The link between history and popular memory is far from tenuous, because both of them constantly feed into and contribute to each other such that what we remember becomes a facet or perspective of what happened in the past and what we learn in traditional textbooks is also informed by this memory. In the case of this argument, one can take the association of popular jingles with consumption patterns across populations in the ‘modern’ age, as an example. What is an economic fact recorded for study, is also deeply seeped into the public consciousness and revives memories of purchasing. Another example can be that of films- our sense of the freedom struggle can be informed by the movies Shaheed, Gandhi, and Mangal Pandey among others, in a way that the learned facts of the textbook are conflated with the scenes of the film. This also exposes the danger of appropriating historical sources to create popular memory, and giving rise to rhetorical (and contemporary) questions. What would have happened if a few details of Shaheed had been tweaked to suit the audience, that is, what if Bhagat Singh was primarily portrayed as a violent ‘terrorist’ from the coloniser’s angle (through word or action) and not as a ‘martyr’ for the nation? What would have happened if Gandhi’s ideological conflict with Ambedkar was the focus of the film, and not the Non-Cooperation Movement? That would have influenced many viewers to see them in a very different light. Thus, the creators of public memory- artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and even recorders of facts (like the documenters, calculators and checkers of the GDP, PDS system and so on) carry immense responsibility. They create realities for their audience.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known for his films’ lavish sets, beautiful filmography, and passionate romantic chemistry. Widely labelled as artistic masterpieces, the visuals tend to convert the film into a grandiose gesture welcoming movie-goers to partake of an illusory and elusive reality. Many of his works deal with historical figures and trace the chronological trajectories of his characters as per ‘exhaustive’ research into historical sources. A song and dance formula is weaved into the dry retelling to make it luxurious and watchable. However, the claim of presenting historical accuracy (which the failure of Mohenjodaro also attests to) is ceaselessly manipulated and justified by calling it ‘creative liberty’. Emphasizing on Akbar’s conversion into a good flexible Muslim with the inspiration of his wife Jodhaa, a staunch devotee of Krishna, is so carefully hidden behind layers of story-telling that this fable becomes fact. The larger product forms a general impression that makes the viewer feel that history has been enacted before the eyes. This may also include the uncritical acceptance of symbols, stereotypes, emotional associations etc. that the characters or the setting induce. For example, if one of a king’s wives is etched in the colours of royalty (red, gold and so on) and another is formatted in shades of black and grey, even an implicit detail of this kind can make the viewer feel ‘power’ or ‘goodness’ emanate from the first one and ‘evilness’ or ‘dislike’ emerge from the dark aura of the other.
The trailer of his latest offering, Padmavati, carries similar overtones of glorifying the tale of Padmavat. The framework of the story espouses the ‘brave’ Rajput queen of Chittod committing johar with all other women of the kingdom upon the failure of her husband’s forces in the battle with Alauddin Khilji. The trailer shows glimpses of exalting the act of the women’s self-immolation, with the beautiful queen Padmavati inspiring the women and her husband, and becoming an object of obsession for the enemy ruler. Not only does this lionizing process carry overtones of the disreputable system of sati, it also hinges women’s honour on their chastity because the community’s honour is located in its women being ‘untainted’. On the other hand, Khilji, portrayed by Ranveer Singh, is constructed as a barbaric other who carries lechery in his eyes and violence in his limbs. Notwithstanding the absurdity of wearing thick fur clothes in the warm climes of the setting, the scales of historical accuracy point to the hypocrisy of representation. It is possible to defend this by saying that this is a faithful rendering of the Rajput story, and thus caters to that perspective. But, is the task of the filmmaker limited to that?
-Contributed by Tript
Picture Credits: pressleaks.com