Hindi films and history: An uneasy relationship

Text : Amit Upadhyaya

Vishal Bhardwaj thrusts the viewer straight into the battlefield in the first scene of his World War II-set epic Rangoon. The plot’s focus here is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. It involves a film star, a studio owner, a soldier, and a sword. There’s a fun idea somewhere in there. In times of jingoism, like todays, a slightly altered version of INA’s history might’ve been an amusing perversion. Bhardwaj’s treatment of the subject, however, is symptomatically inconsistent.

Like Rangoon, Hindi films have ruffled feathers with historical subjects with uneven ease over the past many decades. Film historians will quickly point out, that in sheer numbers, historicals have been a fairly neglected genre in the industry. Nobody wants to tackle one.

Except Ashutosh Gowariker. 

He has delivered four period films with various degrees of success. The most memorable of those, Lagaan, went on to secure the foreign language Oscar nomination. The one to forget was the unicorn equivalent of the Indian historical in the Indus Valley Civilization-set embarrassment Mohenjo Daro.

The dairy cooperative Amul's advertisements are known to interpret pop-culture phenomena. This is one that mimicks the  Lagaan  poster.   Courtesy: Amul India

The dairy cooperative Amul's advertisements are known to interpret pop-culture phenomena. This is one that mimicks the Lagaan poster.

Courtesy: Amul India

His cinema has perfectly captured the difficulties filmmakers face while dealing with the genre. Should the period dictate characters? Or plot? Can the characters be afforded any leeway in moralistic terms? Can there be a play with events, chronology, or even space? Should there be a lesson, at all times (pun intended)? 

These are not easily answered questions. 

Hindi films set in the past are mostly cruel to the characters that inhabit them. Think Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1942: A Love Story. Or Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar. They throw up one-note characters, people who have no purpose to their existence but to drive home a point. So a young man during the freedom struggle has no business to exist outside the struggle. Or at least not feel morally obligated to it. Or a medieval Muslim emperor who marries only to demonstrate his secular ideology. (Despite clear historical evidence pointing to larger political reasons and not ideological.)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has consistently tried to play with space in his films if not time, success notwithstanding. But even he could not do away with this character construct while making his long-dreamed Bajirao Mastani. A successful, able administrator was reduced to a lover-boy. Based on history? No, a novel. Unsurprisingly, his new under-production film Padmavati is facing a backlash with various groups trying to appropriate a fictional queen. 

Partly, these problems arise from poor conceptualisation and execution. But mostly, they’ve to do with the genre living under the shadow of K. Asif’s outrageously successful Mughal-e-Azam. Made over several years, and lavishly produced, the lyrical Mughal era-set love story, unwittingly became the cornerstone of the genre, defining the norms which still largely guide filmmakers. 

Courtesy: Hamara Forums

Courtesy: Hamara Forums

Any reasonable history book will illustrate that the fate of nations don’t depend on the hearts of princes. Asif thought otherwise, and in the world of Mumbai, where rules matter more than common sense, he ended up creating the most unkind of them all—stories set in bygone times are to be about love.

To create empathetic, complex characters has forever been a challenge for Hindi filmmakers. And historical figures, of all, don’t come with neat packaging. Their multi-faceted lives can’t be encapsulated in a single trait. 

They’re not just secular. They’re not just patriotic. They’re not just moral beings. They’re more. 


History can’t be dictated by Mumbai’s market forces. And yet, it is.

There is evidence to suggest that the Mauryan king Asoka renounced violence after the famous Kalinga war because there was nothing left for him to capture in the sub-continent. Celebrated cinematographer Santosh Sivan, however, made the eponymous 2001 epic about the king abating his decision to renounce violence entirely to his (unsubstantiated) love affair with Kalinga’s princess. India’s greatest ruler became a caricature because there’s no room for realpolitik in the cold, harsh world of Mumbai’s film industry.

Revisionism is a natural, if avoidable, companion to the genre. World over, artists try to tack their ideals on fictional characters. In Rangoon, Bhardwaj makes his protagonist Julia a dalit. Fearless Nadia, the star on whom the character appears broadly based on, wasn’t one. 

With a splash of a graphic-novel aesthetic, here's a refresher peek into the 2015 film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! 

Courtesy: YRF Youtube Channel

Authenticity of time and place acquires a singular relevance when dabbling with history. Recreation of that isn’t straightforward, but it can be done, ably demonstrated by Dibakar Banerjee in his thriller Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, set in World War II. 

Aided by the most stunning production design in recent memory, he was able to create a composite world. His story was fanciful, involving the Japanese, the Chinese, and of course the British. Yet, he was able to ground the politics in the time, and deliver a layered, complex protagonist. 

Contemporary historicals in India fare slightly better. MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, an empathetic portrayal of a Muslim family which rejected the idea of Pakistan to stay back in India, remains the defining film of the 'Partition' sub-genre. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Sudhir Mishra’s fine retelling of the emergency era, is the sole film from the last two decades to bring some nuance to the period. Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet was an ambitious misfire in the same zone.

India has a rich oral tradition. History isn’t so much taught as passed on. Mythology too is history here. The first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, was a mythological. The eventual Mumbai film industry, and the ones down south too, successfully made mythologicals for decades. The gigantic, Amar Chitra Katha-inspired world S.S. Rajamouli created in his box-office smash Baahubali was perhaps a (kitschy) tribute to that filmmaking style. To make sense of the world at hand, we need to make sense of the past. History is the key to the doors of the future. It’s a bit ironic then, that the genre closest to mythologicals, which Mumbai filmmakers specialize in, is languishing on crying for a place of its own in a country which claims to be the world’s oldest civilization.


Amit Upadhyaya is a copy editor who walks large stretches of Delhi by foot out of boredom. When he's not reluctant to go back home, he's found watching a movie there. 

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