An Opulent, Spectacular Film That Speaks To So Much

 

Just as most film rasiks in the world were engrossed with Star Wars, Indians & the Indian Diaspora were mesmerized by a film steeped in earthly war. It is a film that is creating an awakening, that is evoking a deep sense of pride among Indians. It is a stunningly opulent film, magnificent in its panoramic portrayal of events & powerful characters that live to this day in our heart. It is an enormously tragic film about a society whose leadership made a terrible choice in favor of conventional morality over statecraft, a choice with devastating consequences for India, so devastating that they directly led to conquest of India by the British a mere 50 years later. 

We have lived with the story and its impact on history since childhood. But for much of India, the film is a stunning introduction to the story. The film is Bajirao Mastani (#BajiraoMastani) and it is taking off in India to an enormous sense of pride both in the story and in the art of Indian film-making. First, the conventional wisdom from a First Post article:

  • “Bajirao Mastani is almost everything the world has come to expect from a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Almost. It is a ravishing spectacle, the costumes are lush, the jewellery dazzling, the sets extravagant, the cinematography brilliant, the frames painterly, the lead cast more gorgeous than you would imagine human beings could be. For this alone, it is worth watching” 
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What is even superior is the performance of Ranvir Singh who has “lived” Bajirao in this role. This young actor has given a performance that is one for the ages. We simply cannot imagine any one else delivering the enormous grandeur & complexity of Bajirao – from a young conqueror who burst onto the Indian plains like a human tornado to a man shunned & driven out after his conquests by his own family & society that had become rich & powerful because of him. 

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Despite everything we have written above, our first reaction to the film was disappointment, deep disappointment – not for what the film was but for what it was not.

1.This film is not … 

Bajirao was a great conqueror, a cavalry general par excellence. That North & Central India had been under 700+ years of successive defeats & constant subjugation by Muslims from Afghanistan & Uzbeskistan. Into that land, Bajirao burst forth from the young Hindu kingdom of Maharashtra to conquer all of North India defeating every single Muslim general serving the Timurid Mongol rule. Bajirao won 41 battles in his 20-year career without losing a single one. His hallmark was sheer speed of his cavalry and tactical genius in, what British WWII Field Marshal Monty Montgomery has praised as, “masterpiece of strategic mobility“.

What would you have expected had you watched the three-minute trailer below?

 

We expected a film like “Patton”, the magnificent film about General George Patton of WWII, a film that was entirely focused on Patton’s genius in armored mobile warfare. In contrast,  #BajiraoMastani stops being a film about the military genius of Bajirao after about 15-20 minutes. 

Frankly, this was our fault, a fault of our own misguided expectations. As noted lyricist & screenplay writer Javed Akhtar says constantly, the Bollywood audience only cares about love stories. So we must unhappily admit that it will take India another 10 years or perhaps another 20 years to make a “Bajirao” film that can do justice to the enormity of the “Bajirao” story. Until then, Indian film industry will only focus on the tale of Bajirao-Mastani.

But what a tale indeed? And what a majestic, phenomenal film that does justice to the tale!

  • Amitabh Bachchan ‏@SrBachchan Dec 22 – T 1188 –Blessed to be in times of “BajiRao Mastani” the film by a master behind the camera and a host of extraordinary talent in front of it

If you watch the film, you will realize that Mr. Bachchan is actually understating the case.

2.Passion, Love & Rejection – A tale & film for the ages

Bajirao was 28 yrs old when he took an army to the Northern state of Bundelkhand to rescue a Hindu king named Chatra-Saal from a Mughal-Afghan general named Mohammed Bangash. The grateful Chatra-Saal showered gifts on Bajirao and gave Bajirao his stunningly gorgeous half-Muslim daughter named Mastani, the “intoxicating one“. Her beauty is legendary and there was no one to match her at that time.

The film takes liberties with the sequence of events and the precise details of the tale. But the film has become a richer story because of these liberties. In the film, Mastani is portrayed as a warrior princess who comes to request Bajirao for help. Later in the battle against Bangash, Mastani saves Bajirao’s life. Bajirao & Mastani were pinnacles of commanding victorious manhood & ethereal feminine beauty. Their passion for each other proves irresistible. Bajirao leaves for his capital city of Pune and Mastani follows.

