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Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

Thinking with Historical Bollywood Films @ Akshar


Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Session 1

We began the first session of the workshop series to a full house of 38 students from across classes 9 and 10 with two questions: Why are you here for this workshop, and why do you watch films? Responses to the first ranged from ‘Because I recently watched Panipat and it did not seem to make sense, I had so many questions’ to ‘My teacher asked me to’, bringing forth many laughs and effectively setting an interactive, conversational tone for the rest of the session.

From here we moved to discussing why we watch films at all, what we expect from them and if we expect any different from historical popular films than we do from every other mainstream film. To initiate the process of critically reading Bollywood films that the workshop aimed to do, we began by focusing on that ever important element in this category: the song.

Partially to illustrate a Wim Wenders quote we shared with the students on every film, irrespective of genre, being a documentary of its time, we screened ‘Dur Hathon Ae Duniyawalon’, a song from Kismet (1943) and put before the students this question: How do you think the filmmakers managed to get this song past the British censor board in pre-independence India? The ensuing conversations brought in interesting observations the students made on the relations between state and art. Travelling forward six decades, we next screened ‘Maula mere lele meri jaan’ from Chak De!India, a song that capsules the plot of the film. Students who had not watched the film before shared what they made of its plot, with those who had already watched it pitching in with their inputs. Sharing the lyrics of the song with students, we put before them one question: Who or what is being addressed in the song? This led to an engaging, animated discussion among us - was it the ground, was it the tricolour, someone suggested Islam since isn’t that the ‘teeja’ in the tricolour; We probed a little further - why ‘tere sang kheli holi…diwali’? Why specifically these festivals and does that change who the students think the song is addressing? Students shared why they thought the song and the fate of the Hockey coach in the film were both necessarily linked with the character’s Muslim identity while we brought into the conversation our thoughts on mainstream sports in India and its connections with nationalism and identity, coloured almost always with religious and caste overtones.

Having travelled across ‘nationalisms’ from Kismet to Chak De! India we wrapped up the session by opening a discussion in response to two excerpts we read out to the students: one, an article on the rush in Bollywood to book film titles in the immediate aftermath of events such as the Pulwama attack, and two, bits from a talk Jerry Pinto delivered at a History for Peace conference on ‘Bollywood as National(ist) Cinema’. We concluded by sharing a group assignment on the film Padmaavat for the subsequent session.

Session 2

For the second session, we had divided students into five groups, each assigned one question requiring attentive viewing of Padmaavat.

The questions were:

  • What impressions do you get of the Khilji Empire from the film?

  • What impressions do you get of the Rajputs from the film?

  • What are your impressions of Alaudin Khilji and Ratan Sen as human beings and rulers—consider categories such as attitude to their subjects, soldiers and to women and their own families.

  • What is the cultural milieu/environment of the i)Rajputs and ii) the Khiljis, as shown in the film?

  • What are your impressions of the four primary women characters in the film—Padmavati, Nagmati, Mehrunissa, Kunwar Baisa?

We plunged straight into the assignment presentations.

The groups’ varied responses and insightful observations led to an extensive argumentative discussion: contradictions between Khilji as represented in the film versus what students knew of him through their History classes; hypocritical moral stances towards Khilji vis-a-vis Ratan Sen; the idea of the ‘noble Rajput’ versus the ‘deceitful Khilji’ even through colour tones, set designs, etc. To further illustrate some of the points the students had already shared, we screened a short clip from the film which depicted the ‘hordes’ of Khiljis aggressively heading towards the fort on horseback, sending dust flying in their wake, while Ratan Sen and Padmavati, graceful and dressed in white and pale pastel shades, stand waiting, overlooking their poised army, ready with their bows arched.

From here, having briefed the students about the film claiming to be based on Jayasi’s 16th c Sufi poem, we divided them into four groups. Each group was assigned one quote by a historian in response to the film, and one quarter of the plot of the poem Padmaavat as listed on Wikipedia. Each group was then asked to give a concise summary of the plot segment they had received so we could collectively discuss what creative choices the director had made in deviating from the text, as well as the inherent biases in said choices given the contemporary socio-political environs we inhabit and the film was released in.

Session 3

Owing to a state government mandate requiring schools to revert to online classes, our remaining two sessions unfortunately had to be digital ones which significantly impacted both attendance and engagement levels compared to the two prior sessions. We had assigned each of the five groups one question from the below list:

  • What thoughts and ideologies shaped Bhagat Singh's politics as per the two films?

