Tanhaji and field notes on Indian politics

I’ve noticed a pattern at the movies. Every year seems to be ushered with a particular ‘type’ of content that seems to elicit a similar kind of response from the audience during the harvest season. It’s Tanhaji-the unsung warrior this year, Uri-the surgical strike, last year and Padmaavat, the year before, almost, like a ricochet from the parliament. You see the pattern now, don’t you? Of rebellion of a historical personality or a nation against a particular ilk based out of a particular mulk. Anyways going back to Tanhaji, it’s a cinematic retelling of an episode of great sacrifice and valour involving the eponymous Marathi warrior who held fort against a tyrant from the Mughal camp. I personally loved the movie. It had a certain kinetic-earnestness about it, be it the well staged set-pieces, the economies of performances that kept hitting the emotional sweet-spot without over-dwelling and the overarching sense of doom stemming from the lopsided affair that lends a tragic gravitas to the heroism and of course the tik-tok immediacy of the proceedings. Uri isn’t very different. It’s like the contemporary soul-cousin of Tanhaji from across the LOC. If the latter is rooted in history, the former is a pulsating account of the army’s recent strategic strike on a Pakistani militant outfit, after their barbaric misadventures on this side of the border. These are mainstream, blow-by-blow onscreen recreations that you walk in to, with little expectations of finer aspects like nuance or arcs. They’re the cinematic equivalents of an adrenaline shot, where onscreen victories coincide with wolf whistles, depending on which of an Arnab debate you find yourself. To cut to the chase, these are bloody-good mainstream movies, quite literally if you’re in the habit of enjoying them.

Life imitates art, national climate at times. Vice versa. Why wouldn’t it, for the mimesis-meets-money nexus is what keeps the movie business afloat, even more than the others.
And it’s not like right and wrong are predisposed on being right and left only now. It was here that a bunch of elder statesmen led a mob that brought down a religious monument, Gods were paraded naked in a religious pageantry while an entire nation stood mum when “emergency” was the finger on an autocrat’s lips. So it’s not like there weren’t murmurs of disagreement or dirty laundry to wash before. It’s just that there weren’t as many mediums to broadcast them.

A stroll on any social media platform feels like skating on a frying pan. It’s a scalding, hyper-opinionated place that prefers dissent over discussion, name-calling over nay-saying and absolutism over subjectivity. Which is to not to say that we were a docile nation of hand raisers, who waited their turns to partake in a debate, decades before. Tea shops, saloons and parapets were as much about beverage, grooming and fencing as much as they were about gossiping. venting and political dissection. Just that the smart-phone wielding not-so-smart hoi-polloi is endowed with the tools to scale up the dissent to a global level. And thanks to a culture of novices hyper-ventilating about every thing under the sun, there are a lot more opinions than solutions at any given point in time. Sportsmen, film people, politicians and even scientists; literally anyone worth their salt has to be wary of not putting a wrong foot forward, for it would open them up to an avalanche of trolls, whose very identities are founded on this.
And no movie can merely look to tell a story, entertain or engage, It has to be overtly careful about coming across politically correct and reverential about any kind of depiction, be it in terms of gender, sexuality, orientation, religion, community, cast or a political/historical figure.

And to add to this is the majoritarian appeal of the current ruling dispensation that seems to have irked a few and intimidated some others, who earlier felt in charge of shaping the mainstream-narrative from their ivory towers. And after towing a certain ideology all their lives and building an equity  in the process, the present socio-political developments from another affiliation seems to have made them queasy. Which probably explains why they constantly go after low hanging punching bags while on the lookout for inconspicuous places to vent out, like in, say a literary fest or while critiquing a widely accepted mainstream movie like Tanhaji or a Uri, which seem to be in sync with the masses, with which they kind of seem to be out-of-sync.

Which brings me back to this one particular review by a renown critic. She had great things to say about most aspects of the movie in general. Then the “but” came with a sullen expression about the politics of the film being “problematic”. I know better than that to know that the “but” isn’t as innocuous as it looks. It is in fact the battle cry of the disenchanted. While it’s assumed to be a modest stand-in at the end of any positive assertion or appreciation, one needs to look again, carefully, to know that the assertion at the beginning was mere artifice to soften the blow of the “but” as a conduit of constructive criticism, when it was the pin from under the balloon, all along.

