21 September 2012
Young filmmakers who now call the shots in Bollywood are not very keen on making period films, writes AC Tuli
Remember Salman Khan's 'Veer'? Before its release, it was given wide publicity in the media, which naturally raised the expectations of the prospective viewers to a fever pitch. But on its release, it proved to be a case of too much ado about practically nothing. The film, with its not very interesting storyline, flopped badly at the box-office, leaving the hapless producer toting up his losses.
The overall impression a discerning viewer of 'Veer' got was that the entire film was a concatenation of gory scenes of brutal violence, with interludes of song-and-dance sequences. When you pack so much in a film lasting about two and half hours, the viewer is apt to feel bored with this over-cramming.
But perhaps the main reason why period films have flopped one after the other in recent years is that the genre no longer generates the kind of public enthusiasm that it did, say, some forty-fifty years back. Of course, India of the 50s, 60s and even 70s was vastly from the India of today. The memories of our colonial past were then fresh in the minds of the people of that generation, and any film that depicted Indians rebelling against their overweening British masters was welcomed with enthusiasm.
Obviously, viewers liked these films because they presented historical incidents which easily coalesced with the saga of Indian Freedom Movement. The adventures of the patriotic hero, as he went about bashing up his adversaries, provided vicarious thrills to the viewers. Manoj Kumar's 'Kranti', a fanciful historical fiction, clicked with the audience and the film was a money earner for its producer.
Passage of time has naturally bedimmed the memories of our colonial past. The youth of today, who unfortunately finds history a somewhat boring subject, is not much interested in digging up the past. His unarticulated query is: how long shall we go on nursing the bitter memories of the past? Naturally, with resurgent India now on the upswing, the present generation is far more interested in the possibilities that contemporary life offers to them than in brooding on what had happened in the past when India was a subject nation.
Does this mean that period films have outlived their appeal and have now little scope to regain popularity? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because period films have diminishing appeal for the viewers of today. Remember how the two films made on Bhagat Singh only a few years back collapsed at the box office? Then, that over-expensive film made on the life of Mangal Pandey also met the same fate.
However, if period films are made in an imaginative way, like Ashutosh Gowariker's 'Lagaan' (2001), they definitely have a chance of doing well at the box office. But those once-upon-a-time kinds of sagas told in an old-fashioned way have hardly any chance of clicking with the discerning audience of today.
There was a time period costume dramas formed a substantial part of the oeuvre of Bollywood. In fact, India's very first talkie 'Alam Aara' was a period film. Most of the films made between 1930 and 1960 were pseudo-historical fiction, in which larger-than-life characters were seen declaiming in a grandiloquent language as they strutted about on the screen. Producer-director-actor Sohrab Modi excelled in making such films. His films such as 'Pukar', 'Sikandar', 'Prithvi Vallab', 'Ek Din Ka Sultan', 'Jhansi Ki Rani', 'Raj Hath' and several others were historical fiction which were box office hits of their time.
Apart from Sohrab Modi, there were other filmmakers who also tried their hand at making period films. Mehboob Khan made 'Hamayun' at an exorbitant cost in 1945 with Ashok Kumar in the eponymous role. The film earned kudos not only from Indian critics but also from Hollywood filmmakers. His 'Aan' (1952) was also a costume drama that dwelt on how a degenerate scion of royalty is made to lick the dust by a brave, swashbuckling common man championing the cause of the poor and the helpless.
'Baiju Bawra', 'Anarkali', and 'Mughal-e-Azam' were some other highly successful period films of the 50s and 60s.
But not every period film was a money spinner at the box office. 'Jahanara' (1964) which chronicled the life Shahjehan's daughter was a flop. While Kamal Amrohi's 'Pakeezah' (1972) was a hit, his 'Razia Sultan' (1983), which was an expensive film, was a total washout at the box office. Viewers simply could not attune themselves to its tiresomely slow pace and uninteresting storyline.
Shah Rukh Khan's 'Ashoka' was rejected by cine-goers, largely because Shah Rukh Khan was a misfit in the main role. Besides, the film was badly scripted and ill-directed. It was of course a total flop.
Then, some historical films have attracted adverse criticism for depicting historical untruths. Aamir Khan's 'Mangal Pandey' and two films on Bhagat Singh are cases in point. Ashutosh Gowarikar's 'Jodha Akbar', too, was faulted on that score. There is no historical record showing that Jodha Bai was Akbar's wife. Even Abul Fazal's hagiographic biography entitled 'Akbarnama', written in highly ornate Persian, does not mention anywhere that Akbar wedded the Rajput princess Jodha. So, the adverse criticism from most quarters was that what Ashutosh Gowarikar had depicted in 'Jodha Akbar' was a fanciful creation of his own mind.
Ashutosh Gowrikar's 'Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se' flopped because it dealt with the Chittagong Uprising of 1930, which is little known to the common people of this country. Besides, Chittagong is now a part of Bangladesh, not of India. Therefore, the film had little appeal to the present-day viewers.
Similarly, the people of Uttar Pradesh to which Mangal Pandey belonged were apt to feel offended when they saw their icon making merry in the company of a prostitute. As regards the two Bhagat Singh films - one starring Bobby Deol and the other with Ajay Devgun in the eponymous role -, these were slammed for showing the great martyr frivolously singing and dancing with his friends when he was engaged to a girl. The descendants of Bhagat Singh's family say that he was never betrothed to any girl. It is obviously the lure of box office earnings that makes our filmmakers distort historical facts in order to make their films spicy enough for the lowest common denominator.
Young filmmakers who now call the shots in Bollywood are not very keen on making period films. In fact, historical romances now seem to be the exclusive domain of TV serial makers. Those who fancy historical fiction can always find some serial based on historical incidents running on some TV channel. Besides, what a filmmaker tries to show in a two-and-a-half-hour-long film, a TV serial maker can easily stretch over weeks