The Bollywood-made-historicals: Truth or entertainment?

As Ashutosh Gowarikar’s ‘Panipat’ gets ready to blitz the screen, Monojit Lahiri wonders whether history converted to fiction is a good idea

The Bollywood-made-historicals: Truth or entertainment?

Monojit Lahiri

Goliyon ki Ram Leela, Bajirao Mastani, Padmavat, Mohenjodaro, Jodha Akbar...Bollywood has been unspooling a range of historical sagas over time to mesmerise goggle-eyed viewers. Most of these movies have been bumper hits, attracting solid theatrical footfalls. Very few amongst the viewers have ever questioned or challenged the veracity or authenticity of facts or startling discrepancies that powered these films. They just sat back in a wilful suspension of disbelief, zonked by the hi-octane drama, romance, songs and action that showcased the spectacle.

However, in recent times, there have been voices expressing concern about this (unholy? opportunistic?) alliance.

Respected history professor Anirban Bandopadhyay takes first strike. “Akshay Kumar will now be playing Prithviraj Chauhan in a Hindi biopic, probably based on the lore of Chand Bardai. Soon enough, he is likely to play Rana Pratap too. Those of you who take history seriously, please read Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor. Read it before Chandra Prakash Dwivedi messes up your head with grand delusions of a majestic Kumar galloping away with a coy Sanjukta. That famed swayamvar (incidentally) never really happened! Even devout historians didn’t endorse it in the past...but these are different times. Professionally manufactured pride-commodities are aggressively marketed, sold and consumed like never before — and now comes Bollywood’s version of the Battle of Panipat. Confusion gets confounded all over again!”

The history professor, while understanding the compulsions of Bollywood in terms of outreach, engagement and ROI, suggests the use of public historians – a frat who call themselves historical consultants, museum professionals, cultural resource managers and interpreters, film and media consultants etc. This, he believes will lend this genre more respectability and credibility and not trivialise these films to heroic, comic-strip, easy-to-digest, simplistic and feel-good packages.

Eminent veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal comes next with his evolved perspective. “First things first. We as a people have never really shown undue concern or sensitivity about our history, putting it aside once our school/college days were over. We prefer mythology because it is more intimate and malleable. It can be re-scripted to suit the tone, tenor and temper of the times. Historical figures too are sacrosanct and to tamper with them can lead – as we saw regarding Padmavat – to problems. Bollywood certainly means well in its desire to salute historical figures, but along the way seem to leverage creative licence with a heavy hand. Facts frequently are sacrificed at the altar of fiction because, at the end of the day, BO rules!”

Manisha Khanna is shocked at these allegations. “Hey, c’mon guys, give Bollywood a break, okay? All the films mentioned were dazzling spectacles that blew our mind! We – as viewers – are neither research scholars, historians nor obsessed with the letter, but spirit of the narrative. Were the great epics (Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, El Cid, Alexander the Great, etc) totally faithful to facts? Who cares? Chill guys. If you are so picky, hit the library, not movie theatres! God, can’t wait to see the dashing Akki as Prithviraj Chauhan! Another blow-out super hit coming up, for sure! Please carry on with your Section 375 and Article 15, but for us Bollywood diwanas, Bollywood historicals are totally jhakaass stuff!”

Social commentator Santosh Desai wraps up the debate in style. “Benegal is right. As a people, we have never been overtly caring or knowledgeable about history, beyond what was taught in school and college. Bollywood’s invasion in this area is firstly due to a ready-made, pre-sold content-base to a captive audience. Further, this material superbly amplifies the Mera Bharat Mahan template, which as a junta, we strive to celebrate. Here, the heroics of the great historical figures – real, imagined or created – come handy to give expression to nationalism and patriotism, which has always worked and today, taken on a life of its own. When these uplifting narratives are headlined by superstars mouthing passionate rhetoric in the backdrop of mind-numbing sets and powered with high-voltage drama, romance and action —it’s a win-win all the way! At the end of the day, it’s not realism, accuracy or acting that counts; it’s filmy, audience-friendly posturing!”

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Published: 08 Dec 2019, 11:00 AM