Ashutosh Gowariker’s films are no ordinary affairs. You can expect them to consist of cameos from a particular period in Indian history thrown in with a dash of entertainment for the academically illiterate. Often they pander to a particular climate, as when Gowariker’s romance on Jodhaa and Akbar was released amidst burning questions in India itself regarding the future of Muslims as a large minority. While Lagaan – which I saw in a packed cinema during my student days in Leeds with a packed audience – managed to please history buffs and aesthetes alike, Gowariker took a few artistic liberties with Jodhaa Akbar which were however soon forgiven and forgotten.
With his latest project, Mohenjo Daro, however, Gowariker has taken a risk which might well earn him blockbuster status at the box office, but aligns him dangerously close to the artistic line currently being towed by the Narendra Modi government – the saffronisation of history at the altar of political expediencies.
While the intent of the director is indeed noble, i.e. to capture an era and a civilisation on celluloid about which much is written in textbooks – a story which emanates from Subcontinental soil and which is a story-in-waiting for the kind of epic razzmatazz we have come to expect from the likes of Gowariker and a few of his other contemporaries (like Sanjay Leela Bhansali), surely it is a question worth asking whether every time period in history can be accurately and successfully depicted on the big screen. Is it all just about telling a good story and inserting some semblance of a love story?
In the event, with Mohenjo Daro, Gowariker is attempting to do too many things at once. He is trying to capture (or recapture) the history of a civilisation at least 5-6,000 years old, because it hasn’t been done before. He is trying to craft a romantic film by making such ‘history-making’ a visual pleasure for his audience. And he also wants to do this accurately by truly capturing the authenticity of that civilization in its culture, religion and rituals, festivals and finery, food and clothing, and how the city was finally destroyed.
Coming to the film itself, it is deservedly an epic, and evidently there is a desire to not just tell a romantic story, but to tell the story of Mohenjo Daro itself. How Gowariker chooses to tell it is problematic. The lead character in the film Sarman (played by Hrithik Roshan) is an indigo farmer who dreams not only about finding the perfect partner for himself, but also to accompany one of the trading caravans which routinely go to Mohenjo Daro to ply its trade. As if a couple of dreams were not enough, Sarman also dreams about a unique single-horned animal (ik-singha, a unicorn) which seems to be beckoning him to his destiny. With his friend and associate Hojo, Sarman succeeds in reaching Mohenjo Daro and ensconcing himself as an outsider amidst Mohenjo Daro’s strictly hierarchal social system. It’s only a matter of time before he gratifies himself with Chaani (played by debutante Pooja Hegde), the daughter of the head-priest, who had been betrothed to Moonja, the son of the ruler Maham (played ably by Kabir Bedi); and with the farmers burdened by the ruler’s tyranny.
The inevitable contest with Moonja and his tyrant father Maham occurs owing to Sarman’s sympathies for both Chaani and the farmers. The latter have refused to pay the exorbitant taxes levied by Maham, egged on by Sarman.
Gowariker is dangerously close to the line of the Modi government – the saffronisation of history
As if this plot was not enough to make the story ‘believable’, a few ‘unbelievable’ subplots are thrown in. It transpires that Sarman is the son of Mohenjo Daro’s former ruler, who is the past had tried to stop then-powerful trader Maham from putting forward a plan to change the course of the Sindhu river in pursuit of ‘development’ brought on by digging out the gold below the river and trading it with neighbouring states. When the council of Mohenjo Daro elders sided with Sarman’s father, Maham had the latter lynched to death by having gold bricks planted in his home and raising a mob. So now Sarman must not only ensure that he marries the woman of his dreams, but in addition to challenging the might of Maham, must also reclaim his patrimony.
Since Gowariker’s intent is not only to cater to the entertainment-seekers but also to a more cerebral audience, he also toys with what seems to him to be a plausible theory of the eventual decline of Mohenjo Daro and tries his best to insert it into the film.
There are serious problems with this sort of revisionist history, especially when it is an attempt to please the crowd
Eventually, though Gowariker fails miserably and here’s why: while there is no contesting the ‘epic’ nature of the film and that it admirably depicts the culture and civilisation of the ancient city beyond the mere customary love story, there are serious problems with this sort of revisionist history, especially when it is done in an attempt to please the crowd and take ‘artistic license’. It ends up falsifying and ‘saffronising’ history to serve an insidious agenda. For example, Aryans were the invaders rather than the original inhabitants of Mohenjo Daro, as the film would have us believe; and the original inhabitants were the darker-skinned Dravidians – which also consisted of many indigenous and tribal people. In the film, the hero is predictably fair-skinned while it is the villain who supplies the darker skin tone. Then there is the fact that the end of Mohenjo Daro by flooding is only one of many theories propounded by the historians for the fall of that civilisation. In fact, more likely, the Indus Valley civilisation probably collapsed due to the drying up of the Sindhu (Indus) river rather than the explanation provided by the fantastically malevolent imagining of Gowariker, which depicts it as the work of mortal men in their lust for ‘peeli dhatu’ (gold). Plus his crude depiction of an impending war between the two major cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, namely Mohenjo Daro and Harrappa, as well as that parting shot of an ending where the survivors end up renaming the Sindhu as ‘Ganga’, betray his anti-Pakistani, pro-Hindutva agenda. Hugely disappointing film on most counts.
In conclusion, I am reminded of what Gowariker’s fellow countryman, eminent writer and film director Rajinder Singh Bedi once wrote by way of advice:
“The mention of historical films is a mere obligation, because in reality they do have more than one social angle. But what does one do about the fact that with it there is also the indication of some purpose? For example, it is not easy to make a film about Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The opinion of two historians regarding the reality will not concur, then that purpose will not let the individual angle of his life onto the film screen. You will have to obtain clearance from many institutions and when you obtain clearance, the form of the script will have changed completely, so much so that you will be unable to recognise even your own face. A conversation will also take place, one which resembles the following dialogues – you are very nice, I am also very nice, health is wealth, etc. and if you go against their suspicions, entrenchments will be made, your life would be in danger and you will not be able to go out of the house.
It is better if you do not make a film about Zebunissa, because she was Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter and therefore like Julius Caesar’s wife, above all suspicion and doubt. Her love for Akil Khan, the Governor of Multan will not only be treated suspiciously, but its health, I mean, the health of the tale will be deemed absurd.”
Raza Naeem is an academic and translator based in Lahore
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979