Period films, be they historicals, historical fiction or fantasy-mythology set in a “period” have a unique place in almost all major cinema. Few people can resist the heady rush that a swashbuckling adventure set in a time of lore and legend offers. Asia in general, and India in particular is rich in history, legend and myth. So it seems rather intuitive that Indian cinema should have some memorable historicals. The films of the other two big movie “powerhouses” of Asia, China and Japan, almost automatically bring up images of “period films”. Kurosawa made some superb films set in Medieval Japan. But he wasn’t alone in recreating medieval Japan on celluloid. The Samurai Trilogy (the story of Mushashi Miyomoto), Samurai rebellion and dozens of other non-Kurosawa “samurai” films became classics not only in Japan, but worldwide. These films were by no means a showcase for action alone, but told stories of people, set in a time remembered with nostalgia. Chinese films (mostly made in Hong Kong) used a period setting for non-stop kung-fu action, and Shaolin almost became a household name. Jet Li and Jackie Chan started off in obscure (now cult-classic) Kung-fu historicals before diversifying. More recent efforts by directors like Ang Lee and Yimou Zhang are colorful stories set in ancient imperial China. India has as many legends and fables and stories from the past (both real and imaginary) to provide an endlessly rich source of material for the movies. But to the average viewer of contemporary Indian cinema, period films, be they history or fiction, have become almost alien. Yet there’s a fantastic history of period films in Indian cinema.
Indian cinema started off in the early 20th century using this rich source of material, churning out period films that sometimes were outstanding. The very first movie from India was Raja Harishchandra, in 1913, in as much silent splendor black and white cinema could offer. And this was just the beginning of the “golden age” of period films in Indian cinema. The first “talkie” was Alam Ara, another period fantasy with a king, scheming queens, an abandoned princess, gypsies, a prince and “dazzling fights”. Saurab Modi and Prithviraj Kapoor himself starred in innumerable “historicals”, and audiences lapped it up. And stories were not just restricted to India or Indian stories. The Dilip Kumar classic Yahudi was set in imperial Rome, and Dilip Kumar played a Roman prince in love with a Jew, Meena Kumari. At a time when “special effects” were still a concept, directors relied on story, screenplay and drama, and crafted surprisingly moving movies. But within a few years of independence, the popularity of historicals waned, and “socialistic” movies of poor commoner heroes fighting oppressor land-lords or the scheming rich became increasingly popular. But even up to the seventies there were moments of “period film” excellence. Mughal-e-azam, a fascinating story of historical fiction about the love of the mughal crown-prince Salim for a court dancer, Anarkali, in spite of opposition from the emperor, became an instant cinematic classic. Lavishly glamorous, with outstanding music, a stellar star-cast, and outstanding performances, it was destined for Indian cinematic immortality. Taj Mahal and Pakeezah are just two other movies from the sixties that stand out in the historical genre in Indian cinema.
Regional cinema too was enamored by Indian myth and history. Tamil cinema, to take just one example, churned out some memorable historicals. Shivaji Ganesan became a household name with dialog heavy period movies like Manohara or Veerapandya Kattabomman. The other Ganeshan, “Gemini”, also had his share of period dramas, like Parthiban kanavu, while a later “savior of the people”, MGR, starred in a series of historical dramas, dueling away to stardom. There were also innumerable fantasies rooted in the Indian epics or fables, and some were even rollicking entertainers, movies like Tiruvilayadal or Mayabazaar. A lot of these movies when viewed today appear tacky, with gaudy sets or outlandish costumes. Yet, many of them still hold together very well because they remain rooted in a story that’s timeless and irresistibly appealing.
But period dramas were slowly relegated to the back burner by the mid seventies in Hindi as well as regional cinema. Angry young men or chocolate heroes began to dominate the screen, and more contemporary themes began to predominate cinema, and historicals became part of history. But in recent years there has been a small revival of sorts with period dramas. It started off with a series of movies set in India under the British Raj. Hey Ram or Bhagat Singh were excellent efforts, but Lagaan was a revolution of sorts. Lagaan had a rather predictable story, but it’s cast, picturization and screenplay were flawless (going with outstanding music), and the story was told beautifully. Devdas was an opulent extravaganza. Other efforts like Ashoka or Kisna were downright awful, and even the recent Mangal Pandey was rather tepid. But perhaps it’s just a lost skill being revived.
In order to make a good period film, be it history, fiction or absolute fantasy, there’s one little requirement. The moviemaker needs to be an old fashioned storyteller at heart, not unlike the wandering bards and minstrels of ancient India, who would build worlds in the minds of gaping listeners. The glitz or special effects come much later. Even though the special effects of the Lord of the rings were fantastic, Peter Jackson remained a storyteller at heart, and that’s what made the movie spectacular. But the technology now makes it possible for a talented storyteller to paint a cinematic canvas the way he or she imagines it. Perhaps it’s a perfect time for talented Indian storytellers to start mining this endless source of stories for the screen once again, and revive a genre that’s timeless.