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:
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)
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.
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, Gadar? Lagaan, Mangal Panday, Sikander?