Akshay Kumar is having a rough year. Looks like Bollywood is finished and it just can’t get back to its previous glory. Or maybe cinema audiences are hitting auto-correct on viewing tastes. Or perhaps, Hindi film’s attempt to re-interpret Indian history as ‘Hindu-first’ history is falling flat at all levels. That much is evident. Why is this happening? That will take some introspection.
Akshay Kumar is the mass hero of an industry that is facing a dearth of leading man (and woman) talent with ageing superstars, and urbane upcoming stars. Therefore, as a voice held firm in favour of the current government approved Hindu-pradhan cultural-intellectual process, he has acted in two attempted epic films- Ram Setu and Samrat Prithviraj. Both also feature collaborator Dr Chandra Prakash Dwivedi, arguably the most prolific ideologue of Hindi entertainment in relation to Indian history. Dr Dwivedi’s Chanakya remains unmatched, more than two decades since it released on TV, as a historical epic. In Ram Setu he also works with Abhishek Sharma, the gifted filmmaker of Tere Bin Laden and Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran. Together though they came up with a much hyped Diwali slated mess that didn’t even hold up as fiction or a re-imagination of India’s past.
Compare this to the offerings rooted in Indian culture and identity from South India. Ponniyin Selvan 1, by Mani Ratnam, turns the clock back to a 1000 years when the glorious Chola dynasty ruled over Southern India and most of the Indian Ocean. It is a remarkable, if muddled adaptation from a novel by Kalki Krishnamurthy, and is definitely going to have a sequel; for summing up the swathe and impact of the Cholas in a single film is an impossible task. Call it an audio-visual spectacle or curiosity inducing drama, PS 1 is almost at the 500 crore mark, having slowly picked up about 31 crores (approximately) from other Indian languages than Tamil and Telegu and Malayalam. It has made huge impact overseas and is highly awaited for it’s OTT release. The film is a complex interwoven tale that focuses on narrative rather than entertainment, yet, people chose to watch it.  A similar rising wave of popularity is being witnessed with Kantara, a Kannada film led by Rishabh Shetty (who has also written it) in a meagre 15 crore budget. Set in the tribal versus modern versus ‘national’ narrative, without hyper politicizing any one aspect, this story simmers and grows on the viewer until it becomes immersive. Kantara is growing in theatres despite Diwali and post Diwali hype movies that have fallen by the way side.
Some might argue that Both PS 1 and Kantara focus on lesser known stories or hidden histories of India; the sheer size and impact of the Chola empire, or for that matter, Southern kingdoms, has barely been discussed in North dominated cinema, TV or popular literature. It takes just one trip to South East Asia to note the cultural impact of Tamil culture, which pre-dates the colonial labour immigration to these countries. PS 1 offers a window into this past, imagined or real. Similarly Kantara highlights the almost never mentioned tribal conflict of existence in a rapidly changing world where authorities keep changing but their ways of life remains rooted in mystical belief. The stories are refreshing and the movies are very well made.
But Hindi cinema and it’s self-styled experts need to take note of the sheer rejection that they have faced from audiences. This rejection can be linked to the fact that most involved in the re-interpret history project lack credibility. There is either no research, or not enough research. Drumming up pro- Hindu sentiments can serve a publicity purpose of drawing a few into theatres. To hold them inside is a more difficult task. When ISRO and ASI published separate research with satellite photography driven evidence about Ram Setu being a limestone shoal structure, a creation of nature, they were not suppressing history. They were stating facts. To turn that around, by villainizing the ASI, a body that has always struggled for funds and scope in a culturally indifferent environment, is loose storytelling. To bring up the science versus faith debate as a short cut or filler, instead of actually highlighting its relevance, is worse. History can be re-interpreted in any shape or form when a story is told. After all, His-Story is also someone’s version of facts.
A great example of this is Sanjay Leela Bhansali. His interpretation of Bajirao Mastani or Padmavat has little to do with the actual version of history. But he makes it credible, albeit loud and often garish. Even his Devdas resembles a melodramatic hyperbolic version of a subtle tragic classic from Bengali literature. However as he creates an immersive, super decorated world, for the duration of his films, one gets drawn into the eye watering drama that his characters live in.
This exercise of re-interpreting India’s history and re-telling mythology with cinematic flourish is not yet over. There’s Om Raut’s Adipurush, already facing heat on social media for it’s portrayals. Be it under the pressure of a state led thought process, or a need to survive in a polarized India where freedom of expression stands on dodgy ground; such films will continue to be made in Hindi. But it is high time, to revise and recheck if these stories work. An industry where it’s biggest celebrities survive on social media attention, will need to focus on telling stronger, more authentic stories. The filmy visual shimmer on top can follow, for its sheen has worn off and is not enough to convince audiences.
Archita Kashyap is an experienced journalist and writer on film, music, and pop culture. She has handled entertainment content for broadcast news and digital platforms over 15 years. 
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There is, of course, nothing wrong with telling stories with patriotic or nationalistic themes. Many films have done it in the past. But none of them were as poorly written and badly executed as Ram Setu.
By bullying the plot into a saffron submission, Ram Setu does not necessarily open itself to cynical questioning.
Hombale Films, the most celebrated production house has ruled the box office with K.G.F: Chapters 1 and 2, Kantara while Salaar, Dhoomam, Bagheera and many more are counting in their blockbuster future line-up.
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