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Strange Bedfellows: How Historical Movies Have Fared In Bollywood And Whether Bombay Velvet Will Work

Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap’s magnum opus set to open this Friday, is an adaptation of Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables, a non-fiction historical book about the social, political and cultural history of the city of Mumbai. This is not the first time an Indian director has chosen to adapt a history book for the silver screen. Ashutosh Gowariker as well as first time director Bedabrata Pain made their version of the Chittagong uprising adapting the incident from two separate books. Bollywood and history are strange bedfellows because more often the idea in Bollywood is to create an alternate narrative solely because it would reduce the time on research. But recent period flicks as well as historical movies have finally managed put this habit away and some movies, like Bombay Velvet have given their heart and soul to bring out the realism on screen.

If we look at early historical dramas made in the nascent Hindi movie industry we will see a wide variety of subjects covered. Movies covered the Mughal era as well as the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny. We are talking of the 40s and 50s when the industry was yet to develop fully into the cultural force that it is now. Movies like Taj Mahal, Tansen, Baiju Bawra, Jhansi Ki Rani, Mirza Ghalib, as well as Yahudi are worth mentioning for they showed the varied subjects covered during this era, with Yahudi definitely being a stand out for the story focused on the persecution of the Jews by the Romans and it had stars like Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari and directed by none other than Bimal Roy.

During the entire 1960s,70s and 80s and 90s there were a series of historical movies but nothing concrete was done as most historical narratives were masalafied to woo the audience and the intricacies of the historical period was diluted. For example, the war drama Haqeeqat directed by Chetan Anand was based on the 1962 Indo-China conflict and many believe it to be the most authentic war drama based on an important historical even in India but the story itself was an fictionalized account inspired by real-life events that showed the suffering of the soldiers as well as people living in the conflict zone. Another good example of war history will be Hindustan Ki Kasam starring Raj Kumar that was inspired by the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 but again chose to dramatize events creating an oppositional narrative in context of the real events. But the most notable among them will be 1971 directed by Amrit Sagar in the year 2007 that can be considered one of the most underrated war history movie made in India. Spy thrillers like Ankhen as well as Humsaya were inspired by political history.
Also movies like Mughal-e-Azam as well as Taj Mahal resorted to utilize myths and stories that surrounded the Mughal Empire and both movies were blockbusters with Mughal-E-Azham forming a huge chunk of our cultural canon that it was recently colourized and still ranks as one of the finest movies made in India. The songs, the elaborate sets, and the cinematography were done on a grand-scale that was not witnessed before in Indian cinema. Historical movies give directors such scope and director K. Asif was known for his extravagant style and often outrageous plans to create his movies and Mughal-e-Azam benefited having such a director. Taj Mahal too, provided an alternative sort of story related to the eternal love between Shahjahan and Mumtaz and the building of Taj Mahal that signified it. Razia Sultan, the story of the only female ruler to ever grace the throne in Delhi, didn’t escape Bollywood and we had Hema Malini and Dharmendra in the lead roles. A historical tale, a tale of romance, though many will doubt how much authentic it was to the source. Another movie that’s worth mentioning is Utsav, a movie that was inspired by ancient Indian history . Having a stellar cast as well as Sekhar Suman in his debut movie, Utsav was a critical success as it showed the traditions and rituals of ancient India.

Coming to the 90s and New Millenium, Bollywood had offered a string of movies based on history, often faithful to the original source. Movies worth mentioning will be Border,
Lagaan, Gadar, LOC, Jodha Akbar, Ashoka, Mangal Pandey, Hey Ram, Bhagat Singh, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Veer, Children of War, Khelen Hum Jee Jaan She, Madras Café as well as the upcoming Bombay Velvet and Mohejodaro. This list tells us about the wide variety of subjects Bollywood covered and many among them having being a success at the box office that pushed them to try more controversial and enriching topics. Be it the Mughal era, be it the time of Independence, war history as well as political history, Bollywood has tried to cover as many as possible. Movies like Jodha Akbar, Mangal Pandey as well as Madras Café all got into controversies. Yet, did well at the box-office. The problem is manifold as history’s interpretation is not a monolith but rather manages to take in wide variety of themes and it is not always possible to appease one and all and movies are the softest target of all. New movies like Bombay Velvet of course  create higher benchmark and we also have to think of Ashutosh Gowariker who is the only filmmaker right now to take up this challenge as most of his movies are weaved around history with Anurag Kashyap the latest entry to this exclusive club.

We hope Bollywood will explore more sensitive historical events that happened in India and won’t back down because of socio-political pressure.

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