December 12, 2017

Original Print | Dec 12, 2017 | The WIRE

We need to ask why the Rajputs of Rajasthan and Gujarat did not protest a series of Hindi films on their history made since the 1950s, but now protest every single film they believe usurps their monopoly.

A lot has been written recently about the opposition to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati, originally scheduled for a December 1, 2017 release. This is an opportune moment to reflect on other recent historical films in Hindi as well – including Jodhaa Akbar (2008, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar) and Bajirao Mastani (2015, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali).

Subjecting historical events to the genre conventions of commercial Hindi cinema typically involves the addition of several elements – romantic love between the male and female lead actors, songs sung mostly by the lead characters, as well as the narrative structure of melodrama. That is to say, social relationships are characterised in terms of moral polarities – good versus evil – so that a desirable social order can be posited in the climax as the ultimate triumph of good.

Among the features common to all these recent ‘historical’ films are the scale of the visual spectacle and the opulence of their production values. Audiences viewing these films in the DVD editions can now learn of the logistics involved in producing such opulence through footage of the shooting of the film, the construction of sets, the designing of costumes, and the filming of key song sequences. The imperative towards producing such spectacle, arguably itself an object of consumption for the audience, dictates the introduction of anachronisms with that intent. Thus, Bajirao, an 18th century Marathi Brahmin warrior, engages in swordplay drawn from the idiom of kalaripayattu from Kerala. In Jodhaa Akbar, mevlevi dervishes from Turkey sing of devotion to an 12th century Sufi pir from Ajmer. Whirling Sufis are visually more compelling than the seated qawwals singing of their devotion to the pir and to Allah at a dargah in South Asia.

Moreover, the audiences for Hindi commercial films have come to expect a certain kind of “action” sequence from such films. Pretend-armour is made from fabric to allow the hero to engage in the whirl of action (accentuated by computerised special effects), that is now a stock element of the genre. In contrast, a real coat of armour made of chain mail, as it would have been in the 17th century, would have been so heavy as to severely constrain the mobility of its wearer. However, merely to list such anachronisms and complain about the misrepresentation or distortion of history is to miss the point, either for the films’ makers or for its audiences.

Instead, it is much more productive to consider how these films are intended to be seen. What such films demonstrate is the usability of the past, but with a decidedly ethical end – this is, quite self-consciously and overtly, intended to be didactic history in the medium of film. Here again, the conventions of melodrama turn out to be useful. In narratives where the “good” characters triumph over political rivals now reinterpreted as “evil”, the filmmaker can insist that great historical personalities have been accorded the utmost respect; and that it was never the filmmaker’s intent to offend anyone’s sensitivities. In fact, both Gowarikar (Jodhaa Akbar) and Bhansali (for Bajirao Mastani) have argued that they set out to celebrate key episodes from a glorious past for the nation.


Ramya Sreenivasan is a professor and Samana Gururaja is a doctoral student at the Department of South Asia Studies, University of Pennsylvania.

Responsible Commenting
We look forward to hearing your comments about this article. Please be respectful of the author and fellow readers.