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Bhansali's Padmavati not first nor last to blur line between fact and fiction

Since its inception, cinema has sought to skirt the border between fiction and reality to dramatize events, historical or otherwise, and create stories that make an impact.

Shriram Iyengar

Despite its origin in the real-life tale of the Phogat family, 2016's hit Dangal based its success on the dramatization of its story. Geeta Phogat's final match at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, for instance, was far removed from the nail-biting finish depicted in the film. While the film showed the match hinging on a last-moment signature move by Phogat, a tribute to her father's training, in reality she won the match 8-0, hardly breaking a sweat. But to show that in the film would have been an anti-climax. Fortunately, neither the Phogat sisters nor audiences objected to this cinematic liberty. 

History is not always entertaining. Cinema, on the other hand, depends on stories, anecdotes, legends and dramatic events that capture attention. It is this aspect of history that often attracts filmmakers, not the mere accumulation of facts.

Take the controversy over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati. The row broke out probably because the protestors were motivated by things far more important than merely 'dramatizing' history. While they accused Bhansali of showing Rani Padmini in bad light, the queen herself may well have been a creation of fiction. 

The story of Padmavati traces its origin to the ballad of Padmavat, an epic poem written in the 13th or 14th century by Malik Mohammed Jayasi. Though many, the Rajput Karni Sena included, believe Padmini or Padmavati to have been a historical queen, there is no documentary evidence to support her existence except for the poem, written, ironically, by a Muslim Sufi poet. 

Indian cinema has often skirted the boundary between fact and fiction. Its tendency to turn history into fantasy and fantasy into history dates back to its earliest days. In a country that believes the Ramayan truly happened, this practice is neither surprising nor novel. In a report, eminent historian Professor Irfan Habib, when speaking of the legend of Padmavati, said, "There are stories in every country, but they cannot be accepted as part of history. England has a story of Robin Hood, but it was never treated as history. But in our country, myths and stories are given the status of history."

A parable similar to Bhansali's tale can be found in Sohrab Modi's Sikandar (1941). Based on Alexander's invasion of India, the crux of the plot lay around the anecdotal conversation between Alexander and the defeated Porus. According to legend, the defeated Porus impressed Alexander with his answer, 'Treat me like a king', leading to the eventual truce. Despite the vehement objections of several historians, this remains a constructed memory for many Indians. 

Another well-known example of a film that has appropriated and usurped history is Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Considered one of the greatest films in Indian cinematic history, K Asif's magnum opus hinged around a love story that probably never happened. The two major historical documents of emperor Akbar, Akbarnama, or Salim, later emperor Jahangir, Turk-i-Jahangiri, have no mention of the tragic love story between Salim and Anarkali. The earliest historical mention of Anarkali was in the travelogue of William Finch, an English traveller to the court of Akbar, who described her as one of the emperor's wives. But Indian audiences, and even students of history, have come to believe in the legend of Salim-Anarkali's love. This should also put to rest any accusation that the legend of Padmavati was trifled with because it was a Hindu tale. 

A subplot of Mughal-e-Azam was the marriage of Jodhabai and Akbar, which was the subject of the Ashutosh Gowariker film, Jodhaa-Akbar (2008). Like the Salim-Anarkali story, this is another legend transformed into history. According to historians, no texts from the period refer to any queen of Akbar as Jodhabai. Again, it was only through writers in the 19th century that the story began to take shape. 

In both these cases it is as difficult to prove the facts as it is to disprove them. The Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once famously said, "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” This is a credo Indian cinema follows. M Sayeed Alam, director and playwright of the renowned Pierrot's Troupe, which has staged plays on Mirza Ghalib and KL Saigal, says, "Always remember that you are also going to be a source of history in due course." The playwright cited how Gulzar's teleserial Mirza Ghalib would become a source for audiences unfamiliar with the Urdu script.

However, when it comes to historical sources, Alam concedes, "The problem with historical sources in the past is that it is more of a chronology than history, and also state-sponsored history. It may not have all the facts available, rather the truth. If you come across a folktale, even that becomes a source." The ambiguity of sources makes such embellishments a necessary tool. These little incidents are often shaped by the filmmaker's personal tastes, choices and even production needs.

This is why a number of biopics in recent times have turned to living subjects. Since 2010, films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Mary Kom (2014), Neerja (2016), Azhar (2016), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Airlift (2016) and, of course, Dangal (2016) have picked subjects that often worked as consultants on the film, offering suggestions and official correction of facts. While the names and basic history of heroes are often well known, filmmakers embellish minor plot points to make these legends identifiable. 

Just before the release of his historical drama Jodhaa-Akbar (2008), Gowariker said, "The facts from the pages of history have been woven around the story in such a way that, while watching the movie, the audience won't get caught in the maze of historical details of the period, losing clue to the movie's track." It is a statement that explains the filmmaker's conundrum when dealing with subjects of historical importance.

However, Gowariker probably misjudged cinema's ability to influence opinion. As Alam points out, "It would not be wrong on the part of a filmmaker to magnify the story. But they will have to see to it that it is not going to change the perception about the characters. Whatever sources are available are not full and final. But the story has to be based on something. There has to be evidence."

Pointing to the controversy over Padmavati, he said, "We generally portray larger-than-life characters, but we have to see to it that it is harmless. Over the recent controversy of Rani Padmavati, it is a piece of fiction rather than history. For example, Mughal-e-Azam, more than history, is a piece of fiction. But it has to be harmless, and historians must know to differentiate between a work of fiction and historical evidence. Always remember that you are also going to be a source of history in due course of time."

In many ways, Bhansali is a troubadour of his times. His version of Devdas (2002) took Saratchandra Chatterjee's hero from the dark, gloomy lanes of Bimal Roy to a colourful, kaleidoscopic world of his imagination. In Bajirao Mastani (2015), he morphed Peshwa Bajirao from a scholarly, learned general to a robust, well-educated warrior. Now, he is back to try and tell his own version of the tale of Padmavati. But unlike Devdas or Bajirao Mastani, there are no books that might point out the evidence of Rani Padmini, only beliefs and folk songs.