  • What events and circumstances shaped Bhagat Singh according to both the films?

  • What do you gather about the HSRA as a political organization and its role in the freedom struggle from both the films? (Think about strategies, methods, short term and long term aims.)

  • Explain what role you think the songs play in both the films.

  • Compare what you learn from both the films with what you have gathered from textbooks and popular narratives - what similarities and differences do you find?

While responses were limited owing to many of the attending students not having watched either of the films entirely, and possibly because of students’ lack of familiarity with the HSRA, Bhagat Singh and his comrades from their History textbooks, there were a few observations that brought forth quite clearly both films’ (necessarily?) differently unidimensional representations of these figures - for instance Bhagat Singh as being violent, as being fully opposed to ahimsa, etc. We also discussed the fascinatingly different ways in which both films had brought in the narrative of the 1907 'Pagdi Sambhal Jatta' movement (the movement against the Punjab Land Colonization Bill) through song.

Attempting to navigate these loose observations in a more grounded direction by encouraging students to look to different historical sources (in this case primary sources), we moved to a group activity where we divided students into 5 breakout rooms/groups and assigned each an excerpt from Bhagat Singh’s own writings. Students were asked to carefully read their text and respond to the question: ‘What do you discover about Bhagat Singh from his writings that you did not get from the films?’ Following this, we were able to collectively discuss some of Bhagat Singh’s ideas on subjects including revolution and independence to some extent. The session came to an end with us briefing students about their final assignment for this series: to work in groups and come up with a film review of any Bollywood historical film of their choice, keeping in mind the approaches we had used in the sessions so far.

Session 4

To conclude the workshop series, this final session was one in which the students were divided into groups which had to then work on specific Bollywood historical films of their choice and present a film review in an interactive format. The first film they reviewed was Tanhaji, beginning with a brief sense of the plot, moving into analysing some of the key characters and then reading the songs. Here, they noted the religious symbolism across some facets of the film, particularly in the songs which are all addressed to religious figures. Thereafter, we watched the trailer of the film during the session and tried to read it critically in terms of how the film was being promoted, particularly in terms of the contemporary references that they were drawing. We then drew this to link it with one of the Wim Wenders’ quote about historical films being a documentary of the times in which they are being made.

The next film they reviewed was Padmaavat where the group had engaged with the film critically across its narrativization, cinematography, set design—all of which they argued pushed certain cultural biases further, with particular emphasis on portraying the Rajputs versus the Muslim communities in a certain light. Thereafter, the discussion moved towards analysing similarities across these two films—Tanhaji and Padmaavat because both seem to work within terrains of similar cultural biases although located in entirely different time and place context.

Bajirao Mastani was the film that the next group had chosen to review, where they went from giving us the plot and context of the film to then discussing the choices of the director in what he focuses on in his portrayal of this narrative. After this, we presented them with two almost contradictory reviews of this same film that were published across two leading dailies in the country. This then led back to thinking about the importance of juxtaposing different kinds of sources before forming our thoughts on the film as also the portrayal of the past, how differently people read and respond to a film, the facets that they choose to emphasize upon in their viewing. A participant then brought up an interesting observation where he compared the depiction of two women protagonists helping each other despite having been in contradictory positions of power.

The final film that the participants reviewed was 83 where they went into details of the narrative of the sport and it being remembered as a celebration of the film. A participant noted that the film has this moment where the Indian and the Pakistani captain are shown to be shaking hands with each other which generated no hostile reactions from the people. We then lead them to compare this with a clip from the film, Chak De! India, that was shown to them in the first session where the captains of the Indian and Pakistani Hockey team shaking hands after India having lost the match caused huge uproar with media houses and thus ordinary people branding the character of Kabir Khan as a traitor.

The session concluded with us asking them if their film viewing experience had been any different since having been through this workshop. To this, the response that we largely got from the participants emphasized how they would be more conscious of not taking the film at face value and instead juxtapose the depiction of the film with other sources around the same subject before forming their thoughts about it, as also about the time and place that it portrays. Finally, we shared the Bollywood historical film template with them so they could link back to and draw upon the reflections over the course of this workshop which would in turn inform/guide the review they would have to share with us of film of their choice as a concluding assignment.


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