That is where the irresistible force of passion meets the immovable object of regal statecraft. In Pune Mastani is looked at as a dancer that Bajirao can enjoy but Bajirao insists on making Mastani his second wife. The Maratha Empire is just getting started; the vision of an Indian Kingdom freeing India from foreign Uzbeki Timurid Mongols is being to be realized under Bajirao – the purest Indian, a loving son, a great brother to almost equally capable Chimaji and the hope of the entire Marathi state. His sudden fall into behavior that can only bring disgrace to the family, the state & cause into question the pursuit of conquest shocked his mother, younger brother, the entire court and all the stake holders of the Marathi Kingdom. They refused to believe that their beloved Rau could fall so far so fast. They had to protect him from himself.

That began a struggle, an intense conflict that tore at Bajirao. Here he was everything that his family, his brother & chief lieutenant, the entire court wanted him to be and more. He was the victor, the man who enriched his family, his court and people, a man who went away on conquests eight months of every year for their benefit and they could not do one simple thing for him – they could not accept the woman he loved, they could not accept Mastani for his sake, not as their queen but simply as his second wife.

The conflict gets deeper and violent. Assassins are sent to Mastani’s section inside the royal residence to kill her. He can protect her while he is in Pune. He gives an ultimatum that either they accept Mastani or he will resign as Peshva. They don’t budge and he resigns. That prompts enemies to attack. His generals come to Bajirao to ask him to take command again. Bajirao cannot even conceive of remaining out when his land is being attacked. And he takes charge again knowing that will doom Mastani. He knows that once he leaves the capital of Pune, Mastani will be taken care of. But he has no choice. 

As the battle is planned long away from Pune, Bajirao learns that his own son has imprisoned Mastani. After the battle is won and enemies routed, Bajirao wants to take the army and attack Pune. His own staff, people who have given up their lives to him for the past 20 years, ask him whether he will invade his own state, his own people. Bajirao is rendered helpless & impotent. Every one he toiled for, every one that was closest to him abandoned him and he is essentially banished from his own capital while his love & second wife is imprisoned within with their little child. 

The end of Bajirao is heartbreaking to watch. After rash campaigns in which he tempts death, an overworked heartbroken Bajirao finally falls ill and retires to the banks of the Narmada river in a solitary tent with his chosen guard. This part of the film drains the audience as we watch the human trajedy unfold. His mother & first wife come to his bedside and he doesn’t recognize them. He keeps asking for Mastani & they send orders to Pune to release Mastani. But Nana, Bajirao’s young son, ignores the orders of his own mother & grandmother and refuses to free Mastani. Finally Bajirao dies in a final act of delusional action against his own demons. Read what the noted Bollywood-Hollywood director Shekhar Kapur said about it:

  • Shekhar Kapur ‏@shekharkapur Dec 22 – … A scene in #BajiraoMastani of @RanveerOfficial fighting his own demons is as brilliant as anything I’ve seen in Indian Cinema

3. Historic Tragedy of Geo-Strategic Proportions

The film does a terrific job of showing the human tragedy of Bajirao-Mastani. But the film doesn’t even touch the enormous geo-strategic tragedy that arose from the early death of Bajirao. 

By 1740, Bajirao had conquered the entire Northern plains of India. There was no one who dared challenge Bajirao. The Mughal ruler of Delhi had been reduced to a figurehead. The Portuguese colonies on the western coast of Maharashtra had been destroyed and the Portuguese banished to the tiny enclave of Goa. 

What remained was to banish the Afghans back across the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan and to destroy the British colony in Bengal. Bajirao was merely 40 years old at that time, only 20 years into his reign. He was at the peak of his career and the Marathi army was at its most dominant condition. The Hindu kings in North India had accepted the sovereignty of Bajirao. There was nothing to stop the conquest of Indus plain that is today’s NonPakistan, of Attock & of Peshwar. This was the vision the great Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Marathi state, the vision of Hindu State in all of India. This was the vision that burned inside Bajirao as the film makes clear in the first few minutes.

