Rethinking the genre of the ‘historical’ film in India


PERHAPS it was during the early years of cinema that the category of a ‘historical’ film came into existence as did the nomenclature of the mythological but as a category the ‘historical’ film has become confined today to the big, glossy renderings of the past with battles and heroism, as well as its share of baddies – evil lustful men eyeing the beauties of our ancient upright heroic land epitomized by the film Padmaavat. I believe it is time to rethink this category with its baggage of gloss, large sets, palaces and its controversies, court cases and ‘hurt’ sentiments. Why are we stuck with this framework when no one who is a serious historian will focus their energies on ‘heroic’ kings anymore? Happily, we no longer write such histories so why make these films except to cash in on controversies and its returns in terms of tickets and viewership and hopefully crores in the box office.

On my part as a serious watcher of cinema since the 1960s we might usefully dump the label of a historical or expand it to make more sense. All films are located at some moment in time and depict its ethos: some more than others capture a transitional moment in the theme being explored: Bimal Roy’s classic Do Bigha Zamin (1953) captures the end of the old system of landholding and the social relations of a declining moment in land and the emergence of an industrial, urban society with its two parts, village and city, as they are connected through its working class, deprived of resources and dependent now on manual labour of the most exploitative kind.

Shyam Benegal’s Susman (1987) too captures such a transitional moment set in the framework of artisanal production, in this case the handloom industry. Brilliantly executed, Susman explores the crisis of the weaver, a master craftsman and an artist who weaves exquisite saris, and owns his own loom, but cannot stay afloat as an independent producer because he has little capital to even buy his thread and must rely on a ‘financier’ who gives him the yarn to weave his saris. Set at a time when we witnessed the emergence of the powerloom industry in towns such as Bhiwandi where the children of the artisans can find work as operators of the power loom – as the new working class with barely enough to survive, and more poignantly subject to communal clashes.


The transitional moment is developed through a number of different protagonists: the independent weaver, the people he might employ to help with his work and the new small-town worker who is like every other segment of the working class population. But it also a time when the post independence state is selling the ‘idea of India’ through festivals in European capitals but the rules for production for the master craftsman are such that the saris he weaves must be unique, only one of its kind which can go to the festival (it excludes even his marriageable aged daughter from possessing one such sari) the contradictions of gender, class, and caste shape the narrative as it unfolds in the film.

An additional element of the film is the manner in which Benegal uses Kabir and his songs to add eloquence to the story of the weaver of Nehruvian India who is being eased out of history as an autonomous artist, even as Kamladevi Chattopadhyay had fought so hard to keep him alive. Her work for the handloom weaver failed to turn the tide of history. To my mind Do Bigha Zamin and Susman are exquisite examples of a historical film if we could step out of the boxes we have created about what is a historical film.

Having stated my case I will now move to examine another set of films about a period in our postcolonial history which neoliberal India has all but forgotten, the time of Naxalbari and its moment of possibility in agrarian change and of the extreme violence in its enactment on the part of the state and the revolutionary leadership that spoke to the youth in particular in West Bengal. I began to make a documentary on the period based on interviews with women who had been active in the movement and had faced both incarceration and torture in police custody and in jail, so I naturally wanted to see how cinema had dealt with of the period.

I watched a number of films made in Bangla and some in Hindi, all interesting in some way or other. Some of these films were made by the greats of Bengali cinema such as Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak and Gautam Ghose and include Interview (1970), Calcutta 71 (1971), Pratidwandi (1971), Padatik (1974) and Kaalbela (2009). Mrinal Sen returned to Naxalbari with Mahaprithivi (1991), many years after its heyday where he deals with the aftermath of the movement. He explores the dynamics of a family where the mother kills herself unable to forget the movement that took away her son. And finally, there was Meghnad Badh Rohosyo, described as a ‘naxalgia’ film.1

Made in 2017, the film is set at a time when everyone has forgotten Naxalbari and is living in a neoliberal bubble; through an aging writer and a young woman, who is in search of justice for her parents, killed by the police during the heyday of the movement, a dark past is revealed. As the plot unfolds the aging writer who now lives abroad is implicated in the killing of his comrades because he was unable to withstand the torture that he was subjected to in the ’70s.

