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Is Samrat Prithviraj As ‘Progressive’ A Film As So Many People Claim?

The message the filmmakers tried to convey wasn’t about "women not deserving to live after facing sexual violence" which is problematic in itself, but instead about women not deserving to live at all after losing their husbands.

After being criticised for criticising jauhar and its depiction in Bollywood films, I felt pressured to sit down and watch Samrat Prithviraj (2022) to understand whether the film is genuinely as ‘progressive’ as people claim it to be.

As someone who tried really hard to find something positive in Samrat Prithviraj, I would say that the film definitely didn’t work for me. Since most people who have watched it feel that the film did justice to the theme of women empowerment, I think it is important to understand where and how it actually went wrong. 

Sanyogita is a unidimensional character – we don’t really get to know her

The character of Sanyogita (Manushi Chhillar) feels that ‘brave’ men like her lover, Samrat Prithviraj (Akshay Kumar) deserve to be worshipped in temples just because they fight and win wars. Her entire existence depends on a man she has never even met, and her love is so deep that she sings about him even when she is playing holi with her female friends.

As a result of that, the only thing that the viewer gets to know about Sanyogita is that she is madly in love with the male protagonist. Was her character not fleshed out properly just because she is a woman?

As a viewer, I would’ve liked to spend more time with Sanyogita, but the film is so invested in hero worship that it doesn’t allow her character to breathe.

Can we do away with the warrior princess archetype please?

Ask those who have watched the film to associate a word with Sanyogita’s character and most people will say Yoddha (warrior), perhaps because of the song she dances on before dying.

This ‘warrior princess’ archetype was initially introduced in Jodha Akbar (2008) in which Jodha was shown to be someone who was taught sword fighting as a child. After that, it became a trend for the female protagonist to be a warrior princess in Indian historical dramas.

Whether it is daily soaps like Maharana Pratap (2013-15) and Chandra Nandini (2016-17) or blockbuster films like Baahubali 2 (2017) and Padmaavat (2018) or even bestseller novels like Sita: Warrior of Mithila (2017) and The Forest of Enchantments (2019), the princess always has to be a warrior.

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Why can’t she be a poet or an artist or singer or a dancer or someone who loves to read?

Before performing jauhar, Sanyogita tells the women around her to dress as warriors because she associates that with bravery. However, aren’t those women who embrace their femininity brave, as well? A woman doesn’t have to be a ‘warrior’ in order to be strong and male Indian film directors (and writers) need to internalise that.

Can women be empowered and speak up only when men ‘allow’ them freedom?

Even though Sanyogita is shown to be a vocal woman in the film, she only voices her thoughts when someone disrespects her lover or when she expresses her desire to marry him.

Furthermore, she needs her knight in shining armour, Prithviraj Chauhan to rescue her when her parents try to marry her off to someone else. Once she is rescued, she loses whatever little agency she was shown to have earlier in the film.

In order to make themselves appear more ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’, the makers of Prithviraj Chauhan added a scene in the film in which Chauhan asks Sanyogita to become an active part of his courtroom. He explains how he wishes for the two of them to have equal rights in his kingdom. When she refuses to accompany him, he tries harder and somehow convinces her. However, even in the courtroom, Sanyogita only speaks for herself when he signals her to.

This entire scene seemed to be purposefully added in the film to tick off “respects women’s rights” from the list of Prithviraj Chauhan’s ‘positive’ traits. If he really cared about women, why was his queen the first and the only woman in his courtroom? Did he not know about the existence of women before getting married?

Was the jauhar scene really about women’s empowerment and safety?

All those who say that jauhar was committed by Sanyogita in the film to protect herself from the sexual violence she might face need to understand, that there was no mention about the same in the film. It breaks my heart to say that the message the filmmakers tried to convey wasn’t about “women not deserving to live after facing sexual violence” which is problematic in itself, but instead about women not deserving to live at all after losing their husbands.

There is absolutely no discussion that Sanyogita is shown to have with anyone in the film about her physical safety or the need to protect herself from the men who would soon take over her husband’s kingdom.

In one scene, a man comes and informs her that her husband is no more and offers to help her escape. However, she proudly declares that she has no intention of escaping and wishes to burn herself alive, instead. In the next scene, she is shown to discard bridal attire for a warrior’s attire and dance to death. How are these scenes not problematic?

Can Indian filmmakers please stop recycling the same dialogues and phrases…

Anyone who has watched Indian epic or historical dramas like Baahubali 2 (2017), Padmaavat (2018), and Tanhaji (2020) would’ve realised how not only the dialogues and phrases, but even the tone in which they are spoken out has been copied by the makers of Samrat Prithviraj.

The protagonist in the film talks about Hindu Dharma in numerous scenes in the exact same manner as Baahubali had talked about Kshatriya Dharma in Baahubali 2 and Ratan Singh about Rajput Dharma in Padmaavat. Furthermore, the battle cry ‘Jai Bhavani!’ in the film was heard in both Padmaavat and Tanhaji.

The replicas are so poorly delivered that they fail to evoke a feeling of nationalism in the viewer.

…and ensure better dialogues and dialogue deliveries in historical dramas?

All those who criticised Alia Bhatt’s accent in Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) would feel like patting her on the back and complementing her if they heard Akshay Kumar and Manushi Chhillar’s Rajputi accent. It is clear that the actors were given absolutely no training, and that resulted in them delivering their dialogues in their regular accents.

What’s more is that the dialogues themselves were also poorly written and lacklustre, and could not create the desired impact.

In numerous scenes, Prithviraj Chauhan and Sanyogita are both shown to have mediocre comebacks for those who do not agree with them. However, all those who hear the two of them are suddenly shown to realise their mistakes and transform as if the two characters have guns in their mouths that magically explode the ‘regressive mentalities’ of those who’ve lived in a patriarchal world all their lives.

Who on earth asked for a romantic number in a historical drama?

Just when I think we are done with clichéd romantic numbers, a Bollywood song about heterosexual romance shot in a desert is released.

If this is a film about history, why is there a romantic number awkwardly squeezed into it out of nowhere? Do the filmmakers want to prove that Prithviraj Chauhan was as colourful as Chulbul Pandey?

In conclusion, when privileged cisgender men decide to randomly explore the theme of gender equality in their creative work, they must know that they will fail miserably if they continue to think like men while doing so.

Women empowerment is definitely not a man mansplaining women empowerment to a woman. Therefore, it makes absolutely no sense to celebrate this film just because it touched upon this theme without doing justice to it.

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About the Author

Upasana Dandona

A dysgraphic writer who spends most of their time watching (and thinking about) Bollywood films. read more...

39 Posts | 166,454 Views

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