Indian History on Film: My 4 Favorite Films to Watch Instead of Padmavati

Padmavati is almost definitely certainly not coming out tomorrow (I have learned to not really count on anything with Indian film releases, but it does seem pretty certain).  So, if you are jonesing for a cinematic Indian history fix, what can you watch instead?

History!!!!  What is it?  Well, it’s a whole bunch of different things depending on which tradition of study you come from and what area is your focus and so on and so on.

For a long long time, “History” followed what was known as the “Great Man” approach.  That is, you would study the history of the Indian Independence Movement based on “Well, what were Gandhi and Nehru and Ambedkar doing?”  And then starting in the 50s-60s-70s, new approaches started springing up like mushrooms.  For instance, the psychological approach.  Instead of saying “What was Nehru doing?” it asked “What was Nehru thinking?  Why?  How did his childhood experiences, his personal life, his prejudices and education and background all influence what he did?”  And there’s the social history approach, “Forget Nehru, Nehru was just a microcosm of larger forces in the world, let’s look at the massive movements of people and how Nehru’s success was just one small result of the growing power of the European underclass.”  And there’s the kind of “small story” approach, stuff like “I am going to look at the history of glass making through out time and using that as a way of considering the changes of technology, social needs, mass migrations, etc. etc.”  That “small story” approach can also be used for events. For instance, the Devil in the White City book that made such a splash a few years back was about one of Chicago’s most famous mass murderers (we have several, it’s kind of our thing), and how his murders happened as part of huge social changes that were going on in society, going backward in time to see everything that changed to lead up to the murders, and looking forward to see everything else that would change in future.

(This is kind of how this movie works.  We look at one person and the psychological forces driving him and how all of that is related to larger social changes and events and blah blah blah)

Okay, so that’s how you do history.  It’s deep, it’s complicated, there’s a reason those books are huge.  And even in the huge book that tries to cover everything, you still can’t really cover everything, so you have footnotes and annotations and citations in the back and further reading and so on and so on.  And there is just NO WAY to bring all of that through in film format!!!!!  All movies are bad history because good history isn’t able to be conveyed onscreen.

With all of that in mind, the history movies I find most enjoyable are the ones that don’t even pretend.  They spend 90% of their time on stuff that there would be no way to possibly know so everyone watching knows it is fake.  And then the remaining 10% is the tiny tiny fact that they can fully convey within the limitations of film.

What I really HATE are history movies that are 100% (or even the usual 90%) fake, but present themselves in such a way that they trick you into thinking they are “real”.  That, to me, is lying.  Whereas the other kind of film is merely telling a story, that we all know is a story, with a tiny bit of truth somewhere in there.  Anyway, that’s why I don’t like Bhansali history movies, because he seems to pick topics and then present them in such a way that makes the viewer think they can rely on them, that there is some kind of “truth” present onscreen where really there can’t be anything but imagination.

(JP Dutta comes closest to “real”, his films are so closely based on actual battle records and so on.  But he still has those little flashbacks to romance and so on that there is no way he could ever have known, clearly they were inserted and fake.  But they feel real because everything else around them is real, and that’s what bothers me)

Anyway, here are the history films I LIKE, not the ones I don’t like, based on the very particular-to-me standards:

 

Jodha-Akbar

This is the most ridiculous romance novel version of history and I love it!!!  Because it is so clearly ridiculous.  No, Emperor Akbar probably didn’t have a flirty-sexy sword fight with his wife Jodha.  No, they didn’t have sex for the first time as the sun was setting and casting a beautiful light into her chamber.  All of that, the meaningful glances and significant moments and so on and so on, clearly invented.

(No, there is no account that specifically describes a massive group of singers and dancers from all over Indian spontaneously appearing to celebrate Akbar’s tax reform)

Which makes it easy for the audience to understand, on some level, that the very fact of this romance was probably invented too.  Because it was Akbar had a Hindu wife, yes, but her name, her kingdom, her personal history, all of that is in as much doubt as if she ever made him sleep on the far side of the bed while they were visiting her parents.

