For his latest film, Akshay Kumar dons his armor, puts on his most regal expression and hopes the costume department will do the rest. Heavy is the head that wears the turban in Chandraprakash Dwivedi Samrat Prithviraj, based on the legend of Rajput King Prithviraj Chauhan. Best suited for playing swaggering cops or gumball comics, Kumar fits this period drama as well as Priyanka Chopra did the biopic of Manipuri boxer Mary Kom.
Like most historical films of Hindi cinema in recent years, Samrat Prithviraj relates more to the present than to the distant past. The 135-minute film portrays Prithviraj as “the last Hindu emperor” whose defeat and death (resulting from betrayal rather than his own actions, of course) leads to centuries of “alien rule” that only ends. in 1947.
Prithviraj’s challengers can be found both within and beyond the borders of his empire. In remote Ghazni, Mohammed Ghori (Manav Vij) is eager to invade and plunder. Back home, Prithviraj must fight his future father-in-law Jaychand (Ashutosh Rana) for the hand of Jaychand’s daughter, Sanyogita (Manushi Chillar).
One explanation for the complete lack of connection between the protagonists could be the brutality of the actor Chhillar for the first time. But that probably has more to do with the 29-year age gap between the cast, which refuses to be masked by the effects of aging on Akshay Kumar’s face.
Elsewhere in the film, Kumar struggles to be convincing as a dog whistle on the lessons of Indian history. Saffron is both a bright spot in the subdued brownish backgrounds as well as the main ingredient in Prithviraj’s characterization as a holy warrior given to frequent declamations on the Hindu dharma, a man who declares his intention to defend his religion until his last breath.
Yet when Prithviraj has Ghori at his feet, he let his opponent go. It is the first of a series of questionable decisions, the blame for which is distributed elsewhere. If Prithviraj’s astrologer and confidant Chand (Sonu Sood) is to be believed, his king’s eclipse is predestined. And then there’s the betrayal of people like Jaychand to consider.
Prithviraj is portrayed as a pure soul who is too good to be true (Varun Grover’s dialogue and lyrics compare the king to gods and mythical heroes). This is how our local kings are, devoid of chicanery and incapable of torpor, unlike some ambitious locals and barbaric foreigners, declares the film.
Ghori asks: When do four Hindustanis walk together? When they have to lift a fifth Hindustani’s beer.
The musculature of thought is conveyed by a heavy, even pedantic, narrative tone. The characters stand as if in a debating class, arguing over what should be done next.
Amidst the deafening background score a la Amar Mohile, the stiff acting, which is mistaken for restraint, and Dwivedi’s inability to achieve a consistent rhythm, make the minutes crawl between the two sequences that close the film and are its main attraction.
The slow bits that connect Prithviraj being sadistically treated by Ghori with the fiery fighting Rajput ruler are only briefly animated by Sanjay Dutt as Prithviraj’s irreverent adviser Kaka Kanha. Dutt’s Kanha is the only one who feels like a flesh-and-blood person rather than a character ripped from an epic text.
The shadow of Sanjay Leela Bhansali hangs over the scenes in which the principal actors and extras stand in perfect formation or at exact angles to each other. But lacking Bhansali’s bliss with spectacle and movement and unable to add anything new or interesting to what is already widely known about Prithviraj Chauhan, the film does its best to be stately. and impressive, just like its misinterpreted hero.