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Monday, September 20, 2021

The fictional nature of India’s historicals: From Bharat Ek Khoj to The Empire

What was it about shows from the Doordarshan era that made us believe in their authenticity a bit more than what we see on the entertainment channels today?

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: August 27, 2021 3:23:53 pm
the empireRevisiting Indian television's history through the many historical fiction shows.

The 1952 film Baiju Bawra opens with a text that blurs the line between history and fiction. It reads, “Around the popular figure gathers many a legend that obscures History, if any… and what is History but legend agreed upon?” This line makes you question the authenticity of historical events that have been passed down for generations, for centuries. Of course, the broader facts are often verified using multiple texts and sources from across the world but when it comes to legends, there’s no absolute truth. The historical genre on television, which we often see as historical fiction, seems to be based on the opening lines of Baiju Bawra but in an era where dramatised events in film and television can lead to death threats, who can really blame them?

To save them from some dire consequences incited by a possibly angry mob, television shows have always relied on the humble old disclaimer that gives them some legal coverage, and some moral coverage too. Disclaimers give them a little liberty to dramatise events that may not have taken place in the exact same way, but it also gives them an exit while creating love stories for the sake of TRPs. Makers often rely upon a piece of text or literature for their shows that gives them a chance to tailor certain historical events to their storytelling.

bharat ek khoj A still from Doordarshan’s Bharat EK Khoj.

For instance, take a show like Bharat Ek Khoj. The Shyam Benegal directed series, which was first broadcast on Doordarshan in 1988, turned out to be a much needed history lesson for many of its viewers but the show never claimed itself to be historically accurate. Bharat Ek Khoj was based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book Discovery of India which had him explaining the evolution of India over the ages. Of course, the events were true but the interpretation was seen through the eyes of Nehru, and later Benegal. After all, interpretation is key when it comes to narrating history. Even Sanjay Khan’s popular show The Sword of Tipu Sultan, that left the audience in awe with its massive production scale, was based on a book by Bhagwan Gidwani, thus never claiming to be true to history.

But what was it about shows from the late 1980s and early 1990s Doordarshan era that made us believe in their authenticity a bit more than what we see on the entertainment channels today?

For the purposes of this article, I revisited a few episodes of DD’s Bharat Ek Khoj and ZEE TV’s Jodhaa Akbar to find what sets them apart. Both shows were termed highly successful in their respective eras so they had the potential of giving a sense as to how the genre has moved on in the last few decades.

jodha akbar ZEE TV’s Jodha Akbar enjoyed a huge fan following during its run.

Bharat Ek Khoj comes from an era when television viewing was still seen as an event. This was before the private channels entered the market so on a day when Bharat Ek Khoj aired, it hardly saw any competition. The non-complicated nature of its storytelling worked in its favour as it was quite straight forward, yet it maintained the charm of dramatically re-enacting historical events from the country’s past. With Shyam Benegal at its helm, who was already a National Award winning filmmaker at the time, the show also saw some of the finest actors at work here, which elevated a simple exchange between two characters to a marvellous scene.

ZEE TV’s Jodha Akbar, that aired from 2013-2015 made waves and is still remembered as one of the most popular historical fiction shows to have aired on TV in the last decade but does it still hold up? After watching a couple of episodes of Bharat Ek Khoj, I realised I could revisit the entire series on a weekend but the same does not translate for Jodha Akbar and that is mainly because the ZEE TV show was structured in a daily soap format. For anyone who has ever seen primetime Hindi television, they can spot this soap style when they see it. Dramatic exaggerations, flaring background music, heightened acting and even plot points that feel a little too far-fetched, even if you want to call it historical ‘fiction’. It has to be taken into account that Jodha Akbar came at a time when, unlike Bharat Ek Khoj, we had tonnes of options that we could switch to so the show had to be on its A-game to retain its viewers, and so it did at the time. The audience’s attention span is much lower than before and instead of trying to learn history, they want something more from their TV viewing experience.

The audience’s expectations from what they watch on TV has certainly changed from the late 1980s to now. The tastes have changed, and so has the business of television. A platform that churns out 5 episodes in a week so that a home viewer has something new every single day is already working at maximum speed but this platform has recently seen some competition from the ‘new TV’, the OTT platforms.

With Hotstar’s The Empire up for release this Friday, the historical fiction genre is entering a new space. From Bharat Ek Khoj days to now, viewing habits have evolved. From watching one episode per week, to watching five in a week, to now having the option watching all episodes at once – the formats have changed and so has the nature of period dramas. We know how television in the present day deals with historical fiction but it would be interesting to see the route that The Empire takes as it introduces a new genre in the Indian OTT space.

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