Ashutosh Gowariker’s much awaited Mohenjo Daro has drawn serious flak, even before its release, for its inaccurate depiction of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Gowariker seems to have played very fast and loose with the idea of artistic license- what with his protagonist flaunting an unrealistically chiselled body in a historic city (which was obviously not called Mohenjodaro by its inhabitants) with a sequinned-bikini-donning priestess exoticised worse than the Oracle in Zack Snyder’s 300.
Still recuperating from the assault on common sense that the trailer is, we search the annals of Hindi cinema for films which earned repute for their harmonious portrayal of aspects of Indian history:
1. Jhansi Ki Rani (1953)
Directed by Sohrab Modi and starring Mehtab in the titular role, this film remains one of the landmarks of the historical genre. The main cinematographer for this film was Ernest Haller, who also won the Oscar for another classic Gone With The Wind (1939). Jhansi Ki Rani, the first Indian film to be shot in Technicolour, was hailed for adhering to actual incidents from the legendary queen’s life and avoiding fictionalised versions.
2. Mughal-e-Azam (1960)
No list about historical films is complete without a mention of K. Asif’s magnum opus. We have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said about this masterpiece, which, in addition to stellar performances by the cast, was also known for its incredibly detailed set design and the replication of the Mughal reign in all its grandeur- be it the solid gold Krishna idol that Jodhabai worships, or the war scenes shot with Dilip Kumar in full armour in sweltering Rajasthan, or the larger-than-life replica of the splendid Sheesh Mahal in Lahore.
3. Amrapali (1966)
Based on the legend of Amrapali, the royal courtesan (Nagarvadhu) of Vaishali, and Ajatshatru, the king of Magadha who destroys Vaishali to win the Nagarvadhu, this film by Lekh Tandon is renowned for its realistic depiction of the life and times in 500 BC India. Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya travelled to Ajanta to create apparel congruent with the era, and her creations continue to be the template for costume design in period films.
4. Sardar (1993)
Ketan Mehta-directed Sardar follows the life of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as he was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and played an instrumental role in consolidating the Indian republic post-Independence. The film is notable for steering clear of jingoism and the restrained yet commendable performance of Paresh Rawal as the Iron Man Of India.
5. The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002)
If Paresh Rawal’s Sardar was restrained, Ajay Devgn’s Bhagat Singh, ably supported by Sushant Singh as Sukhdev and D. Santosh as Rajguru, was intense and spirited. This film on some of the most venerated figures of the independence struggle was noted for its sepia-tinted resurrection of the India in which the freedom fighters lived, as well as powerful dialogue which more than suited the martyr-poet we remember Bhagat Singh as.
6. Chittagong (2012)
Overshadowed by Gowariker’s film on the same subject, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, this Bedabrata Pain-directed film starred Manoj Bajpayee as Master Surya Sen, who led his students to contribute in the Indian freedom struggle, in the form of the Chittagong Uprising of 1930. It also boasts of poignant performances by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rajkummar Rao and offers an insight into the minds of youngsters who courageously faced the British forces in striving for independence.
7. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)
Ok, this movie is not so much of a historical film as a whodunnit, but it deserves mention here for its painstaking recreation of Kolkata (then Calcutta) of the 1940’s. This Dibakar Banerjee flick got (nearly) all the details right- from the characters’ costumes to the trams and the Japanese bombers circling the sky to the opium dens. We wish Gowariker had taken a page out of this before letting his imagination run amok!
There are many other Hindi films, including Gowariker’s own Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar, known for their believable, if not accurate references to Indian history. For the director’s own sake, we hope that the crowd-pleasing antics in Mohenjo Daro earn him rewards, at least at the box office!