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Lok Sabha 2024: Spin a Political Biopic, Become a Bollywood Historian

On 15 April, we are due to see a movie titled Jahangir National University (wink-wink, JNU).

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If you want to become a well-known historian, I suggest you drop the idea of getting a PhD, spending long hours in the library or archaeological ruins, and wrangling with professors at some university.

Instead, go and make a movie about a historical figure or event. No, not the Oppenheimer variety. I know the Hollywood biopic on the celebrated nuclear scientist has swept the Oscar awards this year, but you know, these Americans must learn from the new Bollywood, where historical movies are of increasingly hysterical importance.

Chris Nolan may have spent hours and millions on getting a lot right about Oppenheimer, such as the details of the hearings after which his security status was stripped off, or his days as a young scientist making it to Europe, grappling with Sanskrit, etc.

Why waste such effort? In Bollywood, we make'em quick, easy to digest, and designed to pull the emotive strings of patriotic audiences, that too right before the general elections.

You can call them historio-pics, patriot-pics, or poli-pics. Make your pick. 

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Razakar: Silent Genocide of Hyderabad, based on Hindu-Muslim tensions around the police action in Hyderabad in 1948 is due for release on 15 March. It is a double bill. Bastar: The Naxal Story is also due to be released on the same day.

A week later, Swatantra Veer Savarkar the RSS-BJP combine's iconographic homemade ideological alternative to David Attenborough's Oscar-sweeping Gandhi, will hit the screens.

BJP leader Gudur Narayan Reddy is the producer of the Razakar movie if that matters. On 15 April, we are due to see a movie titled Jahangir National University (wink-wink, JNU), which is about a learning centre that has folks trying to break up the nation! It is not a parody but seems to be a work in which known facts and ideological positions are fused to make it look real.

Model-turned-actor Randeep Hooda, playing Savarkar after a run-in with director Mahesh Manjrekar, is now the movie's director, producer, writer, screenplay, and dialogue writer. He is already facing accusations from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose supporters of distorting history. We shall await more controversies surrounding such patriotic movies. This is the season for general elections, and a slew of movies seem to go well with the BJP's campaign machine. Too much of a coincidence, what?

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Who Needs Footnotes, Citations, Peer Reviews and All That Stuff That Goes Into Making an Academic Historian?

What you need is a formula history pic.

Good-looking characters can make a movie hot. The recent history-cum-action-cum-politics-cum-education thriller Article 370 on the now-abolished constitutional provision for Kashmir, is set in 2016. The plot has a secret mission to end terrorism and economic troubles stemming from the 370 fallout. It is steered by a beauteous agent, who, incidentally is a former fairness cream model. You are now guaranteed to get a Fair & Lovely version of colourful history. Seeing the grey past of a green valley through saffron eyes is bound to get patriotic red blood boiling.

I learned early in the newsroom that journalism is "history written in a hurry." The Washington Post's legendary publisher Philip Graham once called journalism the "first rough draft of history." Such idealists had never probably heard that Bollywood beats Hollywood in creating history by giving events some twists that capture the popular imagination. Critics may call it propaganda, but supporters may call them jealous.

The Kashmir Files (about the 1990s) and The Kerala Story (on Love-Jihad allegations involving Muslim men luring Hindu girls into conversion) turned out to be blockbusters at the box office. Friendly state governments even offer tax-free status to such movies. Bastar: The Naxal Story which as the title suggests should be a right-wing view on the Maoist problem, is from the same crew that made The Kerala Story that critics panned as an extremist exaggeration of a rare incident.

We used to hear from cynically funny elders in the newsroom that "a good journalist will never let facts spoil a good story." That may be an inspiring slogan for some Bollywood historians who are accused of distorting facts.  

But wait. Long before Bombay discovered celluloid, we had French philosopher Voltaire saying stuff like "History consists of a series of accumulated imaginative inventions." The New Bollywood is only doing with bells and whistles some stuff that has been done before. We might get a clue from the fact that in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, "story" is often pronounced as "istory"!

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I am kind of inspired enough, to sum up the best formula to make a Bollywood-style history pic and attempt a script around it. You need good-looking, young, cool people that the audience can identify with. Throw in fictional characters from the past to work alongside real ones. Add a voiceover that leaves nothing to the audience's imagination and build up some noisy events. Everything would now look dramatically different from the staid history they teach in universities and colleges.

I am thinking of making a revisionist biopic on Nobel prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein, who may have been a known peacenik liberal but can be portrayed as a Jew and therefore, a Zionist. My story is told through the eyes of a young, good-looking fashion designer from Manhattan whose great-grandmother is a fictional character who assisted Albert Einstein in his laboratory.

In the heady climax, the woman says she learned from family sources that Einstein was a male chauvinist who exploited colleagues. She alludes to the famous equation, E=mc^2. "E stands for Exploitation and MC is the Freudian admission of his being a Male Chauvinist, and a conservative Square to boot," she thunders to a woke audience breaking into applause.

If that new-age Bollywood-inspired formula does not win an Oscar, chances are high that it will fetch a black comedy award at some obscure Russian film festival. 

Multiplex audiences in India are bound to love such a caricatured movie. In a new-found 'vocal for local' push, they might even swap their popcorn for some bhelpuri.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Bollywood 

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