Opinion and Editorial

Bollywood takes a simplistic view of history

R Krishnakumar
Filed on November 28, 2019 | Last updated on November 28, 2019 at 09.25 pm

Chapters from history texts are increasingly sourced for films that play out for a popular mood and a contemporary, majoritarian sensibility.

A couple of minutes into the trailer of Tanhaji, an upcoming Hindi film based on 17th century Maratha warrior Tanaji Malusare and the battle he led to capture the Kondhana Fort, the makers announce the film's premise in grand text - "The surgical strike that shook the Mughal Empire". Those who have been following some of the ultra-nationalist political narratives in India will tell you this is an interesting choice of words.

The "surgical strike" has been widely used in media and as pop culture reference in India since it announced its 2016 air strikes on militant camps across the Line of Control in Kashmir. The words did form the tagline for Uri (2019) - one of the year's biggest blockbusters - which was set around the strikes but they've also been used to aggrandize any assertion of strength or stealthy manoeuvre that leaves the adversary, the enemy, outplayed. Last week, they were used in social media slugfests on a political coup in the state of Maharashtra where India's ruling BJP tried to derail the opposition Congress party's run-up to a power-sharing alliance by engaging with a band of rebels and stitching together its own coalition. It wasn't about military might; even on political terms, it was more brazen lobbying and subversion than precision or tact.

Chapters from history texts are increasingly sourced for films that play out for a popular mood and a contemporary, majoritarian sensibility. This is a genre in itself, partly reflecting popular cinema's recent fascination for India's heroes, both warriors from storied battlefields and its post-independence icons. It also reflects a time that celebrates an assertion, and appropriation, of a new form of Indian-ness affiliated to the current political dispensation and its ideological roots. The strike, surgical or splashy, is now also the expression of a one-note nationalism that is finding acceptance among A-list filmmakers, actors and the audience.

Actor John Abraham was quoted in a recent interview as saying that he and actor Akshay Kumar had been discussing how they keep doing films with nationalist themes. It's a time when "the feeling of being Indian is the highest," he said. In 2019 and 2018, both Abraham and Kumar had releases for India's Independence Day; all the four films had themes with nationalism as dominant flavour - an anti-terror op, a space mission, vigilante justice, and a national hockey team's Olympic Gold-winning campaign.

Next year, Kumar will feature in a historical - a film based on the life of 12th century king Prithviraj Chauhan. Ajay Devgn who plays the lead in Tanhaji will be seen in a 2020 Independence Day release  - Bhuj: The Pride of India - that has the 1971 Indo-Pak war as backdrop. The big December release this year, Ashutosh Gowariker's Panipat, is based on the Third Battle of Panipat and from the trailer, appears to pitch itself on the honourable native-vs-depraved invader template, already perfected in films including Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavat (2018).

At least two Hindi films about real-life heroes of the Armed Forces are in the works. The Kabir Khan-directed '83, about Kapil Dev and his World Cup-winning cricket side, and biopics including one on badminton ace Saina Nehwal are also likely to follow the tradition of popular sport dramas, with a generous topping of nationalism.

The historical and the biopic, as independent genres, have produced some fine films across languages. Some of them have even dared to reimagine history to create solid entertainment. The Indian films in this extended assembly line, however, don't appear to be considering any radical retake. Many of them seem rushed to not miss out on a box office fad; their makers seek to rebrand history, marking its heroes and villains with broader strokes of white and black, for a new consumer and context.

Over the seven decades since its independence, India has had many retellings of history and varied depictions of nationalist themes on film - the freedom struggle, wars, counter-insurgency, biopics on national heroes, spy thrillers, sport dramas and politics of the day, some of them resorting to tokenism and posing as socially and religiously inclusive. There have also been films that openly doubled as propaganda for political ideologies. The jingoism, in varying degrees, comes in-built. These are, of course, artistic inconsistencies but when the markings of good and evil are drawn from a simplistic understanding of history and are used to peddle a new, all-encompassing nationalism, it becomes a problem. When the history of heroes are stripped of their context and appropriated to this nationalism, it becomes a problem.

In terms of numbers, these period dramas are not a defining trend in an industry that is opening up to diversity and themes considered "not safe" till the beginning of the decade. Films from the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have continued to discuss important stories around gender politics and caste.

But these historicals are also popular films with sensibilities that influence, and feed off, dominant political narratives. Will this trend also drift to myth-making in fawning biopics made on contemporary, influential political figures? We'll wait. While we do that, a second film based on the life of the Prime Minister - after this year's PM Narendra Modi - is being readied for a 2020 release. The film, Mann Bairagi, is co-produced by Bhansali.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru, India

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