Bollywood embarks on 'historical' trip
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Bollywood embarks on 'historical' trip

Saibal Chatterjee takes account of the upcoming period films.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2006 17:41 IST
Wide Angle| Saibal Chatterjee
Wide Angle| Saibal Chatterjee

Mumbai’s search for the elusive international breakthrough film continues. But can costume dramas, period pieces, mythological epics and historical sagas really do the trick? The millions of rupees that these upcoming big budget films are set to guzzle do signify the faith that Indian filmmakers of diverse hues have in these genres.

The Toronto-based Deepa Mehta’s latest film, Water, which is currently doing the rounds of festivals, explores the plight of widows in pre-Independence India. Its central story is framed against the steadily rising tide of liberalism and the concept of women’s emancipation represented by the Mahatma Gandhi-led freedom movement. So, while Water is essentially a universal, timeless tale of human struggle, the film uses its obvious period underpinnings to push its message through.

Mehta’s next film, if all goes well, could represent yet another journey back into the past. But this time around, it will be far more directly inspired by the history of India’s struggle for freedom. To be more precise, the proposed film will revolve around one particular moment in history that is widely regarded as a flashpoint – the Komagatu Maru standoff in faraway Canada.

Deepa Mehta’s Water explores the plight of widows in pre-Independence India. Its central story is framed against the steadily rising tide of liberalism and the concept of women’s emancipation represented by the Mahatma Gandhi-led freedom movement.

The Komagata Maru was a ship commissioned in 1914 by Malaysia-based Sikh businessman Bhai Gurdit Singh for a voyage from Hong Kong to Vancouver. Nearly 400 passengers were on board – Gurdit Singh’s belief was that all Indians, being subjects of the British Empire, had the right of movement anywhere within the limits of the empire.

But the ship was refused permission to anchor in Vancouver. As the deadlock showed no signs of ending, the Komagatu Maru was forced to return to India, where a scuffle between the harried passengers and British troops led to the infamous bloodbath of Budge Budge harbour.

For the ambitious historical, Mehta is reported to have already roped in Seema Biswas and John Abraham, both of whom have key roles in the critically acclaimed Water. She wants Amitabh Bachchan to play the principal character and bolster the profile of the film to the heights that would be absolutely essential for it to attract the sort of funds that it needs.

Period films, historical dramas and mythological epics don’t come cheap, but as Indian filmmakers, the better ones at any rate, build upon their strategy to transcend geographical boundaries, more and more such productions seem to be getting off the ground. That is a good sign: it indicates that Indian cinema is finally venturing into territories of the mind and the creative space that could lead to creating lasting and repeated impressions on the global showbiz scene.

Producer Bobby Bedi has already announced plans to mount what could turn out to be the biggest film ever made in this country – an adaptation of the Mahabharat to be directed by Mani Ratnam with some of the brightest stars of the Bollywood firmament. It will yield as many as 100 hours of television and three full-length feature films.

Three other globally known Indian filmmakers – Ketan Mehta, Rituparno Ghosh and Ashutosh Gowariker – are close to launching historical/mythological films with great in-built potential. Ketan Mehta, in the wake of the bilingual Mangal Pandey – The Rising, is ready with the script of yet another historical about one of the leading figures of India’s first War of Independence, Jhansi Ki Rani. Aishwarya Rai is believed to be among the frontrunners for the title role.

Yet another major historical epic that will see Aishwarya play a lead role is Ashutosh Gowariker’s Akbar-Jodha, which will roll sometime this year. She will play Rajput queen Jodha Bai to Hrithik Roshan’s Emperor Akbar. With the globally feted Lagaan and the competent Swades behind him, Gowariker could be expected to deliver another quality cinematic essay endowed with the potential of travelling a fair distance.

Much the same could be said about Kolkata filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, who is set to use elements from the story of the life of Draupadi to make a film that will have a pan-Asian cast. But he is unlikely to adopt the standard practice of playing up the element of spectacle inherent in a mythological. Ghosh’s Draupadi, despite the sweep of its subject, will limit itself to exploring different dimensions of human relationships.

For Indian filmmakers hoping to make inroads worldwide, the future is clearly going to be built on stories drawn from the past. So, brace up for an avalanche of period dramas that will ride on the hope of a better tomorrow for the world’s largest producer of films.

First Published: Jan 24, 2006 20:30 IST