Hindi cinema too has dwelt on the ’60s phase of the Naxalite movement. A somewhat poorly made film by K.A. Abbas, who made some powerful films and wrote the script for many more, was titled The Naxalite (1980). Despite the film’s strong cast with Mithun Chakraborty and Smita Patil the film did not make much of an impact unlike Govind Nihalani’s Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), based on a play/novella written by Mahashweta Devi and starred Jaya Bhaduri in the role of the mother of a Naxalite young man killed by the police, who has no idea of her son’s revolutionary life till his death. Now she confronts her son’s life after he turns up as a corpse with the number 1084, lying in the morgue where the police have dumped him. She gradually uncovers his life and his relationships leading to the transformation of the upper class alienated mother who ends up joining a human rights documentation centre seeking state accountability.

More recently Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi made by Sudhir Mishra returned to the theme of revolutionary youth caught up in a movement that sought to overthrow the stultifying society that had failed to achieve some of the economic and social dreams of the movement for independence especially for the poor in rural India. Like the Bangla films it provides a sweep of places and events in the pre-Emergency days. Beginning with Delhi, more specifically Delhi University, it sweeps across to the villages of Bihar and other urban locations, the early fervour of the movement and the gradual collapse of idealism as the state tests the commitment of the young urban revolutionaries through its standard operating procedures: combing operations by the police, torture of captured young urban ‘revolutionaries’ and the ultimate caving in of the half-baked urban radicals of their time as high placed fathers send the ex-revolutionaries to safe havens abroad.

Taken together, the films made in Bangla or in Hindi critically examine in some cases the alienation of the young and are focused on the young urban radicals drawn primarily from the middle class youth who threw themselves into the movement in support of radical change and the overthrow of a society that had failed to deliver on the promises of the freedom struggle. In Bengal the unmarked background of the young men is their roots in the dislocated refugee population, a generation after the partition of Bengal, and the crisis of unemployment. The radicalization/alienation of the youth is explicitly the theme of Calcutta 71 and Interview made by Mrinal Sen and to an extent in Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi. Sen’s Padatik brings together the young urban revolu-tionary who is drawn into the movement while he is still unsure of his commitment to the ‘cause’; he escapes from a prison van and is sheltered by a young well heeled woman played by Simi Garewal who provides a safe haven for the young man being pursued by the police. Her brother and she are alienated from their rich conscienceless father so she has no heavy handed relatives keeping control over her. In an interesting side story Sen sets a sequence in Calcutta where young urban women meet in a discussion group in Simi Garewal’s flat and as their conversations range over women’s rights in a patriarchal and misogynist society the women’s question appears in a film script perhaps for the first time. Ghatak’s Jukti Gappo Aar Taako brings together the young in search of themselves and a fading and somewhat degenerate leftist all of whom get killed in a staged encounter with the police.

The encounter is an explicit theme in the films on the Naxalite movement whether they are made
in Bangla or Hindi. The young revolutionary hero, whether he is present or is evoked in his absence, is constantly confronting imminent death in a police encounter. Even when the hero himself is not killed he lives with the police encounter as his final end as a very real possibility to his revolutionary life. Mrinal Sen provides a graphic re-enactment of such a sequence as a young man is pursued by the police as he runs through the alleys and byways of the streets of Calcutta; finally emerging into an open space he is brutally shot (evoking the open Calcutta maidan where it is believed the revolutionary writer Saroj Dutta was killed by the police in the presence of early morning walkers who witnessed the encounter but never testified to it).