Instead of trying to be “accurate” (an impossible task) in these little things, the filmmaker went for accuracy in the big sweeping parts.  Emperor Akbar was an open minded free-thinker, the kind of man who would understand and respect a wife from a different religious tradition, have a spiritual experience while listening to Sufi performers, reform his tax codes after further consideration of the issues.  That’s all you need from this movie.  The little details are nice, the elephant taming, the illiteracy, the feud with the foster-brother and the respect for the foster mother, but the big broad idea of it is what really matters, what you come away with is a complicated man who was trying to do better for his people.

 

1942: A Love Story

This is a completely made up story, not based on real people at all.  But it has the feel of the times.  The conflicted loyalties that tore families apart, the rebels who were hidden everywhere and ready to die for their cause, at the same time that the surface level of society went on with their parties and fun and business as usual.  And the confusion of the world war outside their borders causing upsets in the British army.

My favorite part is how, slowly, through this tiny village, we learn how completely top to bottom the support for Independence was by this point.  We are introduced to the characters as part of a love story, like the title says.  The other woman in the love triangle, the disapproving father of the girl, the wealthy father of the boy who doesn’t believe in love, and so on and so on.  But threaded through out this story is the Independence movement.  Until, by the end of the film, the entire village has turned out in a mass protest, ready to put their lives on the line.  Not because that much has changed through the course of events, but that the events have served to peel back the surface and show what was always there.  Every person in India was fighting for Independence, in their own way, even if it wasn’t immediately obvious.  That’s the big takeaway from this film, not all of the “The British left because Anil Kapoor’s mustache defeated Jackie Shroff’s” details in the love story.

(Check out the freedom marchers at 1:50 in this love song.  That’s what I mean, the sense that it is always there under the surface in every moment)

 

Veer

This movie is so fun!  Jackie Shroff has a golden arm, Salman twists a guy’s head all the way around on his neck like an owl, there’s faux-Scottish dancing and a huge Janet Gaynor poster.  It is clearly obviously ridiculously fake, fake like a golden arm.

But you know what’s not fake?  Salman’s discussion of Macaulayism, the effort to destroy native cultures through education!  And Jackie Shroff initially turning to the British as allies in order to win a battle with a different Indian kingdom (because of course that is how the British gained their power, pitting groups against each other and then allying with one of them against the other).  Heck, even the way Salman’s little group of colonial fellow students is made up of people from all the British colonies, not just India, that is really neat!  An acknowledgement that it was never about Britain versus India, but Britain versus The Greater Colonial Community.

(Dance!  Dance for the greater unity among the colonized people of the British Empire!!!)

That’s why I love it.  Completely throws out stuff like accurate costumes or plot logic or any of it, but by golly it conveys the bigger ideas of colonialism!  In a way that is much more interesting and memorable than any textbook.

 

Lakshya

Jodha-Akbar was a swoony romance wrapped around a tiny seed of historical truth.  This is a coming of age film wrapped around a tiny seed of historical truth.  But it’s a historical truth that is directly related to the coming of age.

Hrithik, our hero, is a typical upperclass Indian boy of the 90s.  He doesn’t think much about patriotism or the future, he is casual and funny and happy, just figures everything will work out.  It was an optimistic time, after all.  And his girlfriend, Preity, is typical of the women of that era, seeing a new future in front of her that she could reach out and grasp, very ambitious.

What the film gives us is the sense of India in that period, the setting that surrounded the war.  The rapidly changing country, the carefree thoughtlessness of society, and how the war served as a wake up call for a generation.  I like it better for giving a sense of what happened and why and why it was important than LOC Kargil, the more strictly speaking accurate version of the story.

(Look!  Barkha Dutt and her unspoken romance with a hot young officer!  Or, you know, a fictionalized version of that)

 

 

 

Anyway, those are my 4 favorites and why, how about you?  Preference for Asoka, Razia Sultan, Mohenjo Daro, GadarLagaan, Mangal Panday, Sikander?

