‘Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior’ review: A Glorious Spectacle

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Director Om Raut knows how to mount a cinematic spectacle. I’m sure he also knows his history better than most. That he chooses to keep both at a safe distance from each other in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior is a pity and a missed opportunity. For, co-writing with Prakash Kapadia, he could have come up with a political and historical tour de force that laid out the fraught,  messy relationship that Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the Maratha king shared with the Mughal empire and its emperor Aurangzeb (played with surprising niftiness by Luke Kenny), and the complicated roles that the Mughal caretakers—the Rajputs in this case—played in making up this tensile triangle.

Ajay Devgan guns for maximum action.

Overarching all of this throbbing background (that’s glaringly missing in the movie) is the Maratha king’s trusted lieutenant warrior, Tanaji (spelt Tanhaji for reasons best known to numerologists and the film’s producer who plays the titular role, Ajay Devgan; for the purposes of this review, we’ll stick to Raut and Devgan’s preference) who has reasons to be haunted by a past that involves his father, Sardar Kaloji’s (Jagannath Nivangune) gruesome death. The movie opens up in 1670 with nary a nod to the First Treaty of Purandar signed between Shivaji Maharaj and Rajput Jai Singh I five years before. That treaty ought to have been the backbone of the movie, propelled as it did the tensions that eventually cracked the nervous detente between the warring sides. There’s not much for motivations in the movie either. Be it King Shivaji—played with superb heft and emotional dignity by Sharad Kelkar—and his reasons for signing it or the keeper of the Kondhana fort, Udaybhan Rathore (Saif Ali Khan) signed up by Jai Singh (in the movie, by a grateful Aurangzeb), Raut glosses over it all.

Saif Ali Khan bows before none.

And here’s the problem with that approach. That historical facet is painted black and white, instead of the myriad complexities and shenanigans that all tumultuous pasts must encompass. That the director wants to focus on Tanhaji’s attack to reclaim the Kondhana Fort  is clear right from the beginning. That he chooses a linear, simplistic approach to get there is his magnum opus’s deficiency. The other weak angle is the one involving Kamla Devi (Neha Sharma) and her brother Jagat Singh (Vipul Kumar Gupta) that leads to a laughable soiree. But a visually spectacular and entertaining glory Tanhaji is, despite all its flaws. That’s because Raut keeps it just over two hours, doesn’t spend too much time on songs—although he does have his Sanjay Leela Bhansali moments—with Tanhaji looking balefully at Udaybhan in a song sequence in the fort. (But then Bhansali would’ve made the two of them tango, probably throwing in Kajol for good measure.) Speaking of whom, as Tanhaji’s good wife, she’s very good and understated in a role that demands not much from her. As is Padmavati Rao, playing Shivaji Maharaj’s mother.

Sharad Kelkar and Ajay Devgan share a natural bonhomie.

The action sets are done in style (though I still don’t get why 3-D; it’s always been and will be distracting to me) and the climactic build-up and face-off between Tanhaji and Udaybhan is powerful and breathtaking. There’s some enjoyable, tense moments as Udaybhan and Tanhaji and their armies approach each other amongst the treacherous ghats, even as they’re both hit by treachery of the human variety. Despite a role that’s overtly written to send shots of queasiness down your spine, Saif Ali Khan has a ball. He’s gamely even amidst a strange scene that involves him carving out and chomping on—get your anti-nausea pills ready—crocodile meat. That bit of overt character-defining manipulation didn’t work for me and seemed unnecessary. But the actor rises above it to deliver a winner.

Ajay Devgan is horrified…
…as Saif Ali Khan spears no one.

As Tanhaji, Ajay Devgan is sure and rock-steady. Fortunately, he keeps his Singham genes in check and dives into his character’s true-life heroism, sacrifice, sweeping aside all personal commitments for his king and kingdom. Even if the dialogues don’t carry the original punch of the Marathi language (where this incident and its conversations are now part of its idiomatic vocabulary), Devgan delivers a performance with punches where it hurts. Meanwhile after his culinary adventure, Saif Ali Khan better keep a steady supply of antacids close by.

Kajol’s long goodbye.
Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

‘Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s battlefield scenes and meat eating.
Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior
Director Om Raut Time 2h 11min
Writers  Om Raut, Prakash Kapadia
Stars Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan, Kajol
Genres  Action, Biography, Drama

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