Sadashiv Rao Peshwa (Arjun Kapoor) returns home to Pune victorious from the battle at Udgir Fort. But his reward is not the command of a greater army. Instead, Peshwa king Nanasaheb’s jealous wife ensures that Sadashiv is put in charge of the treasury and has the unpopular job of collecting taxes.
When news of an alliance between Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali (Sanjay Dutt) and Rohilla chief Najib-ul-Daula (Mantra) and his march into India reaches Pune, Sadashiv is once again instructed to strap on his armour and ride into battle. His mission is to protect the vast Peshwa empire. At this point, the audience needs protection from the amped-up background music and loud drumbeats that announce Abdali’s arrival.
Sadashiv’s feisty wife Parvati (Kriti Sanon) insists on accompanying him on the long journey to Delhi, partly to ensure that he, like his uncle Bajirao, should not return after months on the battlefield with a “mastani” on his arm. But given Sanon’s short sari blouses and vastly exposed midriff – rather bold for the 18th century – the insecurity is clearly misplaced.
Back to the trenches. Sadashiv, who is depending on the Peshwa allies to help fend off Abdali’s attack, is betrayed by a number of rulers who switch allegiances. The backroom dealings, strategising and espionage lead to the third Battle of Panipat in 1761, which director Ashutosh Gowariker revists through a combination of historical research and cinematic imagination.
The spotlight is almost always on the upright and loyal Sadashiv, whose bravery is given legendary status by Parvati, the narrator of the story. After an indulgent and unhurried 173-minute runtime and after watching Sadashiv launching spears and brandishing swords, a question lingers: why couldn’t some of the lavish costuming budget have been diverted towards improving the computer graphics? It would have been far more enjoyable to take a peek into Abdali’s durbar had his fort looked less like a sandcastle.
Barring his introduction scene, Sanjay Dutt gets scant opportunity to make his character memorable. Despite his best efforts, Arjun Kapoor does not quite hit the right note as the Maratha warrior. As the flirtatious, supportive and courageous Parvati, Sanon (seamlessly toggling between Hindi and Marathi), gets a part that showcases her range.
Gowariker finds the emotional connect in the scenes between Kapoor and Sanon, but there’s a been-there-seen-that feel to the battle scenes and the drama of the royal court. This is an interesting chapter of history to revisit, because the winners were not the real heroes of the Third Battle of Panipat.