Going Back in Time: Bollywood’s Latest Obsession With Historicals
Kangana Ranaut in a still from<i> Manikarnika</i>, and a still from <i>Baahubali</i>.
Kangana Ranaut in a still from Manikarnika, and a still from Baahubali.(Photo: The Quint)

Going Back in Time: Bollywood’s Latest Obsession With Historicals

Over the last two years, major production houses like Dharma and Yashraj have announced big ticket films with our stars, that seem to revolve around historical plots. Dharma announced Kesari with Akshay Kumar which is based on the Battle of Saragarhi in addition to Kalank, again a period film set during the time of partition. Karan Johar also announced his own directorial venture Takht, which in his words is the K3G version of the Mughal era. Yash Raj produced this year’s Thugs of Hindostan, and has Shamshera coming up which is about a group of dacoits in the 1800’s fighting the British. There’s also Panipat directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, and Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika which chronicles the life of Rani Laxmibai.

The poster of Abhishek Varman’s<i> Kalank</i> produced by Karan Johar.
The poster of Abhishek Varman’s Kalank produced by Karan Johar.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)
In addition to <i>Kalank</i>, Dharma will producing <i>Takht</i> and <i>Kesari.</i>
In addition to Kalank, Dharma will producing Takht and Kesari.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

The massive success of Baahubali probably gave a jolt to Bollywood producers, considering the fact that the highest grossing Hindi film is a Telugu film. For years, there was this stigma in Bollywood about historicals being boring and not luring audiences. In the 50’s and 60’s, some great historicals were made like Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam but then in the 70’s came the reign of Amitabh Bachchan and the ‘angry young man’. Post which in the 80’s there were the remakes of Tamil and Telugu films - the quintessential potboilers and the 90’s saw the resurgence of the love story with DDLJ and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

What happened to the period film? In an interview with Film Companion, Karan Johar explained this phenomena,

Our history is very rich, we have just never delved into that. In the 80’s we were remaking South Indian films and then there was the parallel movement. In the 90’s the love story was born, where Hum Aapke Hain Koun came and everyone made love stories. Then in 2001, cinema found a new language with Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai. Then in the 2000’s we were trying to do different things, and find our feet. In 2015 post the success of Baahubali, we discovered the big event film.
Karan Johar, filmmaker
(L to R) Stills from<i> Pakeezah</i> and <i>Mughal-E-Azam</i>
(L to R) Stills from Pakeezah and Mughal-E-Azam
A still from Ashutosh Gowariker’s <i>Lagaan</i> starring Aamir Khan.
A still from Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan starring Aamir Khan.

Johar seems to have hit the bulls eye, because the trend of the ‘big event’ film is something that has hit Hollywood as well. Most of the big ticket films are franchise films of Marvel or other superhero series. When it comes to India, stories set in history lend themselves beautifully to a massive scale and heightened emotions. At a time when you watch different content from across the world on Amazon or Netflix, consumers want their cinema experience to be novel.

Suddenly Bollywood now wants to spend money and every industry goes through this change in the template of attitude.
Karan Johar

Trade analyst Taran Adarsh agrees with Johar and says that the historical was a popular genre in the 50’s but then began to fade away. “Period films have always been made, but then the cost became too expensive, because of the sets that had to be erected and so people shied away from making them. There was also this idea floating around that people don’t want to watch historicals but that’s not true because television was always making them,” says Adarsh.

Baahubali worked because it was novel, but too much of the same can become an overkill. Adarsh isn’t worried about that.

Content will have to triumph eventually. If your content is not good, like in the case of ‘Thugs of Hindostan’ it will be rejected.
Taran Adarsh
The poster of <i>Thugs of Hindostan</i>.
The poster of Thugs of Hindostan.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Another dud was Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro which was mocked for its caricaturish storytelling and tanked at the box office. Gowariker has dabbled in the genre quite a bit but with equal hits and misses. If there was Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar there was also Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se which was a massive flop. Sanjay Leela Bhansali and SS Rajamouli really brought back the genre with Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat and Baahubali. The stakes are high though, and filmmakers and producers will seriously have to up their game in terms of content and the use of technology.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s latest attempt at making a period film is <i>Panipat</i>.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s latest attempt at making a period film is Panipat.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)
Kangana on the poster of <i>Manikarnika</i>.
Kangana on the poster of Manikarnika.
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

These films have monstrous budgets and headlined by major stars. Kalank has Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt, Madhuri Dixit and Sanjay Dutt, while the other Dharma film Takht has Ranveer Singh, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Alia Bhatt, Bhumi Pednekar, Vicky Kaushal and Anil Kapoor. Yashraj’s Shamshera has Ranbir Kapoor and Panipat stars Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Kriti Sanon. Bollywood has clearly smelt the coffee, and happily jumped onto the bandwagon. The marriage of star power and great content is always a win-win situation, but the presence of the latter varies.

Audiences are hungry for great cinematic experiences- stories that transport you into a different world. Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika is the first of this slew of releases and will have to pass the acid test when it releases in January. Adarsh calls this a happy trend, but whether it sustains or not only time will tell.

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