History bears testament to the valour of Sikhs, the martial race that is well regarded for its courage on the battlefield and waging war against injustice. In Hindi cinema, Anurag Singh’s Kesari (2019) starring Akshay Kumar, mined history to bring one such historical tale onto the silver screen. The latest Punjabi language film Mastaney (2023) transports audiences to 18th century Punjab to tell a rousing story that pays homage to the unstinting courage of the Sikhs. Mounted on a lavish scale and directed by Sharan Art, the film goes where no Punjabi film has ever gone before.
Taken from Sikh history legends, the story is set in 1739, when Iranian ruler Nadar Shah had laid siege upon Delhi and after defeating the Mughal ruler, Muhammad Shah, was making his way back to Iran. With the plunder and slaves in tow, his troops crossed Northern Punjab, where they were met by stealth attacks by the Sikhs. Baffled by the attack by rebels whom he did not recognise, the ruler demanded to know about the Sikhs.
Dramatizing the legend, Mastaney unfolds in Lahore, where Nadar Shah (Rahul Dev) commands the ruler of the city, Zakaria Khan Bahadur (Avtar Gill), to produce Sikhs before him. Unable to capture the warriors, the ruler hatches a plan and hires a motley crew of five men to impersonate the Sikhs instead. Thus come in an odd group made up of swindlers, petty thieves, smooth talkers and a fakir. Bashir (Karamjit Anmol), Zulfi (Honey Mattu), Feena (Baninder Bunny), Qalandar (Gurpreet Ghuggi), and Zahoor (Tarsem Jassar). Qalandar is the only one who has encountered Sikhs and under his guidance, the group tries to put together a performance in front of Shah but are transformed in the process.
The ambitious film with an elaborate production design, VFX and costumes, creates rich, textured visuals, bringing 18th century Lahore to life. The palaces, bylanes and the cityscape have been painstakingly crafted to create a sense of verisimilitude. As a regional film, this is perhaps the biggest achievement of Mastaney, especially as the special effects have all been done in-house. Cinematographer Jaype Singh captures the city from different angles, allowing us to get a sense of the scale and splendour.
Although the legend on which Mastaney is based is a powerful one, the screenplay does not feel fleshed-out enough as it meanders on its way to the climax, which itself is long drawn. Zahoor and Noor’s (Simi Chahal) romantic story seems half-baked and her desire for freedom, a bit peripheral. The entire fireworks sequence is baffling and rather unnecessary. Zahoor is clearly inspired by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean series, which is deeply disappointing, as for such an original concept, the writers should have had the confidence to create an original character.
The most moving scenes of the films are those that showcase the indomitable spirit of the Sikhs. The energetic rousing battle cry against tyrants is powerful and inspiring, and one wishes that this central theme of the film was presented more effectively and given more screen time in the narrative.
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The overall performances are praiseworthy and the story tries to balance the more serious scenes with light-hearted fun through the characters of Bashir, Zulfi and Feena. The actor who really shines is Gurpreet Ghuggi. Best known for his comedic performances, the actor has given a riveting, nuanced performance as Qalandar, the fakir who speaks in couplets and becomes the binding force of this band of brothers. The music, especially the upbeat songs “Shehzada” and “Masti Masti” are enjoyable.
Beginning with a wide historical perspective that looks at the origins of Sikhism, Mastaney moves towards the rise of the Sikh empire. Placed within that perspective, it almost feels like an origin story, with stories of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the glory of the Sikh empire to follow. With Mastaney, Sharan Art has created a magnificent, rich canvas for his creation. One hopes that with greater focus on a tighter script, there will be more historical films to follow.
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Mastaney movie cast: Tarsem Jassar, Simi Chahal, Gurpreet Ghuggi, Karamjit Anmol, Rahul Dev, Honey Mattu, Baninder Bunny, Avtar Gill, Arif ZakariaMastaney movie director: Sharan ArtMastaney movie rating: 3.5 stars
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