When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Likewise, when Bollywood gives you historical dramas, subtract the history out of it. In both cases, the benefit is yours. Director Om Raut’s Tanhaji: The Unsung Hero is based on the valorous life of Maratha king Shivaji Bhonsle’s loyal military chief Tanaji Malusare. Starring Ajay Devgn in the lead, the film attempts to make a historical from the material that’s possibly what you read in primary school textbooks and Wikipedia with an extra paragraph of needless fiction. Before we write off the attempt completely, let me tell you that the film is still good fun and here’s how!

First up, I would appreciate Om Raut for knowing his film’s space. There is not much flesh and nuances that he can offer with respect to his screenplay and its components. In order to compensate, the maker renders Tanhaji a mega visual spectacle. He designs his opulent fare in 3D with immaculate, astutely choreographed action scenes, catchy, masses-friendly dialogues and characters that are either black or white in nature. This understanding could be the reason why Tanhaji refuses to look like a film that imparts a history lesson. For them and the viewers, the environment is more on the glossy Baahubali side – a stratosphere which is easy to belong to and easier to sell.

Tanhaji’s USP, easily, is Keiko Nakahara’s breathtaking cinematography. It is very much in the Amar Chitra Katha zone that we wait for the subsequent frames to unfold – with the same curiosity as we have flipped through the comic books. The colours and textures also resemble a video game but with some average VFX in place. The beaming background score is something that works big-time unless it decides to blare loud chants and a recurring piece that bizarrely resembles A R Rahman’s iconic Mukkala Muqabala (Kaadhalan). There are also a couple of highly avoidable songs which exist for the sake of it, besides subtly asserting Saffron pride. Also, I wonder, how the men employed in the Maratha army found time to rehearse so as to put together a deftly choreographed performance. Guess it all comes in their job descriptions or else these dances couldn’t have existed in a long list of Bollywood historicals, beginning from Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat to Panipat and Tanhaji.

That aside, Raut’s film does not believe in research. The idea is to make the most of the opportunity which is that this specific genre is minting money at the box office. We get characters who talk only in slogans. There is a good Muslim versus bad Muslim parallel, yet again. The leading ladies (Kajol and Neha Sharma) are subservient and are restricted to being listless, showpieces. The film also tries to be woke by not fully taking stances and by walking the thin line to not appear overtly casteist – which are areas in which the film fails miserably. With the writers and their pea-sized brains trying to attempt wokeness, Tanhaji ends up endorsing the much-criticized idea of India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The film convenient ignores the possibility of acknowledging how Tanaji belonged to a lower caste and yet the royal family treated him sans any bias (as shown in the film). Instead, it goes about projecting Mughals as evil perpetrators and Marathas are the ones who stood for freedom and good governance. The difference, as was the case in Panipat, begins right from the colours either parties are dressed up in.

The biggest disappointment – despite being performed so well by Saif Ali Khan – comes from the way the writers (Prakash Kapadia, Om Raut) conceive the antagonist, Udaybhan. While we can’t use the blanket term Islamophobia here as Udaybhan happens to be a Hindu, the film gives him all characteristics that are usually reserved for Muslims in this newly-emerged sub-genre. Much like Padmaavat’s Khilji and Panipat’s Abdali, Udaybhan gorges on meat. And wait, it’s not chicken or goat but a baby crocodile out of all animals. He has kept a woman captive (Neha Sharma) and consent is not one thing he is aware of. Seen mostly in clothes of black shades, his maniacal victory dance is also unsurprising. Somewhere I wonder what prompted Saif Ali Khan to accept this part. I mean, it is not exactly one that needs to flex any extra acting muscle. I really and earnestly hope that it’s the paycheque because otherwise there’s nothing going in favour of this irresponsibly written villain character.

An out-and-out Ajay Devgn fare, the actor delivers what is expected of him. There’s not an ounce less or more. Sharad Kelkar as Shivaji Maharaj has a majestic screen presence whereas Padmavathi Rao as Rajmata Jijabai is the only woman character who stands tall in this all-male spectacle.

Despite Tanhaji contributing to the worrisome narrative change that a section of filmmakers is attempting, I must confess that I enjoyed the film to a good extent. For starters, it is not a technically shoddy product by any measures. Plus, it makes a lot of sense to deem Tanhaji as a fantasy fiction fare as opposed to a chapter from history. Unintentionally hilarious in portions where it attempts humour, it’s impossible to take a film seriously if its trailer uses the term ‘surgical strike’ of all things. The rest is up to you to relish with your favourite bucket of popcorn by the side.

Rating: ★★★

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