Historical movies

For fans of Indian historical films, it’s about being dazzled, not informed


Ashutosh Gowariker’s next film Mohenjo Daro will not be a history lesson on the Indus Valley civilization. This is evident not only in the trailers and song videos for the August 12 release, but also in interviews with Gowariker and his lead cast Hrithik Roshan and Pooja Hegde. In recent weeks, Gowariker, who previously led Jodhaa Akbar (2008), has been criticized for the inaccuracies and anachronisms his film appears to contain.

A few decades ago, however, Gowariker would not have needed to defend himself. Mohenjo Daro seems to be a typical thread of swords and dhotis which is just the latest addition to a genre of film that has been influenced by Hollywood but is also uniquely Indian. To demand the precision and authenticity of Indian history is, for his fans, to miss the point.

The title song ‘Mohenjo Daro’.

The genre, after all, is the descendant of Indian traditions of myth, folklore, ballads, and popular history, which have combined to tell us more about an imaginary past than an actual past. Indian stories are not about edification but about wonder. These self-sufficient films are brimming with characters with patrician features, straight backs and raised chins, formal and sometimes bombastic dialogues, elaborately designed dwellings, alluring costumes and jewelry, and classical music.

‘Bajirao Mastani’.

How infinitesimal and impoverished our lives appear in contrast, how dull and dull our clothes are to our romantic partners, and how insignificant our concerns are and how familiar our fears are. If the story is closer to an Amar Chitra Katha comic than our textbooks, if the official portrayal of the tiny, waxy-faced king doesn’t match the beefy, fair-skinned monarch, if the battle ends very differently from how the researchers say it did, it doesn’t seem to matter. We watch these films to be dazzled rather than informed, and our attitude towards them seems to echo Raja Mehdi’s lyrics for the popular song from the 1962 film. Anpadh: “Sikandar ne Porous se ki thi ladaai, jo kee thi ladaai, toh main kyan karoon?” Do I really care if Sikandar fought Porous?

One of the oldest genres in Indian cinema, the historic includes titles that are also referred to as Muslim social, or films through eras that explore Muslim society. (Indian versions of the Ruritary drama, such as Aan, Dharam veer and, more recently, Baahubali, are better classified as period fantasies).

In a cinematic landscape dominated by exquisite Hindi masala films that mixed romance, action and comedy, it is history that has shown us other wonders. The shows referred to by the historical ones made up for the lack of grandeur of the average Hindi film. Glamor has been privileged over facts for so long that realistic explorations, like that of Satyajit Ray Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) and the television series by Shyam Benegal Bharat Ek Khôj (1988), were received with reverence rather than enthusiasm. For a serious and thought-provoking examination of the Awadh Empire before the 1857 Mutiny, we turned to Ray’s film. To see how a mighty king could be revived by a dancer, we turned to K Asif’s Mughal-a-Azam (1960).

‘Pyaar Kiya to Darna Kiya’ from ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ (1960).

Top historians successfully use populist Hindi film themes such as family disputes, Hindu-Muslim ties, cursed affairs, and challengers stabbed in the back, to go beyond the illustrated primers of the period and personalities. explored. Mughal-e-Azam will gain the approval of historians, but it’s not just about the love affair between a prince and the commoner. Asif and his team of writers get carried away by populist history from the dissident’s point of view: the provocative courtesan (Madhubala), Akbar’s rebellious son, Salim (Dilip Kumar), his conscientious wife Jodhaa (Durga Khote) and the acid-tongue sculptor. Sangtarash (M Kumar), whose song Zindabad Zindabad Ae Mohabbat Zindabad is an expression of protest against the obstinacy of an emperor.

Sohrab Modi Sikandar (1941) treats the battle between Alexander (Prithviraj Kapoor) and Porous (Modi) as an allegory of the struggle for Indian freedom. Tucked into the pleats of Vyjayanthimala’s voluptuous low sarees in Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali (1966) is a pacifist plea for peace between warring kingdoms.

The passage of time has not been favorable to history. The relentless emphasis on love stories and majestic spectacles should have given way to examinations of the intricate workings of kingdoms and the art of governing – but it didn’t. The rise of post-colonial studies and new ideas that challenge the official narrative have served to highlight anachronisms in films such as Kamal Amrohi Razia Sultan (1983). The film featured A-List stars, one of Khayyam’s most haunting sheet music, and several forbidden pleasures (an almost lesbian moment, the song that turns the heat on Jalta Hai Badan), but he is best known for painting Dharmendra’s face black and portraying him as the Abyssinian slave who steals the heart of his empress. If there is a movie that asks for a Spartacus-remake inspired from the point of view of the slave, that is Razia Sultan.

‘Razia Sultan’ (1983).

The history has also been severely challenged by the rise of what Scroll. In columnist Girish Shahane calls Raving Loony Hindutva History. The all-spectacle film risks reflecting, consciously or not, Hindutva’s myths about the past. The relative innocence and seriousness that marked the first entries in the genres have long since disappeared. We now know far too much, and are far too aware of how history is colored by ideology, to blindly accept the glowing accounts of the value of Prithviraj Chauhan, for example.

However, the facts never stood in the way of the history, which is why Sanjay Leela Bhansali embarks on a Rani Padmini biopic even though there is little evidence that she actually existed (just as there is. has doubts about who Jodhaa was). Bhansali has emerged as a serious competitor to Gowariker dragging the historic into modern times. Bhansali’s old-fashioned treatment of the relationship between a Peshwa ruler and a Muslim courtesan in Bajirao Mastani (2015) returns to classic Indian history, and he looks set to repeat the feat with his film Padmini.

In their effort to magically convert apocrypha into factual, Bhansali and Gowariker are only following a long cinematic tradition. However, the imaginary audience for these imaginary versions of the story has changed. The history is perpetuated in an even more kitsch way on television. Our inability to match the production values ​​and complexity of Hollywood shows is now more painfully evident than ever before. The failure of Santosh Sivan Asoka (2001) despite its bold flourishes and visual beauty, is an example of the genre’s altered expectations.

One way forward for Indian history is to follow the path that Ray and Benegal took all those decades ago. In an age when history has established itself as one of the most fiercely contested fields, it is not enough to have the right clothes and the right trinkets. The history’s greatest strength is its ability to use the distant past to reflect on the present. A film set in 2016 BC. J. – C. or in the XIVth century can be excavated with direction and sensitivity. The dead tell stories. It’s just that we living people need a good reason to listen all these years later.

The episode on ‘Mohenjo Daro’ from ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ by Shyam Benegal.


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