History On The Big Screen

Countless, absolutely a countless number of films, documentaries, TV series have been made by the French & the British on their Kings, Queens, Mistresses, Popes.

Similarly, on the French Revolution, World War I & II, its famous personalities Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Charles De Gaulle, the Normandy Crossings…..
So many histories, threads, truths & untruths, a cause for controversy indeed.
However, each film is a body of work with its opinion, creative license, artistic liberty & it goes & settles in its own niche, claiming its own fame & notoriety & complementing a whole, from which one can draw ones own conclusion.

Reasons for demanding changes & or, censoring any recent film in the UK have been for explicit violent sexual content, cruelty to animals & children, DIY films on bomb making.
The days of protest for inter-class sexual escapades were forgotten after Lady Chatterley’s Lover & Lolita looks like a bed time story today.

France’s own very liberal attitude towards the Arts is legendary. In comparison the UK & US come across as prissy & puritanical.
Withstanding, till the early 1990s the Catholic Church in France gave its own recommendations for films, books & art.
In TV magazines one got to read the review of the CNC – Centre Nationale De Cinema et L’ Image Anime as well as the Catholic Church.

What is however exceptional about France is, that it’s not only a nation so proud & overtly so, of its history, culture, cuisine, language but it’s irreverence to it all, is as much a national characteristic.

It’s noteworthy however that no protests by any faith, community or racial group has been given consideration for the release of a book, film, play or art in both these countries though they are very much multi racial.

Closer home in Malaysia, most biblical films like Benhur, The Last Testament of Christ, Da Vinci Code were banned for ‘religious’ reasons.
With a predominantly Muslim population, Buddhist, Hindu & Christian sensibilities get short shrift.

Babe was banned because it showed a pig in a positive light & then released only on VHS. Whereas, Schindler’s List was considered a propaganda film, seeking sympathy.
Brokeback Mountain wasn’t released because it was empathetic to homosexuality & Wonder Woman because its leading lady Gal Godot had served in the Israeli Army.
The populace doesn’t have much say in any of these decisions. However, the State in its wisdom acts on the behalf of the Bhoomiputras.

A case in point is Kamal Hasan’s Vishwaroopam. It was initially shown in Malaysia but withdrawn in a couple of days as it was thought to show Islam in poor light.
This it seems had the approval of the citizenry at large but they didn’t mind seeing the heavily cut version on VHS in the privacy of their homes.

Malaysia’s own home grown films are now starting to focus on family, social issues & historical values.The most popular being The Iban Warrior, a story of a national war hero fighting against communists. Sticking to known facts, its considered a very popular classic.

Where then does Indian film sensibility lie in regard to the UK with whom we share a language, our parliamentary system, education system, our laws & an important slice of our history?
With France, who gave the world hope with Liberty, Equality & Fraternity & is as proud of its cultural heritage as we are or perhaps a once colonised Malaysia to the East, which carries four distinct diverse faiths & languages…?

For a country like ours so rich in history & folklore we can probably only list a dozen period films with famous historical personalities.
To name a few there was Prithviraj Kapoor’s Alam Ara, Sorab Modi’s Sikandar & Dara Singh’s Greco-Roman action packed entertainers.

However it was Mughal-e -Azam that caught the nation’s attention.
It can be said that it kept our new cinematic sensibilities in mind & didn’t touch on the historical or political aspect of a well documented time & emperor. But chose instead, to tell a little known love story of his perpetually smitten son.

The big screen mesmerised us for its songs, Madhubala’s ethereal beauty, Dilip Kumar for his lovelorn role, Prithviraj Kapoor’s acting prowess, his voice & bearing …..
But did Anarkali actually exist?
Was she really condemned to be bricked up in a wall for the crime of falling in love with Jehangir, an important heir & prince, future king of Hindustan?
We do not know & nor do we care. Is it because as long as it brought tears to our eyes there must have surely have been some truth to it?

In the 70’s Fatehpur Sikhri’s guides were disdainful of the Anarkali story. However on a recent visit a young guide pointed out with great authority to a wall Anarkali had been bricked in. He informed us that there was a tunnel to Lahore right beneath us & that’s how Anarkali & her mother escaped with the connivance of Akbar’s courtiers, probably with the approval of the king himself.

To those who say – It’s only a film –
Was myth turned to reality because of a film?
Or fact finally acknowledged?

It’s tragic indeed in one of the world’s largest film industries there isn’t another single film or documentary produced to offer the ordinary film going audience a contrary version or another perspective at looking at the same story.

Jodha Akbar comes to mind as a recent period film which made an impact.
We loved Aishwarya & Hritik in their roles. But, for some sketches in our school history books, we had & still have little idea how the man looked & much less his Hindu wife.
The colours, the extravaganza, the haunting music …three hours of that love, romance & that ultimate tapestry of cultures that should have amalgamated & been the norm, if only history had been, as taught….

But then- someone threw a cold bucket of water on our beauteous Jodha & asked Jodha Who?
Is there another film, documentary or TV series that we can turn to?
Another director’s artistic license, perhaps? Or a brutal taken down? Sadly not.

To cover the Revolution for a history class in France an average school student could take to the school library, the district library & the film archives at the museums.
In the mid 1970’s one could access over 3000 documentary films, French & foreign TV series & other films on the subject.
One had to book a time, mention the subject of interest & if one required assistance.
Then in a booth one could watch films, making notes. Some films were unknown but critically acclaimed, others world famous but most were meticulously detailed & researched UNLESS specifically mentioned so.

And that brings us to the question : Why Are We So Touchy ?
Perhaps for two reasons.
One, the cinematic treatment in the ‘facts’ department is meagre & mediocre.
Two, the political twist doesn’t help matters.

We have only one single popular film on Akbar & his Jodha.
(Around 30 on Queen Elizabeth I, including rip roaring comedies)
It is as if a national monument was raised & because of its permanence we wanted it to be perfect. If the past is anything to go by, we knew that this film would be the last cinematic word on this subject for decades to come. A Go To film hence, every aspect deserved attention, every detail mentioned & the veracity of historical facts checked & rechecked.

Many among us are are content with the pretty-pretty & then there are those who want to scratch every wound because for them pride, honour or simply the healing process requires it.

Between weak-kneed film makers whose scriptwriters & research teams have little scholarship & politicians greedy for vote banks, we have an exacerbated situation where they give in to groups that claim to be offended & insulted.
With doing this once, the flood gates are opened for the next group demanding the same.
To then use the argument of creative license is insulting & unfair.
It’s not difficult to comprehend that one rule should hold for all or expect ‘artistic liberty’ to be manipulated & threatened.

The tragedy in this complicated story is that the people on whom we bestow this responsibility of raising a monument, are not necessarily up to the job. Withstanding their own pretentious opinions of themselves.
They excel in fantasy, a pre-set formula that sells, where king meets queen & to hell with recorded facts because blow fans tossing beautiful hair, will do the rest of the story telling.

A change can only be expected if cinematography of a higher calibre is encouraged & when film directors break out of the mould.
When history taught does not merely mean learning dates by rote but by researching, assessing & questioning.
…..Till then we are chained to a cycle of mediocrity, obfuscations & a lazy manipulation of the truth.

Its not just a film –
The Art of Filmmaking Is The Most Influential Form Of Art That Has Ever Existed Throughout The History Of Human Artistic Endeavours