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When history calls: Bollywood goes high on historicals for big screen magic

As Kangana Ranaut starts work on a film about Rani Laxmibai, we take a look at how historicals have become the latest mantra for Bollywood.

bollywood Updated: May 24, 2017 10:48 IST
Alia Bhatt’s next is a period espionage thriller, based on Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, which is set in late 1970, at the onset of the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
Alia Bhatt’s next is a period espionage thriller, based on Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, which is set in late 1970, at the onset of the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

What’s common between Mughal-E-Azam (1960), Taj Mahal (1963), Lagaan (2001) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008)? Besides the fact that they’ve been big box-office winners, they are all period films. While Hindi film industry has always had an affinity with historical events, its love affair has clearly not been prolific.

The line-up

Now, a number of film-makers clearly seem interested to travel back in time for inspirations. For starters, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone-starrer Padmavati is based on the 1303 siege of Rajasthan’s Chittor fort by emperor Alauddin Khilji and Rajput queen Padmavati also known as Padmini, while Kangana Ranaut-starrer Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi is based on the life of Rani Laxmibai.

Deepika Padukone will be seen playing Rani Padmini in Padmavati.

“When I signed this film, my first thought was, ‘how come there’s no film on ‘Jhansi ki Rani’ yet?’ So, I consider it a stroke of luck that I’m doing it,” says Kangana, adding that Laxmibai’s character is “very superhero-like”. She adds, “Usually, my characters are flawed and human in terms of their abilities. But this one is extraordinary.”

Challenging job

Deepika, who plays Padmavati in Bhansali’s film is also “excited” about the part. “It’s so exciting that I have been given an opportunity to play such a powerful role. Padmini is someone who is worshipped by so many people. The film is something that I am extremely proud of, and I feel very lucky that something like this came my way,” says the actor.

Kangana Ranaut will star as Rani Laxmibai in her new film, Manikarnika.

Interestingly, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan’s next, Thugs of Hindostan is also believed to be a period film with a story that revolves around a gang that created havoc for the British Empire before independence of India. The film also stars Katrina Kaif and Fatima Sana Shaikh. Reportedly, Alia Bhatt’s next is a period espionage thriller, based on Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, which is set in late 1970, at the onset of the 1971 Indo-Pak war.

Amitabh Bachchan will be seen along side Aamir Khan in Thugs of Hindostan.

More to come

The list goes on. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the famous Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto in the Nandita Das-directed biopic, Manto, while Madhur Bhandarkar’s next, Indu Sarkar is set against the backdrop of the 1975 Emergency. Salman Khan’s next, Tubelight is a historical war drama set against the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Also, the historical Battle of Saragarhi seems to have inspired multiple films including the two starring Akshay Kumar and Randeep Hooda respectively. Film-maker Shoojit Sircar is also set to make a film, based on freedom fighter Udham Singh’s life.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical drama, Bajirao Mastani was a big hit.

People power

Shoojit Sircar explains how he got hooked onto (late) Udham Singh’s story. “Amritsar (Punjab) was an important hub of freedom movement because of the Golden temple and the Jallianwala Bagh. During my theatre days, I used to visit Amritsar quite often and hear a lot about Udham Singh from people, especially the older generation. I then started reading about what happened to Singh and got attracted to his life,” says Sircar.

Aamir Khan will star in Thugs of Hindostan.

Experts, too, feel that history will always fascinate audiences. Trade expert Taran Adarsh says, “We have always loved to watch historical films but there haven’t been many of them. While a few say that audiences don’t want to watch them, others feel it’s too expensive to make them. But we have examples of big hits such as Jodhaa Akbar (2008) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) in the past. So, it’s all about attempting different genres and presenting a story well.”

Nawazuddin Siddiqui will be seen playing Saadat Hasan Manto in his biopic, Manto.

Past perfect

If you turn back the clock, film-makers have taken inspiration from history but have added a pinch of fiction to it. The list includes movies such as Border (2007), LOC: Kargil (2003), Asoka (2001), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Umrao Jaan (2006), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and Mohenjo Daro (2016), besides biopics on historical personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

Mughal-e-Azam follows the love affair between Mughal Prince Salim and Anarkali, a court dancer.

Exhibitor-distributor Akshaye Rathi feels “India has had a rich history of real-life heroes and unbelievable events.” “As Indians, we can all relate to our history and historical events. Plus, there’s always mystery involved with history,” he says, adding that the trick lies in portraying them in a cinematic format and entertaining manner.

The epic tale

Not just historical events and personalities, India’s much-loved epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata are also set to be picked up again for big screen adaptations. While Ramayana will be made into a trilingual live-action Rs 500-crore feature film; Malayalam superstar Mohanlal will star as Bhima in The Mahabharata. This time, the epic will be told from Bhima’s, the second of the Pandavas, perspective.

Hrithik Roshan was set against the backdrop of the ancient Indus Valley civilization, and its city,

Ask Sircar about the love for history and he says, “If you ask me, if people will connect with it, I would say definitely. Everyone should know how we got freedom. Whenever something is about our freedom struggle, it always evokes an emotion,” he says.

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