By the time you read this, Mohenjo Daro will be in theatres. This column goes to press before its release, but it has been hard to miss the chorus of online irritation all summer over perceived historical inexactitudes in the promotional material of this Ashutosh Gowariker film.
My mantra as a critic: watch the film, then decide. Sadly though, the janta is justified in being cynical about Bollywood’s rare flirtations with ancient or recent history and biopics. This year has been particularly bad. From Airlift , to Mohammed Azharuddin’s biography that the opening disclaimer said was not a biography, to last week’s Budhia Singh: Born To Run , Hindi cinema has shown a bizarre apathy towards authenticity and accuracy in too many films based on true stories in 2016.
To be fair, research takes time, time costs money, and India’s film budgets are still a fraction of what Hollywood spends per film. Historicals and period dramas are uncommon in India because costumes and sets for quality films in these genres are forbiddingly expensive. Beyond these constraints lies a disturbing truth though, that many Hindi filmmakers are just casual about facts, and the masses give them a long rope. (Note: this column is not a clean chit to other Indian industries, Bollywood just happens to be today’s focus.)
Take Budhia Singh for one. Soumendra Padhi’s film is about the slumchild who ran 48 marathons in 2005-06, culminating in a 65km Bhubaneshwar-Puri run in 2006 at the age of four. Singh was subsequently taken away from his coach/adoptive father, Biranchi Das, by Odisha’s child welfare officials on the grounds that marathons were harmful for one so young. Budhia Singh appears to raise questions about the late Das’s ethics, but covertly bats for him by caricaturing officialdom. It also fails to specify global norms from then and now. The International Association of Athletics Federations’ 2012 medical manual recommends three km as the maximum competition distance and six km as the weekly training distance for children below nine, whereas Das had Budhia reportedly running at least eight times that distance each week.
Director Raja Krishna Menon went a step further than cherry-picking information: he fabricated facts. Menon’s superhit Airlift is about the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. In the film, 1.7 lakh Indians are rescued through the singlehanded efforts of Ranjit Katiyal (Akshay Kumar), a fictional businessman who persuaded a reluctant Indian MEA official to help despite overall government indifference. In actuality, 1.1 lakh-plus people were reportedly brought home by Air India in coordination with Indian bureaucrats, diplomats and some individuals in Kuwait, following a diplomatic eggshell walk by then Foreign Minister IK Gujral.
A text plate at the end of the film acknowledges a “Mathunny Matthews” and a “Vedi” without explaining who they were or what role they had in this mammoth exercise. Apparently, giving the full names and details of real-life stars is unnecessary. Apparently too, their names were an inconvenience since a non-existent Katiyal would better fit the persona and physique of the film’s chosen leading man. (For the record, Mathunny/Sunny Matthews and Harbhajan Singh Vedi were businessmen who reportedly spearheaded the operation on the ground in Kuwait.)
This is not to say other film industries don’t toy with facts. Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), gripping though it was, was conscienceless in this matter. Argo was about the rescue of six US embassy officials in the 1979-81 Tehran hostage crisis. Jimmy Carter, the US President at the time, told CNN: “Ninety per cent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA… The main hero, in my opinion, was (Canadian ambassador) Ken Taylor.”
What Hollywood does wrong, Bollywood does worse. Argo played up the CIA and played down its allies in a story of valour, in keeping with the US industry’s perennial policy of lionising America in all contexts. Airlift , on the other hand, created a whole new human being tailor-made for Bollywood melodrama and a particular superstar.
Whether such decisions are motivated by convenience, ideology or artistic sloth, filmmakers usually cite “dramatic licence” as their excuse, as Affleck did with Argo .
Hey, filmmakers, creative licence need not be irresponsibly used. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag , for instance, shows Milkha Singh haunted by memories of the Partition during the 1960 Rome Olympics 400m final and looking back as he nears the finish, thus losing the race; Singh, however, says he lost because he changed his rhythm mid-race. Mehra’s dramatisation is harmless, even if needless. Available images of Emperor Akbar suggest he was not a Hrithik Roshan-grade hottie, but no one holds that against Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar . It is unlikely that a historical text has recorded Peshwa Bajirao sharing a romantic bath with his wife, as he did in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani .
On a serious note, it goes without saying that Sonam Kapoor in this year’s wonderful Neerja had to guess the expressions on Pan Am flight purser Neerja Bhanot’s face in the hours before her death on a hijacked flight in 1986. See, we do understand “cinematic licence”. Just do us a favour and do not hide behind it when you are being unjust, unfair, biased, miserly or plain lazy, especially not when you fool around with reputations and lives.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad