History be damned in Bollywood

In a recent column, renowned journalist-food critic, Vir Sanghvi, lamented the lack of original ingredients and the dulled palettes of Indians. He complained how most of the ice cream sold here wasn’t ice cream at all, for it contained neither milk fat nor egg yolk. Cheap vegetable oils and synthetic flavours are the options we are now used to.

The case is similar to how our taste in popular cinema has become dulled, and few genres reflect the fact as blatantly as the period film. We are impressed by the essence of ‘glossy packaging’ and we don’t bother to know whether the ‘ingredients’ are real or not.

History be damned in Bollywood

 

The notion crosses your mind watching Varun Dhawan shimmy with Kriti Sanon and Kiara Advani in what can only be classified as new-age item numbers, in producer Karan Johar’s just-released period melodrama Kalank. The Partition drama is Bollywood’s latest effort at courting history, packaged with trademark K.Jo plasticity. As Sanon and Advani heighten the glamour quotient in provocative choli-ghagra ensemble, their item dances almost seem like a free offer deal that comes with a bumper shopping spree. The audience cannot resist it even if they know they don’t need it.

Baaki sab first class hai, goes Dhawan’s lip-sync as he matches Advani’s moves. Clearly, sab first class nahi hai.

Johar’s new designer opus Kalank apparently rides a cool `80-crore budget. Honestly, the number of zeroes that go into the mighty budgets of such historical dramas as Kalank is mind-boggling, which is why the utter callousness towards history and becomes shocking.

The food metaphor works here again. We sit ‘chewing on’ a vanilla bean, while K.Jo laughs his way to the bank.

The two item numbers are only symptomatic of several liberties that Kalank takes. The designer costumes and sets that try to cross the standard requisites of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film with Games Of Thrones grandeur, the Gen-Now body language of Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan or Aditya Roy Kapoor, and even the very contemporary-sounding title song seem to point at the same thing: History is an excuse, Johar merely wanted to set up formulaic melodrama against a ‘different’ backdrop — removed from the teenybopper vibes that often mark his love stories.

What is to not to like about a starry ensemble and Bhansali-esque set design, you ask? And then, what’s there to mind watching Madhuri dhak dhak Dixit returning in Kalank to do her jig on the dancefloor, looking gorgeous even after all these years? The opulent sets and Dhawan’s Baaki sab first class hai are designed to make us forget blatant communal politics, GDP and joblessness, after all.

Kalank, like every Bollywood period biggie, insists upon willing suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part as the excuse to set up its larger-than-life lack of authenticity. It was the same when Kangana Ranaut as Rani Lakshmibai breaks into a masala dance in Manikarnika, or Priyanka Chopra as Kashibai and Deepika Padukone as Mastani do a very Bollywoodised Pinga dance in Bajirao Mastani, or — in a filmi twist to history — Padukone as Rani Padmavati entering Alauddin Khilji’s Delhi lair to rescue her captured husband, Rawal Ratan Singh, in Padmaavat.

Paisa vasool is what matters, historicity be damned.

The counter argument offered is Bollywood cinema is fiction, and this is what the janta wants. Market logistics is vital, but giving up on facts to aim for the lowest common denominator cannot surely be the aspiration of filmmakers who comprise one of the biggest film industries in the world.

Maybe, if Bollywood paid their researchers at least half of what they pay their set and costume designers (and listened to them!), our period dramas wouldn’t leave such a fake flavour in the mouth.

We Indians like our history as long as it doesn’t come from textbooks. That is where Bollywood, along with Facebook and Whatsapp in recent times, is important. Our filmmakers must realise there is an overwhelming majority that considers what they show to be the absolute truth, especially when it comes to drama recreating history.

History mixed with patriotism does fabulously at the box-office, as Uri, Kesari and Manikarnika have proved lately. History and absurdity, on the other hand, don’t blend well — obvious from the failure of Thugs Of Hindostan or Mohenjo Daro. The common factor for both kinds of films, though, has been the fact that our filmmakers normally don’t try to be authentic either way. More often than not, period films are just an excuse for over-the-top costumes and sets. In trying to accommodate these excesses, logic is left behind. Even today, a vintage car here or a blonde character there is enough to set up the milieu for a pre-Independence drama. It works, milking our love for our often-imagined ‘glorious past’, especially now that we seem to be losing grip on the present.

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