Ashutosh Gowariker’s period drama, Mohenjo Daro, released last week and has clearly left film critics and historians unhappy. Shubhra Gupta of the Indian Express has described the movie as exhausting. Historians, on the other hand, have slammed the film for the inaccurate depiction of the 5000 years old civilisations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro.
There can be no denial that Mohenjo Daro lacks both an adequate historical understanding of the period, and a strong film script and plot. However, for a minute let us just focus upon Gowariker’s attempt at creating a film out of meagre historical facts that historians are still debating over.
As a journalist who writes on history, I can say with full confidence that one of the biggest challenges with presenting history on mass media lies in the necessity to make it appealing and interesting enough for readers to relate to and appreciate. The academic exercise of writing history is very different from that of presenting the subject through means of popular media. It is particularly challenging when it comes to films, wherein visuals do not just have to do justice to historical accuracy, but also take into consideration all the debates among historians.
Anybody who has the slightest knowledge of history would know that experts of the subject, more often than not, have dialectically opposing views on the same period or topic. The historical debates grow all the more intensive as we go further back into the past to pre-history, due to the lack of adequate eye witness accounts or deciphered written records. The challenge for the filmmaker then is to deal with a subject upon which experts have not yet come to a unison.
Gowariker might not have been able to satisfy film critics, but you cannot deny his achievement in attempting to build a world out these numerous historical debates and speculations. Of course one can complain about the kind of costumes worn or the language used, but we need to give some credit to his historical imagination.
Further, despite all the speculation that he has had to deal with, he has managed to put together some characteristic features of the Indus Valley civilisation such as evidence of international trade with Mesopotamia and Egypt, the highly sophisticated architecture of the city, a multitude of professions, priest kings, discovery of a great bath and the theory of a huge flood destroying the city. The film can never be a reference point for ‘budding historians’, however, it does shed some light upon a civilisation about which most non-experts of History hardly know anything.
His biggest flaw lies in his incapacity to put together these bits and pieces of information in a manner that is gripping enough for the audience to sit through for 155 minutes. This, of course, is quite surprising considering Gowariker’s finesse in dealing with history in two other very successful films, Lagaan and Jodha Akbar. The biggest strength of these two films, in my opinion, lay in their script. This is precisely where he fails miserably in the case of Mohenjo Daro.
Ironically then, for a filmmaker of the stature of Ashutosh Gowariker, it is not so much in his knowledge of history that he has failed his audience as much as in his film making capacity.