The Padmavati protests, and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

As protests against Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh starrer Padmavati are staged by Hardik Patel's Patidar Navnirman Sena, it is more evident than ever than 'history' is not ‘what has happened’ but is, arguably, a contested site — and not only for Bollywood.

MK Raghavendra September 25, 2016 08:43:38 IST
The Padmavati protests, and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s forthcoming project Padmavati has been beset by troubles.

The film is about Rani Padmini (or Padmavati) of Mewar, an icon of Rajastan (from the 14th century), the two men in her life — her husband Rana Ratan Singh and Sultan Alauddin Khilji, who learned about the queen’s beauty and began coveting her. The only thing certain about the film hitherto appears to be that Deepika Padukone will play Padmini. Since there are two men in the queen’s life, their rivalry finds reflection within Bollywood in male stars being unwilling to share the spotlight (Ranveer Singh-Shahid Kapoor). Deepika may also be unprepared to share billing with two male actors unless both measure up; a second line actor cannot obviously be paired off with her as one of men in the Rani’s life.

If these factors are leaving director Bhansali sleepless, Hardik Patel of the Patel Navnirman Sena has also warned him of the need to be historically accurate — if his film is to be released in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The Padmavati protests and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Bajirao Mastani' invite the ire of certain groups, just like his 'Padmavati' now has

Now ‘historical accuracy’ does not only mean painstaking and reliable research; each historical character has a ready ‘constituency’ (Maratha, Rajput, etc) which insists that he/she should fit its conception of his/her role in history. All these factors tell us that there is more to making a historical film in India than one might have supposed.

History is evidently not ‘what has happened’ but is, arguably, a contested site — and not only for Bollywood.

It is a space in which different ideologies battle it out, and nothing makes this clearer than the efforts of the Hindu right wing to rewrite history and give it a Hindutva slant, which is not to say that there was not already an existing ‘bias’. When India became independent, the Congress, which propagated the ideals of secularism and religious tolerance (partly because of the horrors of Partition), chose appropriate icons — like the emperors Akbar and Ashoka — to help Indians take pride in their past, and these icons were endowed with politically desirable qualities. While Akbar became synonymous with Hindu-Muslim amity, Ashoka’s Kalinga War became a key moment in Indian history for schoolchildren; the reigns of the two emperors thus became celebrated as ‘golden ages’.

The Padmavati protests and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

Shah Rukh Khan in and as 'Asoka'

It did not matter that not enough was known about Emperor Ashoka, a king long forgotten but discovered afresh in the 19th century only through his edicts. Also, local Hindus and Muslims were both kept at a distance by Akbar, whose court was dominated by people from his ancestral home in (present day) Uzbekistan. Religious identity was evidently not as important under Akbar as it has become today; Mahmud of Ghazni was known to loot both temples and mosques. It may therefore be surmised that ‘national history’ is actually a later-day construct used to infuse a demarcated space with cultural continuity. Its purpose is to retrospectively posit a ‘nation’ which comes into political existence only much later. Mohenjo Daro is taught as part of Indian history but it is, equally, part of the Pakistani past.

Bollywood has rarely been inspired by Indian history and ‘historical films’ like Mughal-e-Azam (1960) are essentially costume dramas with love as the central motif.  The story of Prince Salim and Anarkali was apparently a work of fiction but it has made it to legend and then to cinema.  Films set in the British era (1942: A Love Story, Lagaan) are patriotic more than historical films. A factor linking all these films and taking them away from being explorations of history is that they focus on personal matters (usually love and individual valour) without attention to the political background in each story, different from a film like Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) in which British plotting is the more important issue. The spate of historical films beginning with Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar (2008) are not different from the older Bollywood films except that they also take advantage of digital technology, without which much of the historical spectacle in world cinema today would be impossible.

The Padmavati protests and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

'Mughal-e-Azam' was less about history, and more a love story

These films of the past decade are not ‘historical’ as I defined the term, i.e. they are not conscious explorations of political forces at work, but that does not mean that the films cannot be read pertinently in today’s political context.

Jodha Akbar was made by a director with mildly nationalist leanings — judging from Lagaan (2001) and Swadesh (2004). Jodha Akbar is about a celebrated Muslim ruler in Hindustan who makes a marriage of convenience with a Hindu princess and eventually wins her love. The message here is the unification of India through love and tolerance rather than war; this may be interpreted as secular-nationalist discourse in the Congress mode. Akbar cannot be presented in any other way today — so deeply is the image (created by Nehruvian education) implanted in us.  