All this was at hand. It only needed an acceptance of the greater good by Bajirao’s family, especially by his younger brother who had been a devoted & extremely capable number two to Bajirao. But none of them had the overpowering strategic vision, the simplest & yet most profound ability to focus on the strategic outcome above all every day issues. Near the end of Bajirao, Chimaji the brother wishes that they had accepted Mastani as his second wife and stopped the trajedy that befell Bajirao. But even that point, Chimaji says he wishes Mastani had been a Hindu Braahman so that they could do that. Even at the end of Bajirao, Chimaji could not accept the concept of converting Mastani to Hinduism & accepting her for Bajirao, his beloved brother & hero.

This is the enormous contrast between Muslim invaders & Hindus. The Timurid Mongols, or Mughals as they are now called, always focused on the big picture. Any one of them would have solved their Bajirao-like problem swiftly and decisively. A Mongol-like Bajirao would have converted Mastani to Hinduism; demanded his mother, brother & court to accept the converted Mastani as his second wife; he would have imprisoned his mother & killed his brother & his court had they refused. Then a Mongol-Bajirao would have been free to resume his conquests.

Such decisive brutality helps establish & further empires. This is why the Mongol rulers lived & reigned far longer than the Peshvas – Jalal ud-din Mohammed (“Akbar) reigned for 49 years and the most successful Mongol ruler of all, Mohi ud-din Mohammed (“Aurangzeb”) lived for 90 years and reigned for 49 years. In stark contrast, Bajirao’s reign lasted 20 years and Madhavrao’s reign (Bajirao’s grandson) lasted only 7 years.

Bajirao’s early death turned out to be a tragedy from which Maratha empire never recovered. His elder son, Nana, was only an administrator. His younger son Raghunath, the little boy in the film, was a gifted cavalry general. He did fulfill Bajirao’s dream in a lightening conquest of what is today’s NonPakistan – he won Lahore, Multan & all of Panjab. Then he won the battle of Attock and then the final battle of Peshawar in 1758. That drove the Afghans back across the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan & reversed  the Afghan conquest of Peshawar in 1001 when Mahmoud Ghazni defeated the Hindu ruler of Panjab. 

But 1758 was a different time than 1740. The intervening 18 years between Bajirao’s death & Raghunath Rao’s conquest had eliminated the opportunity for the Maratha Empire to become sovereign of North India. And Raghunath Rao was no Bajirao and didn’t instill fear in enemies. The intervening period made the Maratha generals like Shinde & Holkar become semi-independent of Pune thus weakening the cohesion of the Maratha military. This intervening period also allowed the British to become much stronger in a North India that lacked a dominant power. 

The saga of Mastani also created a fear among Peshvai women – the fear of their own husbands bringing back their own Mastanis from the North. This was a major reason for the biggest defeat of the Maratha Empire in the largest battle of the 18th century. The wife of that commanding Peshva general, Sadashiv Rao, insisted on accompanying her husband on the campaign for fear that he would bring back another Mastani. Sadashiv Rao was the nephew of Baji Rao & the son of Chimaji, Bajirao’s brother who was instrumental in the rejection of Mastani. So the wounds of Mastani saga were fresh. The ruling Peshva was Nana, the same son of Bajirao who had imprisoned Mastani. Nana agreed with the wife of Sadashiv Rao and allowed a large number of wives & their staff to accompany the Maratha army.

This was no longer the swifter than wind Maratha Cavalry of Bajirao; this was not an army capable of strategic mobility that won battles for Bajirao. This proved decisive and the Maratha Army lost the largest battle of the 18th century. That battle was so brutal & so debilitating that Afghans never returned to India and the Maratha Empire was weakened. The only long term winners turned out to be the British. A mere 50 years later, an Indian army led by the British defeated the last Peshva and the East India Company of Britain completed their annexation of India. With the enormous human, financial & material resources of India (22% of World’s GDP in early 18th century) under their control, the British went on to build a worldwide empire.

This is the real tragedy of the Bajirao-Mastani saga. 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the detailed context. Makes it better for me to watch the movie when I do.

    On the point about the “Hindu psychology”, I guess we’re still struggling with this same issue in it’s current manifestations ….. too much sedentary “civilization” perhaps? One that is too preoccupied to hold on to existing ‘assets’ vs taking risks to conquer new ones?

    Of course it wasn’t always wasn’t like that …. the way the Shakas etc were ‘Hinduized’ shows us the pragmatic way out ….

  2. After reading this superb analysis, I realised the great significance of Bajirao’s achievements, and how his presence for a few more years could have changed India’s history. Its very well written. Congratulations!

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