The entire sequence, unique in itself is the only one of its kind and has been used by other film makers including documentary film makers like Kasturi Basu/Dwaipayan Bhattacharya and me to cinematically evoke the encounter in the time of Naxalbari. The sequence in itself is a cinematic creation evoking the infamous night where more than 150 boys are believed to have been eliminated by the police during President’s rule in the Cossipore-Baranagar area of Calcutta in August 1971.2 It appears also in the later film Kaalbela made by Gautam Ghose in 2009.

The fullest exploration of the young revolutionary is developed in Kaalbela. Based on a novel by Samaresh Majumdar published in the early 1980s, Kaalbela’s young hero is a revolutionary by accident. Our hero Animesh arrives in Calcutta from Jalpaiguri to study in the Scottish Church College in pursuit of the usual middle class dream for young men: study in a good college, earn a respectable degree and then find a suitable job but that dream comes crashing as Animesh is inadvertently caught in a police chase in which he gets shot. He recovers and proceeds to pursue a college education constantly disrupted by the youth upsurge and the different strands of the left movement each seeking to build their base in the urban youth of Bengal.

As the story unfolds against hartals and empty classrooms Kaalbela provides a foil to the revolutionary hero of the movement through the presence of young women seeking to escape the prison-house of marriage and domestication into a routine middleclass existence. They aren’t so keen on the closing down of the classroom and argue against such ‘anarchist’ activity but as the story unfolds, they are drawn into the stormy times as partners to the revolutionary heroes. In this capacity they suffer torture and even rape but firmly standby their confused partners who may have bumbled into the revolution but are made to pay for their participation in the movements of their times.

As I watched these films on Naxalbari I was struck by the absence of the ‘revolutionary woman’, women who too threw themselves into ‘movement’ in the late sixties and seventies. Except for Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa which  creates two female protagonists, a mother who uncovers her son’s revolutionary activities after his death and discovers too that her son had a close friend, a woman activist, who is caught and tortured in police custody, and Abbas’s film where a revolutionary young woman is one among the many male revolutionaries and is asked to prove her loyalty to the movement by killing her revolutionary beloved (a test that none of the male revolutionaries is asked to execute), which she does, but it is also she who interrogates the annihilation line at a large people’s meeting at the tail end of the film.

There is also Nandini in Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa who never gives up in her commitment to a better world for her people even though she has lost her revolutionary partner and has been tortured mercilessly in the police station, losing an eye in the process. At the end of the film, she is shown as a survivor who decides to file a case against her torturers. Sujata is also witness to an assassination of a human rights activist. The last scene in the film shows Sujata clinging to the leg of one of the killers, holding on to it till others come to her aid and the killer can be turned over to the law. Despite these examples a general sense of disillusionment marks the films on Naxalbari.  

In sum, the revolutionary as the ‘heroine’ of film on Naxalbari is marked by an erasure. Since the documentaries I was making were built around women who went to jail for their radical beliefs and actions I was struck by the absence of the woman revolutionary in the films set in the sixties. Why did no film focus on this category of persons even as there was enough by way of memoirs and other writing that was circulating since the late ’70s. In Kaalbela too, where the story takes us through one young man’s journey, there is a young adivasi woman who executes a killing of a moneylending rapist landholder who has raped her, but the film is not built around her. She asks to be given the task of killing the moneylending exploitative degenerate character, yet she is not the heroine of the film: that remains a young man, a typical prototype of the revolutionary hero even as it was Shanti Munda and the adivasi women of her village whose actions triggered off the revolution in Naxalbari.

Middle class Bengal was obsessed with its revolutionary hero whether brave or confused. Women stayed as supporting cast holding up the hero even as he bumbled in and out of the ‘revolution’ as in Kaalbela. Women were tortured as partners of the heroes, but they were not the ‘heroes’ of the movement. It is through them that the infamous Runu Guha Niyogi and the even more infamous torture cells of the Lalbazaar thana appear in the cinema of Naxalbari.

