ban gayi principal (I have become a warrior), the “imperturbable” women jump into a pit of fire. Like many other things in the 135-minute film, the triumphalism doesn’t carry much water. All he does is mock the truth.

To be fair to the film, it never shows any inclination to get close to anything resembling truthfulness. He takes what suits his epic narrative, twists it to his specific needs, then twists it around until it’s needed before moving on to the next piece of story he deems ripe to play with.

Although it is impossible to escape the fact that Samrat Prithviraj has a thinly disguised agenda, it’s also a film that needs to be assessed for its technical achievements. In this regard, there is not much to complain about. Production designers Subrata Chakravarty and Amit Ray have spared no effort to lend the film grandeur, cinematographer Manush Nandan is in top form, and editor Aarif Sheikh gives the film some momentum.

It’s the writing and the characterizations that leave Samrat Prithviraj down. The script is riddled with empty bombs and the historical figures that populate it are cardboard cutouts that move and talk and have no impact. Among the actors, the only ones who make a sustained impression are Manav Vij and Sonu Sood, but they too are paralyzed by the hollow shell of a film.

A historical drama of this magnitude required more than a big budget. It required a sharper eye, a broader vision, and a greater degree of integrity, none of which are within his reach.