Why Bollywood Needs To Make More Historical & Biographical Movies

10/09/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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mahatma gandhi, dandi march

It amazes me when some of my friends talk very knowledgeably about the Vietnam War. Though India wasn't even remotely involved with the actual war, many Indians know more about it through Hollywood, than they know of contemporaneous Indian events like the freedom struggle of Goa or the Emergency. We know much more about American individuals who have little significance in the Indian context (The Wolf of Wall Street, Cast Away) , than we know of exemplary Indians whose lives and work have rarely received their deserved glory (Anandibai Joshi, one of the first Indian women to earn a medical degree way back in the 1880s; or the remarkable scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose). History and biography are two significant genres which mainstream Indian cinema (Bollywood) has almost consistently neglected. Not that other genres have been represented well; we have very few noteworthy fantasy, science or sports movies. But when a deep-rooted, vibrant and impactful medium like cinema cannot do justice to the history and people of its exceptional country, that perhaps doesn't augur well for society.

Uncluttered knowledge of the past, especially of past mistakes and triumphs, is the sine qua non for a progressive and peaceful society. Healthy analysis and discussion of history make people less prejudiced and more accommodating. However, India has an awfully poor record at that. Historian Wendy Doniger has quite incisively enunciated it thus: "India is a country where not only the future but even the past is unpredictable". We possess a unique knack for always contesting facts (which rattle our prejudices), with what we like to call 'real facts' (which cotton to our prejudices). That's an unhealthy attitude, and this is where cinema has an instrumental role to play. When a powerful medium like cinema tackles history and its players, there is prodigious, sometimes even sensational impact.

It's not that a film about history 'teaches facts' -- far from it -- but it does something more significant: it stimulates discussion, rediscovery, reassessment. All of which lead to what can be called 'enlightenment'. Perhaps we had hitherto been looking at a historical episode myopically, and a movie comes and widens our field of vision (Garam Hawa, Hey Ram, Earth). Perhaps an important event or its lesser-known aspects have all but faded from public memory, and a movie catapults them back into limelight (Gandhi My Father, Madras Cafe). Through the latter film for example, many young Indians who never knew that India was once intimately involved in another country's civil war, got a good taste of the historic blunder, and those who were already aware of the event relished witnessing it on screen -- a rare treat indeed, when it comes to our history.

India is an endless source of amazing stories, but this repertoire has rarely been tapped by its filmmakers -- at least the conventional ones. Thus, even though some very fine films dabbling with historical events and biography do exist, they haven't reached the eyes and minds of larger audiences (like some of the ones mentioned above, or like Nandita Das's Firaaq & the Kay Kay Menon-starrer Bhopal Express). The whole world knows extensive details about the prominent people and history of the very young nation of the U.S., through its splendid films, but outstanding stories of one of the oldest cultures on Earth have never artfully reached an international (or for that matter national) audience. Part of the blame lies with mainstream, popular filmmakers and actors who want to 'play it safe' financially; the other part lies with Indian citizens and politicians for making it awfully arduous for someone to make an honest movie on these topics.

However, the patience of India's current movie-watching audience, who are more mature and more discerning than their predecessors and enjoy unprecedented access to high-quality international cinema, is fast wearing thin. They are embarrassed that even as recent as 2014, when world cinema made several giant strides, four out of five 'Best Film' nominations at the Filmfare Awards were... well, predominantly 'love stories'.

Filmmakers surely need to take more risks; they cannot excuse themselves by saying they'll be unfairly targeted. Many writers and publishers also take risks to champion socially important issues; so do honest IAS and IPS officers. Fortunately, Vishal Bharadwaj (Haider) and Rajkumar Hirani (PK) set the tone last year by tackling issues which are highly important but make some Indians very uncomfortable. Now more than ever, when the country is still one but the nation divided, the powerful medium of cinema needs to rise to the occasion.

For instance, we perhaps need countless more movies on the horrors of Partition and communal riots (as Indians still love to hate each other on religious lines); perhaps a movie on Sanjay Gandhi's abysmally callous (but little-known to today's youth) sterilization campaign that highlights the hazards of authoritarianism and nepotism; probably a biographical film on Dara Shikoh, the liberal and peace-loving brother of Aurangzeb who translated the Upanishads to Persian and was an exceptional adherent of secularism. There's truly no end to ideas, and it will certainly be a great loss for India if its filmmakers fail to tap the remarkable historical episodes that this vast nation carries in its bosom.

For cinema-buffs like me, it is indeed a delectable mental exercise to wistfully reflect on our favorite historical incidents being brought to life on the big screen; for example, the making of India's Constitution. Three hundred-odd people of crazily diverse backgrounds, in a newly-formed, extremely poor nation, toiled for two whole years to create that impeccable and historic document. Not that it went smoothly -- there were numerous ideological clashes -- but it is the stuff of lawmaking legends how despite serious disagreements, the members were supremely dignified, tolerant and professional in their debates, and how they steadfastly worked toward a common patriotic goal by keeping egos aside. Today this phenomenal event holds important lessons for India and its citizens. Imagine how wonderful it would be if our top-notch writers, actors, and directors brought alive, in a splendid movie, these stalwarts of the Constituent Assembly and the epic debates they articulated (Spielberg's Lincoln immediately comes to mind).

It is high time we encouraged such movies and our filmmakers chucked the standard fare to serve such more interesting cuisines. This year, with Manjhi doing well andBajirao Mastani looking great, Bollywood perhaps is making history.

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