‘History book is the source for each of my films’

Debarati Palit Singh
Tuesday, 3 December 2019

While promoting his film Panipat in the city, filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker talks about the subject, research and dealing with controversies

Ashutosh Gowariker has a strong connection with history. Those who work with him can’t stop praising his knowledge about history and call him a ‘walking history book’. That’s the reason he has always focussed on making period films.

His latest Panipat is based on the third battle of Panipat and he says, “Whenever we talk about wars or battles, we talk about who won and who lost. The third battle of Panipat cannot be described like that. It’s about who fought, how they fought and what was the outcome in terms of the state of mind. It was fought with so much courage that after that war, the invader never came back. Ahmad Shah Abdali was taken aback by the valour of the Maratha army. It was also a unique case because the number of people killed in one day during the battle was equivalent to those killed in battles that were fought for days. It was massive and probably the biggest battle fought on the Indian soil. They did not want invaders on their soil,” says Ashutosh when we catch up with him during the promotion of the film in the city on Saturday.

He adds that the spirit of the Maratha soldiers in the battle was praiseworthy. “The entire expedition to travel up North, 35,000 people stopping an invasion, the courage of the army — all this is a huge inspiration. Imagine people in such a large number walking thousands of kilometres, crossing three rivers over three months. It’s a huge task and I was astonished by this,” he says.

Panipat, which is releasing on December 6, stars Sanjay Dutt, Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, Mohnish Behl, Padmini Kolhapure and others.


Ashutosh says that he never takes his research material from a novel and concentrates on history books. For Panipat, he says he took award-winning historian Tryambak Shankar Shejwalkar’s book Panipat 1761, as his source. “The reason I never refer to novels is because a novel is a dramatic rendition of a story, just like a film. So my dramatic rendition cannot be a copy of another dramatic rendition. Manini Chatterjee’s Do and Die was my reference point for Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. She is grand-daughter of one of the people who fought and survived. For Jodha Akbar, three books including Akbar Nama, which were written during the reign of Akbar became my source,” he adds.

As each of his films is based on true accounts of history, how does he manage to balance the creative aspect with reality? To this, Ashutosh replies, “Mann Mein Shiva, the song from Panipat comes after Sadashivrao Bhau raises the Marathi flag and there’s a celebration. But in reality, did they sing and dance, which was choreographed? I don’t think so. But in cinematic form, I cannot have normal celebration. It needs to be a cinematic rendition of that emotion and extension of that joy.”

He adds that one has to keep knitting facts with fiction. “That’s why I take a lot of time to write. In Jodha Akbar, I did not make Hrithik Roshan dance. He only sat and watched performances and he did a twirl in a song.”
Many would consider his decision to pit Arjun (who plays Sadashivrao Bhau) and Sanjay (Ahmad Shah Abdali) against each other a big and risky decision.”Sanjay comes with years of experience. I needed a David and Goliath. I needed big, established actor with great persona who, when he stands, oozes command and attention. Sanjay has that. This is the new Sanjay Dutt, who has got that gravity,” he says, adding, “And Arjun with the youthfulness, has a very large warrior-like stature.”

Ashutosh recalls that though in the scripting stage, he had written the names of the two actors he wanted (Arjun and Sanjay), he would keep checking at every point while writing, if their casting matched. “I would keep balancing and then I made the call to them,” he says.   

His films have always been mired in controversies. Panipat is no different. Social communities have raised objections over a few dialogues and sections of the Afghan community have expressed their displeasure with the portrayal of Abdali, the Afghan emperor. “A lot of people don’t know history and I don’t expect them to know. If I ask people about Chandragupta Maurya, most will know nothing or very less about him or his reign. But the moment I announce a film on him with Rajkummar Rao in the lead, people will raise objections. But you didn’t even know about Chandragupta Maurya, why are you asking questions?,” he says.

He tells his critics to first let Panipat release and then raise questions. “The film is for entertainment. It’s going to have a cost,” he says.

Is Ashutosh also prepared that the film is going to be compared to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani because the story is set 20 years after that story? Ashutosh says such comparisons are natural and he’s ready for them. “It always happens. When I made Jodha Akbar, it was compared to Mughal-e-Azam for no reason. In audience’s mind, the last such film was Mughal-e-Azam. They also questioned how the young Hrithik could play Akbar and how was he going to be at par with Prithviraj Kapoor. But Prithvirajji played the old Akbar, while Hrithik the young one,” he adds.

Recently, Marathi author Vishwas Patil had filed a lawsuit in the Bombay High Court and accused Ashutosh, producers Rohit Shelatkar, Sunita Gowariker, and Reliance Entertainment of adapting his 1988 book of the same name, without giving him the due credit. “As I said, I do not refer to novels. History book is the source for each of my films. I have only purchased three novels in my life,” Ashutosh adds.

For him, Panipat is highly anticipated as his last film Mohenjo Daro did not fare well at the box-office. Does he enjoy working under pressure? “I do not work under any pressure. I am making what I love the most — movies and my pressure is about getting the screenplay and production right. I don’t have performance pressure. If you have that, it will affect the creative aspect of the film,” Ashutosh says.

He adds that the non performance of his films like Mohenjo Daro at the box-office, teaches him what the audience did not like or found missing. “You have to move on to your next film. And it is not easy to make your next film when your last one did not give the box-office number. But I have been lucky,” says the Lagaan filmmaker.       

In spite of facing controversies for all his films, Ashutosh continues making historical/period films. What motivates him? “While choosing a story or script, I am not thinking about what apprehensions or objections people will have. Because if I start thinking about that, I will not choose the right story; I will be worried. I think, objections, apprehensions will be there for any kind of historical film, whichever history you choose. People know some aspect of history and they want to know if that aspect is being shown in the film or not and it’s difficult to do that, especially when your history is so vast.”

He adds that he keeps certain steps in mind when he thinks that a particular story needs to be told. “We have to decide what to keep and what not. Those choices I am making as a filmmaker based on history. I like to imagine history responsibly because to be authentic is the most important thing for me. I have answers to everything that comes my way because I research the subject for long, so some films take two-three years to make. I know every aspect of my film — like why I am keeping certain characters,” he says, adding, “I believe in my answers and in the past, I have won all the cases filed against my films. During the announcement and making of the film, people haven’t questioned me but it’s only during the release of the film.”  

But has the thought ever crossed his mind to take an easy way out and make a Bollywood pot-boiler so that no one has any objection? “I don’t think that’s my specialty. It’s very difficult to make a masala entertainer and there are so many filmmakers who do it so well. That’s why they say, ‘To each is own’. Every filmmaker should do what they can do,” he signs off.

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