What are historicals trying to say?

Are films like Ponniyin Selvan and Padmavat trying to respond to modern-day politics? Yes and no, critics tell Showtime
Last Updated : 06 May 2023, 07:01 IST

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Period dramas are time capsules that transport the viewers to a different era, offering a glimpse into the past. In the last few years, India has seen a resurgence of historical period dramas, captivating audiences and often garnering critical acclaim.

In the first instalment of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, the lavishly mounted Tamil film directed by Mani Ratnam, the Chola prince Aditha Karikalan narrates his past to his friend Partibendra Pallavan, recalling many incidents but leaving out one that hurt him the most. He says it turned him into a monster, but he refuses to tell the story. In the following scene, he is drinking and enjoying yet another victory, and slowly begins talking about the incident. The cut shows him kicking open a door to see the love of his life with another man. She pleads with him not to harm her lover but he beheads the Pandyan king.

This takes us back to the first sequence of the film when he says he cannot kill another unarmed warrior, when the defeated Rashtrakuta king demands a glorious death from him.

‘Padmavat’ could be romanticising the practiceof self-immolation with idealistic dialoguesand magnificent wide-angle shots.
‘Padmavat’ could be romanticising the practice
of self-immolation with idealistic dialogues
and magnificent wide-angle shots.

K Phaniraj, convener of Udupi Chitra Samaj and a well-known film critic, believes such films need to be tailored in such a way as to suit current-day political needs. When films like ‘Mayura’ (Kannada, 1975), ‘Sri Krishnadevaraya’ (Kannada, 1970), and ‘Raja Raja Chozhan’ (Tamil, 1973) were made, there was a socio-political demand to glorify the past to interpret the Kannada nationalism of the present, and to create a Tamil nationality. Similarly, during the 1950s, when the Tamil statehood was taking shape, Kalki Krishnamurthy wrote ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ (the novel) to build a Tamil framework, he explains.

So if Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ was intended to comment on the Hindutva nationalism of the present day, what kind of commentary does it make? Phaniraj says Mani Ratnam looks at history more from a Freudian perspective than from a socio-political one. Be it ‘Iruvar’ (1997), which narrates the story based on the political rivalry between MGR and Karunanidhi, or ‘Ponniyin Selvan I & II’, set in the 10th century, history gets reduced to man-woman relationships and allurements.

“A large canvas for grand visuals of royal courts and battlefields makes the film fictional and dilutes history, even if the filmmakers are true to chronology,” he says.

Cinephile and author of several cinema introductory articles, M S Murali Krishna quotes the film ‘Sri Krishnadevaraya’ (Kannada, 1970) and says that king Krishnadevaraya, according to Domingo Paes (a Portuguese traveler who visited the Vijayanagar empire in the 16th century) was fair complexioned and had pock marks across his face, but the film fails to depict it. Indian historical films in general are a dazzle rather than a depiction of history. “Overall, there has been a watering down of history in films,” he observes.

Where are the people in these period dramas, questions Murali Krishna. He goes on to say, “There is no depiction of people’s history in Indian films. It is rare. Shyam Benegal in ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ (TV show, 1988-1989) depicts history from the point of view of the people. Satyajit Ray, in a nuanced way, touches on the downfall of aristocracy just before the First War of Indian Independence in the film, ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’ (1977).” He says the chess game in the film is a metaphor for the stagnancy of the era.

Phaniraj too notes that period dramas depict history from the point of view of the dynasties, they give a heroic vision of history. “In ‘Thuramukham’ (Malayalam, 2023), which can also be regarded as a historical film, one realises how difficult it is for the working class to be a part of history. And when one makes a film from the point of view of the people, it gives the audience a different perspective on history.

In ‘Padmavat’ (2018), what was Sanjay Leela Bansali out to say? Did he want to remind us of our ‘guroor, usool and itihaas’ (phrases used by the Mewar King in the film which translate to pride, principles and history)? The film glorifies a Rajput king who went to great lengths of foolishness that ultimately led to the destruction of his empire.

Murali Krishna has this to say about the depiction of Allauddin Khilji in ‘Padmavat’, “it is an atrocious portrayal and goes hand-in-hand with Islamophobia indulged by the present government”.

The film also seemed to romanticise the practice of ‘jauhar’ (collective self immolation) with an idealistic monologue by Rani Padmavati (played by Deepika Padukone), along with magnificent wide angle shots showing an army of women walking towards the fire, shouting ‘Jai Bhavani.’

In terms of female representation, are filmmakers choosing stories with strong women characters who de-fy traditional norms? Athisha Vinod, film critic and author of Tamil books says, “In films like ‘Padmavat’, where women play the lead, the treatment is still similar to regular dramas. The female lead still has to dance, sing a duet with the male lead, and in the end she is glorified for sacrificing her life for her husband.”

Citing ‘Mahadevi’ (Tamil, 1957) and ‘Poompuhar’ (Tamil, 1964) as examples, he says historical dramas in the past had stronger female characters. Savithri plays the role of princess Mahadevi in the film ‘Mahadevi’ and Vijayakumari, the role of ‘Kannagi’, wife of a rich baron in the Chola dynasty, in Poompuhar.

History lauds Kundavai for being a central figure in shaping the politics of the Chola dynasty, she is also celebrated for being a mentor to Raja Raja Chola I (Arulmozhi Varman in ‘Ponniyin Selvan’), in contrast to how women in the era were used only for the purpose of forming alliances. And still Mani Ratnam portrays Kundavai as only a secondary character in the film.

Athisha says, “We are living in a period when history is being rewritten in textbooks, and historical dramas on screen are trying to portray a new history to the people.”

Published 05 May 2023, 17:20 IST

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