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Bollywood’s tryst with history: A slew of films explore the past for exciting stories

Events such as World War II, the Indian National Army soldiers’ trial, partition of India, and people such as Rani Padmini and the author Manto form the pivot of many new Bollywood films’ plots.

bollywood Updated: Sep 03, 2017 16:31 IST
Shreya Mukherjee
Shreya Mukherjee
Hindustan Times
Bollywood,Historical films,Vishal Bhardwaj
Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh, on the 1945 trials of Indian National Army officers, released in July.

Whether it’s a 14th century queen who captivated a sultan, or soldiers who marched for India’s freedom struggle in the mid-20th century,chapters from history have always been the happy hunting ground for Bollywood.

Historical films keep being made by the Indian film industry, but 2017 is quite remarkable for the number of films set in various decades — and centuries — of the past. This year began with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, with the backdrop of World War II and the female protagonist inspired by a vintage screen personality, the swashbuckling stuntwoman-actor Fearless Nadia. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar was on the Emergency (1975-1977) imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Gurinder Chadha’s British-Indian project Partition: 1947 highlighted what happened when the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, had to oversee the transition of British India to independent India.

Among historical films now on the floors are Sanjay Leela Bhasali’s Padmavati, based on the life of Rani Padmini of Chittor; Abhishek Sharma’s Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, highlighting the series of confidential nuclear tests at Pokhran; Nandita Das’ Manto, on the controversial Indo-Pakistani author and playwright Saadat Hasan Manto.

Less obviously historical, but also going back in the past are Milan Luthria’s Baadshaho, which revolves around real-life events that happened in Rajasthan during the Emergency; Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, tracing the journey of gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli; and Apoorva Lakhia’s Haseena Parker, on the life of terrorist Dawood Ibrahim’s sister.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Saadat Hasan Manto in Nandita Das’s film Manto.

Explaining the lure of the past, trade analyst Atul Mohan says, “History definitely has its own audience. People are always interested to know what happened in the past. If that learning happens through entertainment, then why not? Reading about these events might be dry and boring for some.”

Alongside films based on actual events, there are also those such as Sankalp Reddy’s The Ghazi Attack, and Srijit Mukherji’s Begum Jaan, which either draw inspiration from the past or have a historical backdrop.

“Being a student of history, what happened in the years gone by has always intrigued me,” says Tigmanshu Dhulia, whose film, Raag Desh was based on the 1945 trials of Indian National Army officers. “Every time I come across something interesting in history, I try to see if a film around it is possible. I feel that the Indian audience also enjoys watching real-life stories on screen.”

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, Kangana Ranaut (above) played a role reportedly inspired by stuntwoman-actor Fearless Nadia.

After Raag Desh, Tigmanshu plans to make another movie on World War II; the script is ready. He also wants to revive his unfinished project based on the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Tigmanshu had started shooting the film, titled Ghulami, with Irrfan, Sameera Reddy, and Sunny Deol around 2005-2007, but the project got shelved. “I want to continue making films based on history. As a filmmaker, it’s my duty to help the present generation know more about what happened in the past,” he says.

There are still more history-based movies that are eyeing release dates next year. The list includes Reema Kagti’s Gold, which sees Akshay kumar playing the role of hockey player Balbir Singh; Krish’s Manikarnika, on the brave Rani of Jhansi; Muhammad Ali’s Mughal Road, narrating India’s fight against Kabailies (Pakistani tribesmen) who crossed over to Baramulla; and Omung Kumar’s The Good Maharaja, on the life of Maharaja Jam Sahib Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji.

Arjun Rampal, who plays the title role in Daddy, says that through such films, the audience gets a feel of the time gone by. “What happened in the 1970s happened in that era, and you can’t recreate that world for the present generation [in real life]. So a movie around that is very exciting for filmmakers and also for the audience, who can revisit a different timeline, different mood and atmosphere. What I really like about Daddy is that it moves from the ’70s all the way to 2012, so you get the whole gamut of it. You see a change; you get to know how Mumbai changed and that’s what makes it worth a watch,” he adds.

Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar feels that today’s generation connects with history, especially the political part of it more. “They take [a] keen interest in how the past world of politics influences the present time. Those who watched Indu Sarkar have appreciated my honest effort to highlight Emergency. Also, they don’t have free time, and films, within a few hours, help them know about a particular part of history,” he adds.

But not every historical film works at the box office. “Be it historical, love story, or thriller, if a film is well made, it will definitely work. There are other factors such as promotion, cast etc. I also feel that in the case of historical films, facts shouldn’t be distorted; rather, real events should be played out well,” says Atul Mohan. “Also one needs to know what works for him or her. For a filmmaker like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has raised the bar for himself with his films such as Bajirao Mastani and Ram Leela, he will go the historical way, and every time he makes a film, he will do it on a bigger canvas.”

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First Published: Sep 03, 2017 16:31 IST