ONCE upon a time serving as the citadel of Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri today bears testimony to the immense soft power of the cinematic medium. Released in 1960, K. Asif’s monumental Mughal-e-Azam took 18 years to create and was a box office phenomenon. However, besides the money it spun, the movie also succeeded in creating a myth for the modern, secular nation-state under Nehru still struggling to find its feet.
This myth held sway over public discourse for almost three generations and its effect remains palpable upon the entire narrative of the now UNESCO World Heritage site. From tourist guides re-telling the life-stories of the principal cast of characters like Anarkali and Jodha Bai, to the Archaeological Survey of India’s dubious naming of monuments after them adds further layers to the myth-making. We, as historians, know that both Jodhabai as well as Anarkali were non-existent characters in Akbar’s reign. However, that has not stopped from the myth acquiring a life of its own. Of course, the dominant powers of the day, privilege certain narratives of the past over others especially those which provide a wider legitimacy to their characteristic worldview. While scholars may continue to debate about the veracity of this or that representation on the silver screen, the truth is that a good story sells even if it is untrue.
Fast forwarding a little over half a century later, the recent surge of ‘historically inspired’ cinema provides a call for politically mature academic deliberation and intervention. Movies like Padmavat, Tanhaji: The Unsung Hero, and more recently, The Kashmir Files provoke some deeper investigation into the timing, culture and politics behind the nature of these films and the narratives they seek to propagate. Aside of their commercial success, these movies provided one more occasion in the ongoing debate about India’s shared past. The nature of this discourse has been virulent and acrimonious as it demonizes Muslims by representing them as the ‘other’ and an enemy. The obvious congruence of this particular kind of cinematic representation with the right-wing political interests is but natural.
For scholars it is cliché to say that history is a discourse between past and present. If the here-and-now have always influenced the perceptions of bygone times, then how does the lens of historical film differ from the viewpoint of a historian?
One way to evaluate is to put a comparative perspective on both crafts. Chronologically, while history as a modern textual discipline based upon literary sources has been in making for a little over two centuries; cinema as a form of mass entertainment is younger by a few decades. At the level of ethics, history is geared towards making a truth-claim about a distant past while cinema, being primarily profit-oriented, the ethical imperative often operates in subservience to aesthetic and commercial considerations.
Moreover, cinema’s reach and appeal, is enormously larger which comes from it being an industrial mode of representation. Unencumbered by the written word, movies have long served mass audiences with stories of human predicament in local languages. Also, like previous technologies of mass communication (e.g. print), it has often been deployed for propagandist purposes other than entertainment.
What is special about the current moment of cultural politics on the silver screen is, perhaps, its entanglement with democracy. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that cinematic representation does indeed exert an influence over public opinion and in the long run may perhaps even be used to change the political consciousness of the target audience. The ever wider proliferation of social media/OTT platforms amalgamating with hand-held digital devices has only magnified the consumptive reach of such audio-visual narratives. It is common knowledge that political parties of all hues are utilizing the power of small screens in our pockets. Its wider implications remain unpredictable but there is a need to nuance the public discourse on the hidden transcripts of screenplays and decode their politics of representation or rather interpretation.
It may appear that we are only challenging the political discourse of a vitiated kind with the interests of democracy and secularism in mind (the right wing vis-à-vis the liberal/Left). However, we do hope that the contributions made in this issue of the Seminar will act as an invitation to seriously think about how cinema as a medium informs the audience. At the symposium, it surely provided a lot of food for thought by inciting conversations on social issues such as gender, caste in addition to the Hindu/Muslim discourse which is the focus of most articles.
Lastly, as the pincers continue to move against creative forces, we are curious to see whether the corporate structure of funding in the OTT platforms and the proliferation of small production houses shall allow space for social brainstorming by the movie-makers, as was attempted through a series like The Empire. Without an adequate response to set an alternative discourse, the darkness surrounding us is likely to continue.