 

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25 thoughts on “Indian History on Film: My 4 Favorite Films to Watch Instead of Padmavati

  1. My favorite Hindi historcial films are Jodhaa Akbar (my first Hindi film and one of my top 5 of all time), Parineeta, Bombay Velvet, Lootera, Rangoon, and Bajirao Mastani. They all evoke a really appealing idea of a historical time and place.

    Special mention to two of the few Bengali films that have really worked for me: Kadambari and Rajkahini.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I considered Parineeta and Lootera. They are interesting, because they aren’t about anything or anybody important, but they do give a sense for the changing values of the times in which they are set.

      On Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 2:59 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. My own knowledge of films narrating Indian history is rather small (Jodha-Akbar, Lakshya, Lagaan, Mangal Pandey, Asoka, Ram…). I think, similar to you, I don’t mind the fiction if I nevertheless get a feeling that there is some truth in it, may it only be the relation between people or traits of a certain character or – like in Ram – the changing in the equation one had with people of another religion. Even a movie with fictional characters telling a fictional story who simply is set in a certain period of Indian history could give a truthful insight in living or thinking at that time. Maybe, there is more danger to falsly make believe when doing a portray of a historical person especially when the knowledge is mostly based on legends.

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    • What I don’t think has been done, and I would love to see, is a historical film set between regular people. Like a romance between a village woman and one of Akbar’s soldiers. The same kind of film as Lootera or Lakshya, but set in ancient times instead of the more recent past.

      On Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 3:57 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. What surprised me was that I liked Mughal-e-azam as a period piece. The idea of being walled in, just gave me the heebie-jeebies! I don’t know enough about Indian History – colonial or post-colonial, to be conversant about their history. Following the idea of period pieces, I also liked Jodha Akbar, Baijaro Mastani and Lagaan. While in modern times for some historical value, I really liked Neerja and Airlift. Those are the ones that I can think of right now that have historical feel to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Neerja and Airlift are good choices. Both of them give a general feel for their era without trying to do more than tell one small story.

      On Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 4:21 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Both Hey Ram(besides SRK was in it) & Lakshya, as Claudia pointed out are good ones too. I, too don’t mind fictional accounts of historical figures or times.

        Thanks Margaret for all that you do. I really enjoy the posts, the comments and the videos.

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  4. I will forgive a lot of stuff in a film that is set in a romantic past time, which is why Rangoon and Bombay Velvet are on my to-watch list despite the universal shellacking they are getting by critics/viewers/almost everyone I know. It’s hard to pick favorites, but a forcibly shortened list would include: (1) Bombay. So melodramatic it kind of makes me feel guilty, if you know what I mean. I mean, this is a real thing that happened to real people within living memory, and here I am in my nice safe Japanese apartment comfortably sobbing over the Hindu grandfather going into a burning building to rescue the Muslim grandfather’s Koran, or the two boys alone in the burning city or the hijra! The kind hijra who rescues them and can’t explain to them why people hate each other and you know she’s experienced so much hate in her life! (2)Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! Being the Bengali film fan that I am I’ve watched several versions and there are some that are better (by Satyajit Ray, of course) but none that so lovingly recreates Kolkata of the 40s (I guess. I wasn’t there). I swooned over the street scenes, more even than I swooned over SSR. (3) Khoya Khoya Chand . Soha looking just like Sharmila in her 1950s sari! Not a great movie and it’s got Shiney Ahuja, but next to historical movies comes movies about movies for me so it’s a must watch. Which brings us to (4) Harishchandra Factory. This is a sweet feel-good movie but make me go look up details about the beginning of the Indian film industry. Last I’ll mention is (5) Before the Rains, which is an English film but has Rahul Bose and Nandita Das in it. Really interesting look at Kerala right before Partition, when everything is about to explode.

    Special mention for Lootera, such lovely saris and set design that I wanted to go die of consumption in Dalhousie with Ranveer bringing me soup. And special special mention for Indian Summer. This was supposed to be a movie based on a wonderful book about the end of the Raj, with special attention to the relationship between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. Irrfan was going to be Nehru and Cate Blanchett was going to be Edwina. It was cancelled due to the potential for offending huge numbers of people but it lives on in my heart.