What was problematic to her were the suggestive ‘hyper-Hindutva’ tropes employed by the film, where Mughals are depicted as the unanimous philandering, plundering, barbaric, kohl-eyed enemy. This is the aspect I found the most troubling about her review, that of letting her politics colour her opinion of a film.
There are a few things to be kept in mind while trying to deconstruct a movie beyond the surface level. What is the film set out to do or achieve. This gives it a point of view, which lends the film its context, direction, protagonist-antagonist demarcation and the resultant disputes. Run time is another bottleneck that decides what is said and unsaid, what is told and left, the anecdotes to be included and excluded in the flow of a screenplay. So you can’t blanket yardstick a film willy-nilly, in isolation. For instance, you can’t compare Tanhaji to a Jodha Akbar despite them appearing to be in the similar genre. The latter’s a loving hagiography which aims to shine light on its protagonist’s(Akbar) romance with Jodha. The movie unfurls from his perspective, letting each anecdote brew and linger. We see the rights and wrongs, good and bad through his lenses. And given the space, it moves in a languorous fashion as the stakes are more personal, with no major conflict in sight. We walk out with a proximity beyond the CBSE textbooks with the Mughal ruler. This can, unlike Tanhaji afford nuance, character arcs to assume shape and form as its primary goal prerequisites that. But Tanhaji can’t or more importantly needn’t operate at this level of detail, for its eyes are set on a different target. It intentions are to take us through the travails of its protagonist to achieve his goal. So, we get the the why, what and how from his shoes, that imbue the proceedings with a sense of sweaty-urgency. And it is through his vantage, that we also get to participate in the strategems, carnages, losses and the eventual victory. And like how Jodha… wasn’t a Islam propaganda, Tanhaji isn’t about Hindutva or xenophobia.

Going by the current trends at Ayodhya, Kashmir, the ongoing NRC-CAA circus and the upcoming colonoscopic legislation looking to get passed, it would really be interesting to see what is going to be the first release next year. Is it going to pander to the sentiments of the nation, make our chests swell up in pride, tow the pattern at the cinemas or is going to break it? And should it carry the pattern forward, how are the critics going to respond to it then? Throw a hissy fit about it not being in line with their political ideology or just review it as a film alone? We’ll know in the coming months. But it is fascinating to observe a personality, who has been gone for a little over three centuries, polarising the nation, on the same lines as he did when he had a pulse. History does repeat itself, after all.


  1. Jai · April 16

    This is the issue with a lot of film reviews these days. The reviewers launch into a politico-social diatribe, making totally irrelevant deconstructions alluding to current realities, conflicts or what have you. The very idea of “reviewing” a film– talking about the strength of direction, character portrayals, plot integrity and strength – all this is given a short shrift. Besides, one cardinal rule should be: interpreting the movie in its own setting. A historical movie, or one set in a mytho-fictional space, has to be evaluated in that light– not compared to the India of the 21st century.

    I had a very frustrating- if illuminating- discussion with a reviewer some years back, when I dissented with her review of Baahubali. In fact, this was a reviewer I had formerly held in quite high regard, used to follow her print as well as TV reviews for years and considered her (till that stage), analytical and balanced. But her review of Baahubali was so illogical and strewn with fallacies, that I sent in a comment with a polite dissent, pointing out the erroneous assumptions she’d made. I was in fact very careful in framing the comment, because at that stage, there was a lot of heated, polarized reaction to this review which was going on. I did not want to be lumped together with several other ill informed retorts on social media which were frankly bigoted. However, it must be said that the reviewer was choosing to mostly highlight and retort to the toxic/spiteful comments (perhaps as a tactical approach to gain sympathy), while almost totally ignoring balanced critique.

    As you can guess, she launched into a diatribe claiming that I “had pretended to be a liberal while hiding my conservatism”, that I was “only pretending to be progressive, open-minded and forward thinking”. Any and every point I tried to convey regarding the fallacies and untrue-to-historical-setting part of her review, was swept aside with a sneering condescension.

    Several times lately, I feel there isn’t space for a genuine film lover anymore, one who just likes to appreciate or dislike a movie for it’s own virtues/shortcomings. Not everything needs to be interpreted as if preparing for a Political Science exam. And I would wager that the large majority of us are centrists – neither falling for right wing mania or left wing intellectual arrogance. It would be great if we have factual, informed reviews like yours talking *about the movie itself* without unnecessary extrapolations.



  2. Rishabh · April 17

    @paupakiwis- I haven’t seen Tanhaji yet, but I can certainly identify this statement in your review above: “”A stroll on any social media platform feels like skating on a frying pan. It’s a scalding, hyper-opinionated place that prefers dissent over discussion, name-calling over nay-saying and absolutism over subjectivity” and
    “This is the aspect I found the most troubling about her review, that of letting her politics colour her opinion of a film……There are a few things to be kept in mind while trying to deconstruct a movie beyond the surface level. What is the film set out to do or achieve. “”

    It seems reviewing films by the so-called “activist-reviewers” has become an exercise in polemics these days, pontificating and sermonizing instead of actually reviewing the film per se.

    I can also hazard a guess as to who are the “reviewers” referred to in this page – both the one referred to in your post as well as in the comment above. 😀 :-D. Their constant harangues have become frustratingly common and boring, of late!


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