Rewriting the Past

I mentioned to Rook the other day how I find it interesting that we live in a country where myth, history and belief are so tightly wound together, it’s almost impossible to tell one from the other. Rook said he’d read somewhere that the reason that’s the case is that unlike, say America, we don’t take the spoken word as sacrosanct. Verbal contracts are not binding. Giving your word doesn’t have the same importance. In India, what is said doesn’t have as much weight as what is written and so our history or our mythology is essentially a patchwork of multiple stories, multiple points of view with no way of knowing how much and what is actually true.

It was a longish discussion but this is what we concluded: what is remembered is more important than what actually happened.

Which makes the job of storytellers both immensely important, and one with a great deal of responsibility. Even if the storytellers themselves don’t believe so.

So when Sanjay Leela Bhansali says Bajirao I’s wife and mistress danced together, it overrides the fact that Kashibai suffered from gout and wouldn’t be able to dance with her rival, even if such a thing was allowed for highborn ladies.

And when Ashutosh Gowarikar casts a less-than impressive Arjun Kapoor in the role of Sadashivrao, it makes this generation of viewers wonder if the original Sadashivrao was impressive at all.

And when Peter Morgan implies in The Crown that Elizabeth I had an affair with Lord Porchester, it takes gossip out of the realm of rumour and transforms it into a fact.

In all cases, the creators will argue that they have creative license to reinterpret history as they wish, to retell it as they please, to take creative liberties in the depiction of what to them, must seem like a narrative not quite dramatic enough for the big screen. Who does it hurt, they will ask.

But the thing is, storytellers have the power to change the way the story is remembered.

In ten years, twenty years, fifty years, what will people remember? The dusty facts buried in dustier history books, recorded in the dry prose of historians long-dead? Or the vivid depiction of those – artistic license included – that are more easily accessible through pop culture? In the future, Kashibai won’t have suffered from gout, Alauddin Khilji will be a barbarian with the manner of a lout and the Rani of Jhansi will have leaped from a fortress wall on horseback, not once – which is impressive enough – but twice, because it makes for good cinema.

History may be the account told by the victors but it is also the account remembered by the reader.

And memory is a strange creature, twisting and turning, revealing and concealing things you could’ve sworn you knew to be true. But its inaccuracy doesn’t make it any less deadly. We remember what we choose to remember, and often it is the interpretation of events that most suits our purposes.

The recent Utsav Chakraborty – Mahima Kukreja outcry is evidence enough.

So yes, I know they put a little disclaimer before the movie begins to cover their arses, but couldn’t they try to do more? History is fascinating enough without unnecessary embellishment. And as a creator, I understand the need to give your audience the most interesting version of events. But for posterity’s sake, surely we can also give them a version that’s close to the truth?

If Shyam Benegal managed to do it 20 years ago with Bharat Ek Khoj, so can we.

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