Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020) Review!!

Synopsis – Based on the life of Tanaji Malusare, a 17th-century Maharashtrian Marathi military leader.

My Take – Ever since the Baahubali duology opened to massive response and went on to make its roaring mark on the box office, Bollywood filmmakers have been attempting to replicate its success.

While last year saw releases in the same vein like the decently successful Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, the lesser seen Telugu epic Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (at least in Hindi), and the commercial disaster Panipat, this year sets off with the first installment of the ‘Unsung Warriors‘ series, backed by film’s lead Ajay Devgn himself.

The film, which celebrates the life and valor of the Maratha army chief Tanaji Malusare whose bravery in the less talked about Battle of Sinhagad, managed to grab attention right from its casting of real-life couple, Ajay Devgn and Kajol, who return together on screen after close to a decade, and Saif Ali Khan, whose last menacing act in 2006’s Omkara (also starring Ajay Devgn), won him accolades all across the board.

However, when the promos landed the focuses shifted to the sheer lavishness on display, and the fact that it had been prepared for 3D consumption, made a statement itself that debutante director Om Raut is aiming to provide a scale far more extravagant than we have seen so far. The good news is that the film succeeds in being a rousing experience as promised.

Like many other historical Indian war films, the film dwells heavy on the action and the emotions related to loyalty, patriotism, familiar worry and pride, along with some strategy that kept me going amidst all the heavy-handed writing.

Nevertheless, while the aesthetics and the facts may not all be aligned to the period but the sense of spectacle is so potent that you may well forgive those errors of willful omission and commission. And yes, the film definitely has the best visual effects ever seen in a Bollywood film and is comparatively the most satisfying period drama I’ve experienced in recent times.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ajay Devgn’s attempt to score big with a history-based costume drama cum action spectacle, is definitely laudable!

Set in the 1600s, the story follows Tanhaji Malusare (Ajay Devgn), a fierce Maratha warrior, a military leader and one of the closest aides of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (Sharad Kelkar), the warrior king of the Maratha clan. For years, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj continued his fight with the Mughals with a single aim to continue the self-rule of the western lands of India, however, sensing a losing battle and the massive loss of his men, he ends up surrendering 23 forts to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (Luke Kenny) to form a peace treaty.

That is until it is broken when four years, Aurangzeb, with a vision to extend his reign into South India decides to capture the Kondhana Fort (now called Sinhagad), which falls in the strategic Maratha domain. In order for his plans to succeed he sends Udaybhan Singh Rathore (Saif Ali Khan), a fierce yet disgraced Rajput, with a free reign, a huge army and a massive canon to back his campaign.

While Shivaji Maharaj is conflicted at first about sending his best lieutenant to fight back, as Tanhaji and his wife, Savitribai (Kajol) are in between preparations for their son’s wedding, he is compelled to do so as Tanhaji believes he can reclaim the fort and give Udaybhan a head on fight, despite their limited numbers, hereby setting up the Battle of Sinhagad.

While historians believe the battle of Sinhagad was one of the pivotal chapters that would go on to shape the course of today’s Southern India, The film, does not seem overtly interested in understanding the socio-political subtext of history, and is rather focused on using its extravagant setting, lavish costumes, VFX augmented grandeur and spectacle happy action to elevate the drama.

Other than that, though, the film is the usual combination of undying love for the land that one calls own and an unshakeable sense of duty pitted against the barbaric passion for power. Trust a war film to turn a mind game like chess into violence. As valiant as the warriors were and as important a history chapter, it is, nothing if extraordinary. This is Marathi director Om Raut’s first Bollywood film and he’s unbelievably good at his art. Yes, he lacks the zing as a storyteller but as far as being behind the camera to lead the film, he has done a good job.

The dialogues too have that nationalistic sentiment and fervor and even though the principal battle here is between two natives, both a Hindu and a Muslim empire, we are never allowed to forget the fact that this battle is more about territory than religion.

While the film does run for about 131 minutes, with the first half slow on the uptake, given its intentions to lay bare the mechanics behind the growth of a warrior, it doesn’t feel like an overkill and manages to hold on to your attention, barring the sudden disruptions by the song and dance numbers in the film. The panoramic setting, inflated action, massive scale and large cast of characters do lend epic feel to the narrative.

Coming to the creative and technical aspects, the VFX effects are par excellence. The film’s action sequences are outstanding, adeptly choreographed by international action director Ramazan Bulut and creatively photographed by Keiko Nakahara, who aptly captures the dark and shady hues of the film.

On the negative side, the writers could perhaps have done better while setting up roles that justified Ajay and Kajol‘s on-screen reunion after such a long time. Granted a war drama has limited scope of romance and chemistry, but a better characterization of their relationship could have boosted the emotional impact in the climax. The same can be said about Udaybhan Singh Rathore’s motivation, who gets an unconvincing limited backstory to justify his actions. Nevertheless, the film is adorned with praiseworthy performances.

As always, Ajay Devgn manages to keep the audience hooked not only with his action but also with his deadly expressions. He delivers a commendable performance and instills pride in the hearts of the audience with his brave act. Kajol is there only for a handful of scenes and manages to leave a mark.

However, it is Saif Ali Khan‘s menacing performance that stands out the most. The best thing about his character is that he never reminds you of Ranveer Singh’s Khilji. The actor perfectly slips into his role and owns the screen whenever he appears. In supporting roles, Sharad Kelkar is flawless, Luke Kenny is excellent, and Neha Sharma is graceful. On the whole, ‘Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior’ is a well-crafted war epic that is elevated by its superior performances and excellent visuals.

Directed – Om Raut

Starring – Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan, Kajol

Rated – NR

Run Time – 131 minutes

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