The late sixties and early seventies were experienced as a time of upheaval: as the first post-Independence generation came into their twenties even in far off Delhi students were swept into the movement; one of our women students at in Delhi University too went underground for a few months in search of the movement for radical change. The students were active in other socialist formations too and soon we were all catapulted into the Emergency, the first taste of a repressive state that all of India experienced with the clamping of the Emergency in June 1975.

As thousands of people were jailed, including our own students and teachers from Delhi University, one of my socialist colleagues, who had become a student activist during the Quit India Movement in 1942, went underground in 1975. Living in difficult circumstances through the Emergency she never recovered her mental and physical health even after the Emergency ended and she returned to her previous existence as a teacher in my college. It was she who introduced me to Snehalata Reddy’s A Prison Diary; Sneha a socialist herself, had died during the Emergency after nine months in jail unable to withstand the rigours of jail life and lack of medical care. My first film on incarceration of women was built around her and is titled Prison Diaries.

I proceeded to make a much longer film Yeh Lo Bayan Humare after almost ten years of germination on women who were jailed during the decade 1967-1977 and this came out of my having borne witness to the period and its aftermath, the birth of the civil rights movement after 1977, and were drawn into it in different capacities. Encounters became a recognizable word, as reports such as the Report on Encounters was released under the aegis of Justice Tarkunde which documented the incidents of Encounters particularly in Andhra Pradesh in the Report titled ‘Encounters are Murders’ (1977).

Other civil and democratic rights groups across the country uncovered details of the Emergency; police excesses in West Bengal in the form of torture and the violence of incarceration began to appear in the public sphere by way of memoirs, small articles and more serious interventions which highlighted the extreme repression of the times and accounts of torture began to circulate. Women who had been in jail during the revolutionary decade wrote about prisons and of torture, obliquely sometimes and more openly sometimes. Prison literature emerged as a genre made ‘famous’ in Joya Mitra’s Hanyaman and Meenakshi Sen’s Jailer Bhitar Jail, (The Jail within the Jail) were literary creations, whereas Primila Lewis’s Reason Wounded and Mary Tyler’s My Years in an Indian Prison were memoirs of jail life.

When I began to film some of the women protagonists of the ‘revolutionary’ decade, the lives of my protagonists/radical interviewees began to tumble out: the time of the radicalization, the time of the underground and the time of the active presence in villages and cities, the exultation of being alive at that time, the violence that was experienced in police custody and jails; the camaraderie of jail time, the act of witnessing the lives of other jail inmates who had never even heard of the ‘revolution’ or of the ‘Naxalites’, but with whom they built solidarities and experienced the healing hand of human compassion.

The ‘heroines’ of Spring Thunder might even on occasion witness the taking over of their stories by prison inmates, the dregs of society, the hoochwalis and madams, who might pick up on the most famous/infamous incident of their times and tell it in a new garb with much embellishment. The narrator retells the incident as a new myth in the very presence of the young woman who was the actual heroine of the episode but who now has no control over her own narrative!

There is much in the lived experience of women in the time of revolution to make for a central character, not a supporting woman who props up her revolutionary partner. She awaits her narrative role in the Cinema of Resistance.


1. A term that I stumbled upon accidently looking up films on the internet, that aptly describes the movement and its time in the ’60s and ’70s, a romantic view of the past. I am grateful to Tanika Sarkar for alerting me to this important film on the time of Naxalbari. I am also grateful to Kumkum Roy who alerted me to Padatik’s discussion of the women’s question and to Sharmila who read the draft of this essay. To Rajashri I am particularly beholden for sharing parts of her own journey in the ’70s which has been my window into the decade that witnessed many storms.

2. A Correspondent, ‘Cossipore-Baranagar’, in Samar Sen et. al (eds.), Naxalbari and After: A Frontier Anthology. Vol. 1. Kathashilpa, Calcutta, 1978, pp. 159-162.