Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior stars Ajay Devgn as the valorous hero of the film’s title, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s trusted lieutenant Subedar Tanhaji Malasure, who, according to legend, never backed away from a fight. Yet it’s Saif Ali Khan, playing the film’s villain, who appears to be having more fun.
Saif plays Udaybhan, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s Rajput general, who sports black robes, a thick beard, a deceptive smile, and an unending appetite for cruelty. Let’s just say he’s cut from the same cloth as Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji.
The film, directed by Om Raut, is set in the year 1670, and focuses on the Battle of Sinhagad between the Marathas and the Mughals. History has it that Tanhaji abandoned his son’s wedding to defend the Kondhana Fort near Pune from Udaybhan and his troops.
The filmmakers stick to the broad strokes of the story, but details appear to be cheerfully exaggerated and fictionalised. Characters, communities, and empires are reduced to archetypes. The Marathas are all noble, swaraj-worshipping warriors; the Mughals are opportunistic, deceitful, invaders.
Over nearly two hours and fifteen minutes the stage is set for a sprawling epic that is frankly less historical and more action saga. It is also the best way to enjoy this film. Tanhaji is first introduced in the film swooping down on the enemy in a ravine, his men and him vanquishing them with strategy and sheer daring. It’s a stunning entry.
The film is mounted on an extravagant scale, with massive sets, big action set pieces, booming background music, and elaborate costumes. There is more than a whiff of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and particularly Padmaavat in the film’s lighting and colour tones. The cinematography by Keiko Nakahara is sweeping, very much in keeping with the overall brief of aesthetics.
The action scenes are especially effective, and further enhanced if you choose to watch the film in 3D. Sequences depicting the guerilla tactics employed by the Marathas to scale the fort are excellently executed, and the final battle between Tanhaji and Udaybhan is nothing short of spectacular. With a deadly cannon aimed in the direction of Shivaji’s Rajgad Fort, the two men face off in a bloody fight to the finish.
Of the cast, Kajol shows up in the role of Tahaji’s wife Savitri, and the scenes between them benefit from the actors’ easy chemistry. Sharad Kelkar nicely channels Chhatrapati Shivaji’s nobility, and Luke Kenny is an inspired casting choice for the role of Aurangzeb.
Ajay Devgn brings unmistakable earnestness to the role of the honourable warrior. It is to his credit that even while mouthing heavy dialogues loaded with repeated use of words like “bhagwaa dhwaj”, he roots the hero in a kind of relatable humanity. The scene-stealer, however, is Saif Ali Khan who sinks his teeth into the role of Udaybhan. His sadistic general is a man who throws cold water on sleeping prisoners, and in one scene sends a poor guard falling to his death after screaming in his face.
It must also be said that Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior speaks directly to our hyper-nationalistic climate. The history is dubious, the politics problematic. It feeds into what seems to have become Bollywood’s preferred stereotype of the enemy: all savage, brutal, ruthless ‘outsiders’.
If you can look beyond that, you’ll appreciate the robust filmmaking, the visceral battle scenes, and a delicious performance by an actor who’s seldom got his due. For some that will be enough. I’m going with three out of five for Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior.
Rating: 3 / 5