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    • I would have loved to see Irrfan and Cate Blanchett! Although I think Irrfan might be a little too tall for it? They can cheat that though.

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      • Ugh, I KNOW. And the book it was supposed to be based on is also great; you should check it out. I never knew anything about Edwina Mountbatten, but she seems to have been a shallow society woman who slowly morphed into real hero who worked herself literally to death for people in India and elsewhere. It would make a great movie. I wish someone in the US or UK would do it.

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  5. The kind of history film that I really like and that is rarely made is the kinds that has a particular historical event as the main focus. Films that focus on historical people I consider biopics and anything that focuses on the fictional account of historical people I consider to be a period film.

    I think LOC Kargil is the closest thing we have to an actual history film.

    But in the undefined, anything goes kind of history genre, I like The Legend of Bhagat Singh because it’s based on the most widely accepted account of Bhagat Singh

    Rang De Basanti, again for using bits of history as they have been recorded and Mangal Pandey for the same reason

    Pinjar, because it captures the trauma of partition through the experience of fictional individuals which were also somehow true for almost everyone who didn’t migrate early enough during the partition

    Shatranj Ke Khiladi – I know the tawayaf romances get credited as the epitome of Awadh period films but the cynicism of this film is an actual honest account.

    Junoon- I remember the kothis from the film and they shot on location I think and I’m just amazed at that feeling of knowing the place and the people and the story just because they got the setting right.

    Razia Sultan stays on point too. Her story was about love a lot and so the film doesn’t feel like fiction.

    Gandhi. Technically not an Indian film but accurate enough. Also beautifully made. They have nothing to compare to it which is why it still plays every Gandhi Jayanti.

    Mammo. Technically not a history film but it feels historical with the partition context and the flashbacks.

    Strangest thing happened the other day- I was flipping through channels the other day and somehow landed on a classics channel. The film was some obscure b/w release but mom exclaimed that she remembers events from her childhood resembling the look and feel from the film. I wonder if that makes all films from yesteryear technically historical.

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    • Picking up on your last point, there’s a concern that film and other media is messing with history. Like, part of the reason Americans have this skewed view of the 1950s that every wife stayed home and every husband worked and everyone owned their own home and was happy and perfect and white is because we have confused the TV version with reality.

      But then you do have those films where the budgets were so cheap that they didn’t have teh money to create a fake version of reality. Like, all the 1970s Indian films where you can tell the street scenes were just filmed on the streets, they didn’t clear the crowds or clean things up first or anything, it’s just the street like it would have looked. I feel like Indian film had that in some ways straight through the early 2000s, hair and make-up and clothes and houses and everything else was mostly close to what it would have been for a normal family. And then they got a ton of money and all the actresses got skinnier and the houses got bigger.

      On Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 6:58 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Long time stalker, first time poster. 🙂
    I would add Rang De Basanti, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Dil Se to the list. All three of these movies, like Lakshya on your list, are mainly fictional stories woven around events that are part of recorded history (or to some extent based on events deliberately omitted from written record, as in case of the event at the beginning of Dil Se).

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    • Welcome!!!! I am so happy you commented!!!!

      Rang De Basanti is one of my favorite movies for how it weaves the past into the present. And never pretends to be telling the whole story, just gives us little glimpses of the past.

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      • I love these movies too for similar reasons. Although I am guilty of watching Dil Se way too many times because of SRK’s performance 😛 I really miss this Mani Ratnam. (Kaatru Veliyidai had so much promise, but turned out so disappointing.)

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        • I just checked, and it looks like Ratnam’s next is supposed to be even bigger, multi-starrer and all that. With Vijay Sethupathi and Fahad Fasil, which is exciting, but I don’t know if i like the idea of him trying a big movie, i’d rather make sure he can still handle a small one.

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          • Oh, and I thought his next movie was a romance with Aditi Rao Hydari. Nonetheless, fingers crossed hoping his next film is better than the previous one, though it’s true that smaller movies are his forte. I still cannot get over how dishy Karthi and the Air Force guys were looking in Kaatru Veliyidai! Sigh 😀

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