The nation is the principal preoccupation of mainstream Hindi cinema and this holds good for historical films before 1947 as well. Humayun (1945) and Shahjehan (1946) affirm the Muslim’s place in India; the films were apparently anticipating Partition which the directors (Mehboob Khan and Abdul Rashid Kardar) regarded with dread. Less apparent is the preoccupation of most historical films set in medieval India with the Hindu-Muslim question, and this is true of Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani (2015) as well. Historical films cannot do without depicting war because that offers the greatest potential for spectacle. But since the nation is implicated in every historical film (usually as ‘Hindustan’), the ‘foreign’ also needs to be suggested; a war between two Hindu kingdoms may not suggest this. If we recollect the war between Mahishmati and the Kalakeyas in Baahubali (2015), the Kalakeyas spoke ‘foreign’ gibberish, their leader had eyes of two different colours like David Headley’s and their flag was black like that of the ISIL. Most Hindi historical films about medieval India therefore suggest the ‘foreign’ through the Muslim ruler still to be assimilated and Jodha Akbar is about this assimilation.

The Padmavati protests and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

Ashutosh Gowariker's 'Jodhaa Akbar' can be seen to have a nationalistic slant, as evinced in his previous films like 'Lagaan' and 'Swades'

Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani perhaps represents a new phase in the discourse around the historical film with a Hindu king going to the assistance of another against a Muslim enemy. This is also a more stridently nationalist work with Bhansali’s customary ostentation turning the Pune court into something from Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002), also a nationalist tract about the first Chinese emperor.  Baahubali and Bajirao Mastani have another thing in common apart from digitally created ostentation and this is that both films are about the ascension of a capable person to the status of unquestioned leader. It is not accidental that the motif of the glorious heritage (assisted by digital animation) and the motivated leader should appear after 2014 and it touches the right chords in the Modi era.

 Mohenjo Daro is perhaps a more sincere recreation of the past than Bajirao Mastani although it is a more uncertain past.  Very little is known about the Indus Valley Civilisation except that its decline commenced around 2000 BC (Gowariker sets the story in 2016 BC to have Jesus’ birth bisect the interval between that year and the present). The part played by flooding in the end of Mohenjo Daro is also conjecture. Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro was apparently a colossal flop but it may, paradoxically, be the film’s ‘authenticity’ which is responsible for this. The proposition here is that Hindi film audiences may not want to see any spectacle but only spectacle associated with India, and a recognisable India from the imagery they are familiar with. They might not, for instance, want to be privy to the goings on in ancient Egypt or Babylon. The problem with the actual Mohenjo Daro is that few images have been made about it for public consumption; whatever little is known suggests that it would be visually unrecognisable to Indians — as their own past. The Hindu right-wing might celebrate it since it would be pre-Aryan and Aryan ‘invaders’ are difficult to accommodate alongside the theory that the Hindu tradition originated in India.  But that is too much in the realm of ideology for it to catch the imagination of audiences. What a Hindi historical film needs to do today to be commercially successful is not to be ‘authentic’ but to serve up a vision of India recognisable from popular belief, with the visual stimuli directed thus.

The Padmavati protests and how Bollywood has historically portrayed historicals

Pooja Hegde and Hrithik Roshan hark back to the Indus Valley Civilisation in 'Mohenjo Daro'

With the Hindi historical film being understood as the public in a growing economy inventing, in visual terms, a glorious past for themselves, what does one make of the protests around the blockbusters? Why was there a protest against Jodha Akbar when there was no protest against Mughal-e-Azam? Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro seems to have departed quietly because the descendants of the original inhabitants of Mohenjo Daro are not identifiable, but there are Rajputs, Marathas or others taking issue with the ‘authenticity’ of every other film — since they see themselves as of the same clans or groups as those depicted. My own proposition is that even as the middle-classes construct a splendid past for the nation, the nation-state itself has weakened; its authority is increasingly ceded to local groups.

How the past should be portrayed cannot be a decision usurped by arbitrary private interests, but the state is unable to enforce the clearances of the instituted Censor Board. Local communities gaining in strength is at the expense of nationhood, and this has another manifestation in the khaps enforcing their own justice rather than submit to constitutional law.

We are, in effect, constructing a great past for our nation when the sense of nationhood is itself under threat. Digital technology can fabricate a spectacular past for us — but it cannot create nationhood.

MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)


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