Bollywood is notorious for going through phases when it comes to genres and subjects for films. Who can forget the avalanche of Bhagat Singh films, or the more recent tsunami of sports biopics or biopics in general?
But after attempting to explore the myths and truths about real-life personalities, Bollywood now seems to have done a U-turn. There is a plethora of films under production or awaiting release, which are based on stories from our ancient texts, mythological fiction, and/or based on the lives of historical figures.
The year began with the lavishly mounted Samrat Prithviraj, and in the months to come we are going to watch Adipurush, Sita featuring Kangana Ranaut, Ram Setu, Brahmastra, The Immortal Ashwatthama, Chanakya and the Hindi dubbed version of Ponniyin Selvan. These are amongst the many projects in the mythology/historical drama genres that have been greenlit one after the other in the past two years.
So, is Bollywood merely jumping on to the bandwagon again or is there a deeper consumer insight here? Is it the temptation of recreating the Baahubali magic? To revisit the past when we have all recently faced an uncertain future? Or to find cinematic solutions in the tales of yore at a time when Bollywood can’t seem to understand what the audience wants to see?
I read an interesting quote online which said, “Myths are powerful symbolic stories that all humans use to interpret the worlds they live in.” In other words, myths are narrative links that connect human beings across cultures. Stories from mythology and our religious texts teach us about the follies and frailties of human nature and help us all stay hopeful and morally sound to a certain extent. These texts and the conflicts within them are rooted in human emotions, in timeless conflicts of head and heart and the moral dilemmas that all of us continue to face.
Perhaps that’s why Bollywood has always been interested in the stories from long ago, or tales of divine beings who symbolise certain ideals. If you look back, there have been some immensely successful mythological and historical films over the decades. Jai Santoshi Maa, Bhakta Prahlad, Raja Harishchandra, Alam Ara, Dayare Madina, Aulea E Islam, and Nek Parveen are just some of the popular films with religious and/or mythological themes.
In the more recent past, Sanjay Leela Bhansali gave us two epic dramas, Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. Ajay Devgn’s Tanhaji did great business just before the pandemic, and who can forget Ashutosh’s Gowariker’s Lagaan and Jodha Akbar? Films like Kalyug, Rajneeti, Dalapathi, Raavan, and the diabetically sweet Hum Saath Saath Hain were all based on either the Ramayan or the Mahabharat.
But the stupendous success of Baahubali redefined how mythological films and period dramas were made and perceived in India. Baahubali1 and 2 were completely fictional tales with heavy religious and mythological undertones. But Baahubali’s biggest triumph was that it combined the tropes of a mythological film with the scale and technical finesse of modern storytelling. The use of cutting-edge special effects to create an ancient tale was a powerful combination and clearly a profitable one. SS Rajamouli made mythology ‘cool’ again and suddenly ‘ek tha raja ek thi rani’, was a completely new kahaani.
Indian audiences were clearly eager to hear stories that looked good and were told with conviction. But most importantly, they were eager to see stories that spoke to the beliefs and emotional conflicts that are a part of our collective cultural subconscious.
Often in successful mythological films or historical dramas, filmmakers layer in references to religious texts, stories about gods and conflicts between religious or historical figures. RRR is replete with references to the Ramayan with Ram Charan playing a character named Ram, being engaged to a woman named Sita, and actually dressing up as Lord Ram in the climax of the film. Jr NTR’s character Bheem was a combination of Lakshman and Hanuman, the loyal friend and brother who helped unite Ram and Sita in the film.
Baahubali 1 and 2 had echoes of the Mahabharat where a handicapped father wanted the throne for his egoistic son, two brothers clashed over a kingdom, and the daughter-in-law’s insult in a public gathering became the reason for the family to break ties. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is also fond of linking his historical films to the Indian epics. Whether it was Kashibai comparing herself to Rukmini and Mastani to Radha, or Rani Padmavati likening Khilji to Ravan who had his eyes on Sita; Bhansali magnifies the aura of his actors and characters, by drawing parallels to beings who have become timeless symbols of good and evil.
While mythological/ historical films are visually engaging because they are usually mounted on a large scale and have lavish costumes and sets, the spectacle also comes at a huge cost to the producer. Each of the films lined up for filming and release has hundreds of crores riding on them.
But whether these films do great business or not, will depend on two things that oddly enough seem contradictory. How well they capture the original essence of the epic or time period they are based on, and whether they are able to bring a fresh perspective to a tale or to characters that we are already familiar with. Here’s hoping that these many stories of kings, queens, gods and demigods can prove to be the divine intervention Bollywood needs.