“Historical films allow directors to play up present-day beliefs while evoking past legends,” writes Uday Bhatia, film critic and arts and culture journalist, in his December 2019 story ‘How Bollywood is rewriting history’, which has won the 2019 Ramnath Goenka Award in the Arts, Culture & Entertainment Category announced today.
Looking at historical dramas released that year and a few from 2015-2018, such as Padmavat and Manikarnika, Bhatia spoke to historians, film scholars and filmmakers to understand and dissect the narrative-building in these films.
“I was looking at the historical films of the last 5-6 years, and I'd actually watched and written about most of them,” Bhatia says. “My research involved watching them all again, then trying to get a sense of the actual history depicted in the films and speaking to people who could tell me if the two matched up.”
One of the people he spoke to (on email) was Katherine Schofield, senior lecturer in South Asian music and history at King’s College London, who made an important point in the story: that these films are useful for understanding not history but more modern values. “Film scholars talk about the historical film as providing a ‘heterotopia’—literally ‘another place’—in which to play out the political and social issues of the present day. We should be reading these films not for what they tell us about the past—even the most factually accurate films have to make enormous concessions to telling an entertaining story—but what they tell us about us, now, in the present day," Schofield told Bhatia. Apart from the British scholar, he spoke to three other experts on the subject: historians Rana Safvi and Manu S Pillai and screenwriter and researcher Rajesh Devraj.
Does the trend of distorting historical narratives, most of which presents Mughals and other Muslim rulers as “outsiders” and “marauders”, continue in Indian cinema? Bhatia says it does. “Soon after the story came out, Tanhaji and Panipat released. Both had, to different degrees, a blinkered view of history, and perpetuated the Muslims-as-outsiders narrative that's built up over the last decade in Hindi cinema. This is very much a continuing trend,” he says.
As for historical dramas that depict a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of complex times, when loyalties and values were hardly as black-and-white as many of the films Bhatia writes about show them to be, he names Navdeep Singh's Laal Kaptaan as a rare recent film that highlights the complexity of the period it's set in. “And Vishal Bhardwaj's Rangoon offers a more liberating and provocative worldview than blockbusters like Padmaavat and Manikarnika,” he adds.