On Ashutosh Gowariker’s birthday, in defence of his controversial Hrithik Roshan-starrer Mohenjo Daro
High on the list of the many filmmakers that Bollywood can rightly be proud of features Ashutosh Gowariker. His past works, Lagaan and Jodha Akbar in particular, will definitely feature in 100 best Indian films of the last millennium. Gowariker’s works are characterized by painstaking research, objectivity, brilliantly mounted set pieces and are professionally directed. He remains one of the most important members of the period drama club of Bollywood. Even the subjects he chooses aren’t ones that many have touched in the past, for instance the love between Mughal emperor Akbar and his Rajput wife, Jodha has been a part of folklore but no one really considered it as a film idea.
His next project, Panipat, too will delve into an important aspect of history — the defeat of Maratha forces against Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1761 AD. Its tagline reads — the great betrayal. That brings us to the important question: what really happened? And that is an important question to ask.
It was this question that led him to dive deeper into the mystery behind the destruction of Mohenjo Daro (mound of the dead) and the story of the civilisation itself. His Hritik Roshan-starrer failed at the box office, but it remains a significant film for the questions it asks. So, on his birthday today, here’s revisiting the controversial film.
It is said that Gowariker first thought of making a film on the said subject while shooting for Lagaan in Bhuj, Gujarat. After much research, he invited experts in archaeology and after taking feedback from them, fleshed out a story. His film was panned and heavily criticised, much of it centering around Kabir Bedi’s head gear, Pooja Hegde’s choice of clothes, bronzed look of Hrithik Roshan and possibly the end itself.
The debate notwithstanding, what is significant is the way the film tries to recreate the Indus Valley civilisation. The film is set in 2016 BC and as its catchline says: Before the British Raj, before the Mughals, before Christ and before Buddha, there was Mohenjo Daro. The painstaking research and years of activities at the various Indus Valley civilization sites in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana by Archaeological Survey of India (and previously across sites in Sindh Pakistan), puts the date of its history to Bronze-age civilization (estimated to around 3300 BCE).
Gowariker’s story is set in this phase of this culture. So it is all fiction? A work of Gowariker’s imagination? Well, the love story between an Indigo farmer from a village called Amri (a real pre-Indus Valley site, now in Sindh, Pakistan) who falls for the pretty ‘city’ girl, Chaani, daughter of the high priest and betrothed to the son of the chief of the grand council of elders, who rules Mohenjo Daro, certainly is. But the feel and vibe of the place and context of the story is rooted in reality.
Talking about the film’s inaccuracies including Kabir Bedi’s head gear, which was a butt of jokes on Twitter, Gowariker told HuffingtonPost in an interview, “Historians and archaeologists have a lot of heated debate among themselves. They don’t agree on many things. But I had to follow some and take a stance which I did. Everything that was shown in the film, including Kabir Bedi’s headgear is absolutely accurate and is rooted in history. I stand by it. In fact, the film will be screened next week at an annual archaeological convention where some noted archaeologists are going to be present at the University of Wisconsin. They want to watch it because of the film’s historical accuracies.”
Speaking to Scroll, he also explained that the creation of the lead characters Sarman (Hrithik) and Chaani (Pooja Hegde) was rooted in reality and yet a creation of his imagination. He was quoted as saying, “There was nothing about the Indus Valley Civilisation in popular culture other than what was found during the excavations. And that gave me more liberty to create my characters and my story. For instance, we have seen pictures of an excavated figurine of a man playing drums. That became the inspiration for Sarman, played by Hrithik Roshan. The figurine of a dancing girl from the site was my inspiration for Chaani, played by Pooja Hegde. I have taken plenty of artistic liberties with the looks of the characters — after all I cannot show nudity for the sake of reality. But I did not take liberties with the architecture, the culture.”
To ensure that his imagination was faithful to the available research on the subject, Gowariker got together people who have been into the subject for decades. He brought Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, a leading expert on the ancient Indus Valley civilisation from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA, to India and made him meet a panel of Indian archaeologists and thrash out the minutest of details from the period. They reportedly sat in a council. No wonder, when one watches the film, what is obviously apparent is the city, its architecture, its town planning matches with available data.
Speaking about the process, he told the Indian Express, “When I am weaving a story I have to choose interpretations. When historians choose interpretations, they are dialectically opposite each other. If one says south, the other says north. It is not possible to bring together everything in the film. So I had to pick and choose. I chose the interpretation made by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I chose his theory since I could relate with it best and because I am not a believer of the Aryan invasion theory.”
“I spent two years conducting research. I invited Jonathan Mark Kenoyer to visit me in Mumbai. Apart from him I invited five other archaeologists that included RS Bisht, former director general of the Archaeological Survey of India and Vasant Shinde, professor of South Asian Archaeology and hosted a seminar with them. After that, I plotted the story and got their approval. Once the set was built in Bhuj, I took them all to visit it. So I worked very closely with them since I know that their work is very valuable for the film.”
Then the seals. While the script of the Indus Valley is still to be deciphered, the seals definitely tell us much about the culture. The bull and a person in yogic posture, which National Museum website describes as, “a man in ‘yogic’ posture, surrounded by animals, leading to the speculation that this could be ‘Pashupati’, an early form of Shiva” has often been seen in school history books. So is the unicorn, a symbol Gowariker’s weaves into his narrative. Sarman keeps seeing it in his dreams. Then, the five-headed, multi-animal seal will also pique your interest.
The trading of Indigo (neel) is another instance. The Victoria and Albert museum on its web site mentions that Indigo (Indikos in Greek) has been grown in India since 2500 BC. It says, “Blue dye was so closely associated with India that the ancient Greeks took its western name – indikos (indigo) – from the country itself. Red dyeing with fixing agents (mordants) was known to the Indus valley civilisation by about 2500 BC.”
There are many such instances like did Indus Valley civilisation have rulers or was it governed by a council of elders? Was it a series of invasion by Aryans that destroyed it? Or was it a great flood?
In retrospect, it can be said that Gowariker must be lauded for the sheer audacity of his dream of creating a narrative from nothing other than seals, figurines and excavations.
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