So, Jodhaa and Akbar show up today, in infinitely younger versions of the Mughal-Rajput royal pair engraved in the public mind as a heavyweight Prithviraj Kapoor in snowy whiskers and Durga Khote exuding the milk of maternal kindness.
In fact, Mughal-e-Azam, completed and released by K Asif 47 years ago after over a decade of labour — if not more — is so revered as ‘a historical’ film that it is an unmoveable benchmark, never mind its reissue in a falooda-tinted colour print.
Ironically, the classic hinged on the half-requited love between Prince Salim and the courtesan Anarkali whom most believe to be pure pulp fiction. She has inspired several movie chronicles, reeling off with a silent version in 1928 to spin-offs in Bombay as well as the southern film-producing centres. An account by director Nandlal Jaswantlal with Bina Rai in 1953 is still remembered, although for its excellent music score. Yet, even the most devout admirer of the Anarkali story is unsure whether she was made of flesh and blood or pen and paper, extended to the movie camera.
Of course, there is no question about the epochal alliance between the Mughal emperor Akbar and the Rajput princess Jodha of the 16th century. If there have been murmurs of objections against Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar, they are about the authenticity of her name, besides softcore predictions by groups in Rajasthan as well as a section of NRIs that her characterisation could be misrepresented or even tarnished. In a way, this is in the line of policing books of a political or religious nature, even before they are read. <b1>
Fortuitously, the objections haven’t escalated into a full-blown controversy, thanks to the support of the former royal family of Jaipur. There’s a downside to that though. Front page-making controversies have infallibly set off a buzz. For instance, in Jaipur some six years ago, a cinema was picketed by a group that claimed that a film’s story was unfair to the former Jodhpur royal family. Later, it was learnt that the cinema’s management had orchestrated the smashing of box office windows to attract a larger audience. It worked.
That brings us to the larger debate — can period ‘historical’ films sell? It’s a genre which went virtually extinct with Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi ki Rani (1952), touted as India’s first technicolour extravaganza. Its commercial failure is believed to have wiped out the actor-director-studio baron’s film production banner ‘Minerva Movietone.’ Immediately, the film trade contended that lessons from the past were fine for school books but poison for seekers of escapist entertainment.
Never since then has a film rooted in history drawn enormous crowds, with the exception of Richard Attenborough’s internationally funded Gandhi. Indigenously produced films on the great heroes of the independence struggle — Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mangal Pandey — could not make waves at the box office. They do have educational value but lack the bonfire that can inspire the vanities of the audience, accustomed to a weekly remix of romances, actioners and comedies.
Was it always like this? Stray examples of ‘historical films’ from a nostalgia-inducing era indicate that the genre did have its takers. Intermittently, down the decades, the ones which have survived the test of time range from Pukar (1939), Sikandar (1941), Humayun (1945), Shah Jahan (1946) and Samrat Prithviraj Chauhan (1959) to Babar (1960), Rustam-Sohrab (1963) and Jahan Ara (1964).
Not surprisingly, there has been an abiding fascination for the Shah Jahan-Mumtaz Mahal love story symbolised by the Taj Mahal, enticing at least a dozen films of varying quality from the 1940s-onwards in different languages. Of these, the senior generation is wont to recall the Taj Mahal (1963), not as much for its historical value as for the anthemic love song Jo waada kiya woh nibhana padega (You will have to fulfil your promise). In another vein, Pukar is worth a study for its floral bouquet dialogue and the presence of Naseem Banu whose beauty extended to the guilessness in which she freed two captive pigeons nestling in her hands.
Today, our surviving ‘historical’ cinema is a cinema of moments and music. They were decimated by the onslaught of the feel-great holiday forays of the 60s, the angry blasts of the 70s, the pots-and-pans dance oddities of the 80s and the hip, NRI-friendly romances of the 90s. Currently, Hollywood-sourced comedies, thrillers and what-see-you are the magic multiplex mantra.
arrives in the middle of this who-knows-what-can-click scenario, with an attendant dilemma. How faithful is it to historical facts and figures?
The challenge before any filmmaker of a period extravaganza is to achieve a balance between recorded facts and cinematic high drama. Hollywood has its signposts — be it Braveheart, The Gladiator or Troy — which have blended mythology with quasi-fiction.
Today, the viewer’s attention-span has shrunk. But his sense and sensibility haven’t. Many filmmakers, motivated solely by profit-making, have a contemptuous disregard for what the spectator — and by that token, what the critic — wants. But like it or not, every stratum of the film-going audience craves from the filmmaker a certain instinct, awareness and passion for cinema.
Gowariker’s test, then, is not how faithful he has been to history or how he has matched up to Mughal-e-Azam or to Troy. For that matter, no film can work just because of its marketable actors, limitless budget or visual splendour. Grand illusions are nothing before an ingrained integrity of content and style — or story-telling and visuals. After all, one without the other is like Jodhaa without Akbar. May the twain meet.