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What ails Gowariker’s portrait of a lady?

With Bollywood emerging as a major newsmaker and an int'l brand, raising the bogey of facts has become the easy way to play identity politics and hog the limelight, reports Praveen Donthi.Screen heresies

entertainment Updated: Feb 24, 2008 02:44 IST
Praveen Donthi

Two years ago, Mughal-e-Azam, the K Asif classic, had a second innings. In style. It burst into colour, enjoyed nostalgic reviews and headed for the UK and the US. The 2008 film, Jodhaa-Akbar, is headed — nowhere. Madhya Pradesh and Bihar followed Rajasthan in banning it. For the first time, perhaps, historical validity has become the mainstay of a film controversy.

Jodha, who existed more in folk memory than between the covers of history books, first made her silver screen debut as Akbar’s wife in Mughal-e-Azam, which was released without a disclaimer. No one raised a stink — then. “It probably affronts the contemporary consciousness of Rajput society which is imbued with Hindu consciousness today, irrespective of what happened or did not happen in the past,” reasons Bhagawan Josh, a history professor in JNU. If story telling is an art, that art has its politics.

During the genre’s heyday, till the 1960s, historicals have ridden on artistic licence. Recent films like Subhash Chandra Bose and Gandhi My Father, raised the heckles from few corners. Mangal Pandey (2005), whose bravery has always been contentious, drew some flak. The film even saw unknown local groups like Mangal Pandey Suraksha Samiti spring up. Says Sharmistha Gooptu, editor of Revisiting 1857: Myth, Memory and History, “Though 1857 has been the subject of seven films, only Mangal Pandey created a furore.” Jodhaa though has been the queen of controversy. Why? One explanation is, as Josh says: “Women are the social skin of a community.”

It’s in the plot

Historicals, from the very first feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), have always been an important genre of Indian cinema. They have mostly had Mughal and Rajput themes.

The problem lies not so much in the script as in the immediate socio-political context, feels Ira Bhaskar, professor of cinema studies in JNU. Mahboob Khan’s Humayun (1945) was about the emperor’s relation with his Rajput sister. “Historicals, though set in the past, always addressed contemporary issues. In 1945, when Partition seemed imminent, this film tried to put forward the message of Hindu-Muslim amity. The focus of the film was not Humayun’s love interest but his Rajput sister,” she explains. So the mootpoint is that the controversy is tailored to suit political needs.

Space for imagination

K Asif might have had it easy but directors today know that they have to do their homework more so to ward off hungry wannabe politicos. Director Santosh Sivan consulted historians for Asoka but the film was criticised for showing Kaurvaki as the reason for Asoka’s Buddhist turn. But then as Bhaskar points out, “The hallmark of historicals has always been the combining of the romantic with the political.”

Shyam Benegal, whose Subhash Chandra Bose faced criticism for showing that Bose married an Australian without ‘proof,’ says, “There is a lot of pressure to get the facts right, which is why filmmakers never flout well-known facts.” Commenting on Jodhaa, Sudhir Mishra, director of Khoya Khoya Chand says,“Gowariker said that he ‘imagined responsibly’. There should always be space for imagination in History.” Historians are not spewing venom. “There was no need for Gowariker to meet historians. Facts are not necessary to bring out historical truth. That Jodha didn’t exist is a fact but the historical truth is Mughals had matrimonial alliances with Rajputs. Mughal-e-Azam might be factually wrong but brings out the contradiction of the times between power and love,”says Josh.

If the filmmaker has done his homework and historians not very unhappy, then who is at the source of the entire hullabaloo? The average moviegoer?

Shah Nadeem, a lecturer at Delhi’s Zakir Hussain College, who went to see the film reacted thus: “I was pleasantly surprised to see the kind of historical detail that went into the film. In Akbarnama, Abul Fazal refers to the emperor’s spiritual experience under a tree after which he gave himself the title of Insaan-e-Kamil. This is depicted onscreen as Akbar dancing to the song Khwaja Mere Khwaja in a trance. That apart, the killing of Aadam Khan by throwing him off twice from the pulpit, Akbar’s fascination to tame mad elephants are all historical facts. Of course, it’s all in filmy style but that’s ok.”

Which brings us to the same question, if not the audience, who do the shrill voices of protest belong to? Observes psephologist Yoginder Yadav, “With politics taking a communitarian turn, and with the young and infantile visual media looking for issues that are easy to turn into a story, the trouble makers are making merry.” Filmmakers too agree. Says Mishra, “There are too many vested groups in India. Who were these people before they started protesting?” Says Benegal: “Such protestors would want us to keep making fairytales so that they can use them to launch their political careers.”

Guiding history

But what about the lady in question? Says Najaf Haider, a professor of medieval history at JNU: “The whole concept of Jodha probably came into being in the 19th century from the stories of the tourist guides. They have a tremendous burden of narrating a story about each monument they show and often make up stories to fill gaps.” According to him, all three references to Akbar’s Rajput wife — in Abul Fazal’s Akbarnama when the Rajput marriage proposal comes, when Akbar gives her the title of Marian Zamani, and in Jahangir’s autobiography, Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri referring to his mother’s death — mentions no name. “But the fact that the Jodhpur princely house came into existence in the 17th century rules out the name Jodha in 16th century, when Akbar ruled,” says Haider.

Maximum mileage

With Bollywood emerging as a major newsmaker, these protests have become the easy way to hog limelight. Is there a solution to this problem? “To call the bluff of the protestors one should deal with it like a law and order issue. One tends to blame the people but it’s the politicians who are trying to make some capital out of it. It’s the most publicly displayable stunt at little cost,” Dipankar Gupta, the author of Interrogating Identity. Yadav puts his finger on the political pulse.

“One phenomenon that has been documented is that community identities are invented and discovered in the arena of politics through symbolism. Such protests should be seen in that context, and in Rajasthan with elections around the corner it’s all too obvious.”