Before we get into historical fiction, there is a need to address a new movement amongst Indian viewers.
For some years now, we are seeing filmmakers rehash forgotten stories from Indian history. This trend is relatively new and represents a yearning amongst Indians to know their history better.
This is not particularly unique to India. While Indian cinema lags in the regard, Western cinema has embraced historical fiction for years. Westerners learn more about their history from films and TV series than textbooks.
Movies like Tanhaji and their success show a definitive pattern developing. The history of India won’t be told in textbooks and classrooms. Filmmakers and storytellers, like always, have the power to tell the story of India.
This is where the importance of Indian historical fiction comes from. We are a country with a rich history, but there is a prevailing assumption that some of it has been erased.
The urge to know more about our history and culture comes from this very assumption.
For writers, this sentiment creates a mandate. Good writers, like good politicians, know what the people want. Their talent lies in packaging what the people want and presenting them as their own original idea.
If there is a yearning amongst the Indian public to learn the story of India, writers have to write it. As a genre, historical fiction can give an average Indian a context to view the country in. No culture survives without a real historical context. For us in India, our history is too long and blurred to present any central point of context.
In this piece, we try to study historical fiction as a genre and study its role in setting up Indian cultural leadership.
Historical Fiction – Why India and Indians need this genre of storytelling?
There is a big reason why we don’t see a lot of historical fiction from Indian writers. To say there is a lack of intellectual curiosity is not wrong. However, it is too simplistic an argument to make.
The reason is this – Indian history is too long to center on one particular incident.
For instance, what topics do Indian historical movies generally cover? The freedom struggle against the British remains the most common topic for most Indian stories. However, history tells us how far Indian dynasties and kingdoms really go back.
As an example, let’s take the US. The United States is 244 years old. The Mughal Empire was alone 331 years old when it ended and it was only one amongst many major Indian dynasties and empires. The Maratha Empire, the Maurya Empire, the list goes on and on.
One would assume that since there are so many historical stories to write stories on, writers would jump on the chance. This is not true.
In fact, a long history confuses writers because it makes the story of India difficult to contextualize. The history of America is a straight line since 1776. However, the rise and fall of multiple dynasties since before circa 1 AD makes the job of writers tedious.
The customs, traditions, and contexts of each dynasty are different. Thus, writing Indian historical fiction is very difficult. We have seen Indian historical fantasy novels bringing context to some forgotten stories. However, hard core Indian historical fiction is hard to find.
Does this difficulty imply writers shouldn’t approach this genre?
No, it just explains why we haven’t yet seen more movies and books with Indian historical fiction as their genre.
How can writers overcome this problem? Let’s move forward to the solution.
The Solution – Drop the ‘Stop Invaders’ Line of Storytelling
We earlier talked about a lack of reference point to encapsulate all Indian history around. A good question would be why do Indian writers feel the need to find a reference point? Why is it so important for writers to centre their story on a seismic event?
The reason is simple – every Indian historical film is based on kicking an intruder out.
Films set during the British Raj invariably follow an ‘us-vs-them’ mindset. From Tanhaji to Kesari to the Legend of Bhagat Singh and Rang De Basanti, most examples of Indian historical fiction involve native people driving out ruthless invaders.
This style of storytelling is not wrong. In fact, it is good to highlight these crucial moments of history. However, if an entire genre of storytelling is based on the same formula, its value goes down.
Why don’t we see movies on the Gupta dynasty or the Cholas? These periods of history don’t have an obvious villainous invader which current Indian audiences can relate to.
Instead of making every historical movie about defeating the British or the Mughals, filmmakers should move away from this trope. Not every film needs to fetishize India by pitting natives against the unruly outsiders. Some films can be more complex and introduce Indians to their history without banging the drums of patriotism.
Look at Tumbbad as an example. We get to see the state of India during the British Raj, the relationship between foreign officers and natives, and the meaning of independence for some Indians. Without speaking a word about Indian nationalism, Tumbbad gives terrific insight into the history of the land.
In dropping the ‘stop invaders’ trope, writers can explore many great avenues they can’t otherwise. This is a clear path to bring Indian historical fiction to its true potential.
Lay Off Biopics
Firstly, I like biopics. I think they help viewers see personalities in a different light. However, the recent spate of biopics in Indian cinema is a little frustrating.
Storytelling in Bollywood is very prone to becoming formula-based. Once filmmakers and studios discover a formula that resonates a little with the populace, they beat it to death. Indian audiences now see a biopic every month about a living or departed personality.
Biopics are very effective, but their overuse dilutes their inherent value. Studios and producers love biopics because it requires fairly little creative input from writers. Since the entire life of a personality is generally well-documented, studios save time hiring writers to actually write a creative script.
Indian historical fiction is also a victim of biopics. Talking about a famous person should not be the only way to explore history.
Thus, writers today must try to think beyond conventional biopics. I am not saying biopics should be shunned. However, some amount of moderation would help. It is time writers in India move away from formula-based writing.
Final Words – Role of Indian Historical Fiction
In this piece, we discussed the core aspects of Indian historical fiction. To tell the story of India, writers today have to lean into historical fiction as a genre.