Readers Write In #141: Indian historical pieces and why they suck- a rant

Posted on February 5, 2020


(by Sudharshan Garg)

A Rani of Jhansi jumps almost what seems to be a 100 feet from the rampart of a castle on a horse, the horse must be “Superhorse” as it lands without injury and she rides away, to fight another day. Tanaji Malsure (I refuse to use that numerology derived Tanjhaji) must have spent a good week rigging those harnesses and ropes which are so complex that they would make the trapeze act in the Cirque de Soleil look easy peasy. An Ashoka cavorts with a princess by a waterfall in the middle of making war and the list goes on.

But you are okay with dragons in A Game of Thrones, all powerful seeing eyes in LoTR, A mortal who is able to wipe out half of the population of the universe with one snap…and you are right, I am okay with it, because there is a stark difference between the former and later cases.

Let us start with the later, the later are all set in a genre called High Fantasy, these tales are all set in a fictional world / universe, here the rules are consistent but they are entirely different from the real world. So within this world of say Middle Earth, no one can fly, but you do have massive eagles that can, or how a few can attain even immortality but most can’t and so on and so forth. Within this genre you have a sub genre called “Low Fantasy” which is where I would slot A Song of Ice and Fire (GoT for you plebians), this is a ‘normal world’ as we see it but where magic intrudes and can warp at times the rules of this normal world. Even a Toy Story for instance would fit into this sub genre.

In these genres, a Queen leaping a 100 feet into the air or a warrior flying around like he was an extra on the set of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon would make sense and indeed won’t be questioned. However the problem, and thus the reason for this rant, with Indian period pieces is that they somehow seem to blur the line between Historical storytelling rooted in reality and High fantasy. Possibly this leaks from our mainstream masala moviedom where the hero HAS to be a superhero (I personally slot all our masala movies in the low fantasy genre). This hero worship is put ABOVE physics and the need to tell a compelling story.

Look at some of the all time greats in this genre of historicals, like say Alexander Nevsky (by Eisenstein, if you have not seen it, go watch it NOW!), it is absolutely rooted in reality and that is what makes the tale so bloody brilliant and compelling. What is this tale? Set in the turbulent times of the Northern Crusades when the forces of Kievan Rus (think Russia) take on a rampaging force of Teutonic Knights who are invading their lands in a quest to convert or kill all pagans.

With this premise, the story it tells is simple in itself – You have a traitor to the Pagan / Rus cause (the villain you could say), a brave monk who leads the resistance against the Teutons and of course, the titular Alexander Nevsky who rallies the people of the city of Novgorod and leads them to ultimate victory. Within this you have nested plot of 2 generals of the Novogordian forces and their vying for the love of a fair maiden (this seems like a filmy Indian subplot but such chivalric love was often a common theme in medieval literature and Eisenstein followed these themes), and all these plots converge in what was arguably the first “Mega climactic battle”, the battle on Ice which lasts an exhausting 30 or so minutes set to a rousing orchestra.

A simple compelling tale of evil and good, shot brilliantly and with cutting edge effects for its day, as a piece of celluloid, it holds upto this day – disclaimer though, this movie was made at the height of Stalinist terror and there is a lot and I mean LOT of Marxist propaganda and also has historical inaccuracies so be warned.

Look at a more modern example, one with far more nuance, the Kingdom of Heaven Directors Cut (the non Directors cut version is quite bad though). The overall plot is like Nevsky, very simple – an ordinary blacksmith flees to the Outremer after the suicide of his wife, gets caught up in a bunch of key events like he was a medieval Forest Gump and somehow winds up in charge of the city of Jerusalem during the siege of Jerusalem. Why is it so good? It has brilliant cinematography, awe inspiring music but most of all the compelling and gripping tale it tells. Why is the tale so compelling? Because there is no white or black, everyone is a shade of grey. The possible good guys include some of the worst scum on earth like Reynalld of Chatillon and while most other movies would have type cast the Muslim warlord as “generic Muslim warlord # 2”, Saladin is actually the good guy, kind, generous and forgiving. The battle scenes are grippingly shot and are realistic while reataining the epic feel.

It is not just mega bucks that are needed, if you watch Vikings Seasons 1-3 I would argue that it is one of the most historically accurate period pieces (the armour used, the tactics in battle) though it does take cinematic liberties with the overall story. The Last Kingdom on Netflix is yet another show (in a similar time period) that is shot on a relatively low budget, but is historically accurate (to a large extent) and tells a gripping tale.

Which then loops us back to the WHY? Why do Indian film makers suck at making good, realistic period pieces and why do they resort to high / low fantasy tropes. I have watched them all, from Border (aneurysm inducing), Jodha Akbar, Ashoka to “Tanhaji” and I have noticed the same set of problems plague them all in general.

(1) Though directors claim to do research, a complete lack of actual research, something someone even who can spend 10 minutes on Google can do better. For instance take ANY of these movies and then just type in “Mughal / Maratha / Mauryan etc armour” on Google and then compare the results. Not just on things like armour, things like actual battle formations, tactics (Bahubali did this best imo), physics are all given the go by.

(2) Hero worship – Our need for genuflecting our heroes or heroines overrides the need to tell a realistic and compelling tale so while a Rani of Jhansi or Tanaji in real life had a brilliant story to tell, our films make them into cookie cutter versions of a Vijay or Ajit in a mass movie.
a. Son / daughter of the soil – check
b. Amazing warrior – check
c. Loyal to the core – check
d. Uber patriotic – check
e. Some nonsense involving farmers (opening scene of Tanaji for instance) – check
f. Capable of superhuman feats of derring do – check check and check

It is because of this that there is an absolute sameness to all our period pieces, sure the periods they are set in are different, but they all look and feel the same
(3) Lack of good, mature grey shaded villains – A follow up of section 2, hero worship is the same issue that plagues our masala movies, a generic villain whose evilness is hyped up but who is actually very ineffectual in the end. Take any movie at random, say Panipat and compare the real Ahamad Shah Abdali with the fictional one and the difference will be stark. In the movie he is projected as unidimensional barbarian while in reality he was a highly educated poet laureate, a capable general and one in general loved by his people. Yes, without a doubt he was motivated by Jihad and the idea of plunder (he made his first fortune by plundering an Indian caravan) and there should be no whitewashing of this but why not project him as he really was and let the audience decide for themselves? How is an Abdali or Uday Bhan Rathore any different from I don’t know, a Patassu Balu (Thirpuachi, a gem of a Vijay movie)..the problem is, there is none.

It is my belief that a little research, a more story based platform as opposed to a hero centric one and providing the villain(s) more texture would make our period pieces far more palatable. So far the only movie that does this in an Indian context is Bahubali.

Ps – get rid of the effing song and dance PLEASE, our audiences have matured now and duets and group dances are only vehicles to appease star egos and serve no purpose in a serious historical film.