Ashutosh Gowariker’s upcoming movie Mohenjo Daro is not going to be a history lesson on the Indus Valley Civilisation. This is evident not only from the trailers and song videos for the August 12 release, but also from interviews with Gowariker and his lead actors Hrithik Roshan and Pooja Hegde. Over the past few weeks, Gowariker, who previously directed Jodhaa Akbar (2008), has faced criticism about the inaccuracies and anachronisms that his film seems to contain.
A couple of decades ago, though, Gowariker would not have needed to defend himself. Mohenjo Daro appears to be a typical swords-and-dhotis yarn that is only the latest addition to a film genre that has been influenced by Hollywood but is also uniquely Indian. To demand accuracy and authenticity from the Indian historical is, for its fans, to miss the point.
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 imagined past than an actual one. Indian historicals are not about edification but wonderment. These self-important movies spill over with personages with patrician features, straight backs and raised chins, formal and sometimes bombastic dialogue, elaborately designed dwellings, alluring costumes and jewellery, and classical-themed music.
How infinitesimal and impoverished our lives appear in contrast, how drab our clothes and dull our romantic partners, and how trivial our concerns and familiar our fears. If the story cleaves closer to an Amar Chitra Katha comic than our textbooks, if the sallow-faced and diminutive king’s official portrait doesn’t match the fair-skinned and strapping screen monarch, if the battle ends quite differently from the way 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 movie Anpadh: “Sikandar ne Porous se ki thi ladaai, jo kee thi ladaai, toh main kyan karoon?” Do I really care if Sikandar battled Porous?
One of the oldest genres in Indian cinema, the historical includes titles that also qualify as Muslim socials, or films across eras that explore Muslim society. (The Indian versions of the Ruritarian drama, such as Aan, Dharam Veer and, most recently, Baahubali, are better classified as period fantasies).
In a cinemascape dominated by please-all masala Hindi movies that mashed together romance, action and comedy, it was the historical that showed us other wonders. The spectacles conjured up by historicals compensated for the lack of grandeur in the average Hindi film. Glamour was given preference over fact for so long that realistic explorations, such as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) and Shyam Benegal’s television series Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), were received with veneration rather than enthusiasm. For a serious and sobering examination of the Awadh Empire before the 1857 Mutiny, we looked towards Ray’s movie. To see how a mighty king could be brought to his feet by a dancing girl, we turned towards K Asif’s Mughal-a-Azam (1960).
The better historicals successfully use populist Hindi movie themes such as family conflicts, Hindu-Muslim ties, star-crossed affairs, and back-stabbing challengers, to go beyond being illustrated primers of the period and personalities being explored. Mughal-e-Azam will win the approval of historians, but it isn’t merely about the love story between a prince and the commoner. Asif and his team of writers pack in populist history from the point of view of the dissenter: the defiant courtesan (Madhubala), Akbar’s rebellious son Salim (Dilip Kumar), his conscientious wife Jodhaa (Durga Khote), and the acid-tongued sculptor Sangtarash (M Kumar), whose song Zindabad Zindabad Ae Mohabbat Zindabad is an expression of protest against an emperor’s obduracy.
Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar (1941) treats the battle between Alexander (Prithviraj Kapoor) and Porous (Modi) as an allegory about the Indian freedom struggle. Tucked into the folds of the voluptuous Vyjayanthimala’s low-slung saris in Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali (1966) is a pacifist plea for peace between warring kingdoms.
The passage of time has not been kind to the historical. The relentless insistence on love stories and majestic spectacles should have given away to examinations of the intricate workings of kingdoms and statecraft – but didn’t. The rise of post-colonial studies and new insights that challenged official narrative served to emphasise the anachronisms in such films as Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan (1983). The movie featured A-list stars, one of Khayyam’s most haunting scores and several forbidden pleasures (a near-lesbian moment, the temperature-raising song Jalta Hai Badan), but it is best remembered for painting Dharmendra’s face black and presenting him as the Abyssinian slave who steals the heart of his empress. If there is any film begging for a Spartacus-inspired remake from the point of view of the slave, it’s Razia Sultan.
The historical has also been severely challenged by the rise of what Scroll.in columnist Girish Shahane calls Raving Loony Hindutva History. The all-show-and-no-tell movie is in danger of wittingly or unwittingly reflecting Hindutva myths about the past. The relative innocence and earnestness that marked early entries in the genres have long vanished. We now know far too much, and are far too conscious of how history is coloured by ideology, to blindly accept laudatory accounts of the valour of Prithviraj Chauhan, for instance.
However, facts have never gotten in the way of the historical, which is why Sanjay Leela Bhansali is embarking on a biopic of Rani Padmini even though there is little evidence that she actually existed (just as there are doubts about who Jodhaa was). Bhansali has emerged as a serious contender to Gowariker in dragging the historical into modern times. Bhansali’s old-fashioned treatment of the relationship between a Peshwa ruler and a Muslim courtesan in Bajirao Mastani (2015) harks back to the classic Indian historical, and he looks all set to repeat the feat with his Padmini movie.
In their effort to magically convert the apocryphal into the factual, Bhansali and Gowariker are only following a long cinematic tradition. However, the imagined audience for these imagined versions of history has changed. The historical lives on in an even more kitschified fashion on television. Our inability to match the production values and complexity of Hollywood spectacles is now more painfully obvious than before. The failure of Santosh Sivan’s Asoka (2001) despite its bold flourishes and visual beauty, is one example of the altered expectations of the genre.
One way for the Indian historical to go is to adopt the path taken by Ray and Benegal all those decades ago. At a time when history has emerged as one of the most bitterly fought over terrains, it’s not enough to get the clothes and the baubles right. The historical’s greatest strength is its ability to use the distant past to reflect on the present. A film set in 2016 BC or in the 14th century can be excavated with sense and sensibility. The dead do tell tales. It’s just that we the living need a good reason to listen all these years later.