Brahmastra, Sita, Ponniyan Selvan: Mythology and historical films in Bollywood are a fad or a financial gamble?

Bollywood is known to go through phases when it comes to genres and topics of movies. Who can forget the avalanche of Bhagat Singh films, or the more recent tsunami of sports biopics or biopics in general?

But after trying to explore the myths and truths about real-life personalities, Bollywood now seems to have turned around. There are a plethora of films in production or awaiting release, 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, Ram Setu, brahmastraThe Immortal Ashwatthama that we will watch Ponnyan Selvan or PS1, Adipurush, Sita with Kangana Ranaut and Chanakya. These are among the many projects in mythological/historical drama genres that have been greenlit one after another over the past few years.

So, is Bollywood just jumping on the bandwagon or is there a deeper consumer insight here? Is it the temptation to to recreate the Baahubali magic? To revisit the past when we have all recently faced an uncertain future? Or find cinematic solutions in the tales of old at a time when Bollywood doesn’t seem to understand what audiences want to see?

Baahubali by SS Rajamouli was a turning point for Indian cinema.

I read an interesting quote online that 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 to remain hopeful and morally sound to some extent. These texts and the conflicts they contain are rooted in human emotions, in the timeless conflicts of head and heart and moral dilemmas that we all continue to face.

Perhaps that is why Bollywood has always been interested in stories of old or stories of divine beings who symbolize certain ideals. If you look back, there have been some extremely 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 some good business just before the pandemic, and who can forget Ashutosh’s Gowariker Lagaan and Jodha Akbar? Movies like Kalyug, Rajneeti, Dalapathi, Raavan and the sweet diabetic Hum Saath Saath Hain were all based on Ramayan or Mahabharat.

But Baahubali’s tremendous success redefined the way mythological films and period dramas were made and viewed in India. Baahubali 1 and 2 were completely fictional tales with strong religious and mythological undertones. But Baahubali’s greatest triumph was that he combined the tropes of a mythological film with the scale and technical finesse of modern storytelling. Using cutting-edge special effects to create an ancient tale was a powerful and clearly profitable combination. SS Rajamouli made mythology “cool” again and suddenly ‘ek tha raja ek thi rani’was a brand new kahaani.

Indian audiences were clearly eager to hear stories that sounded good and were told with conviction. Most importantly, they were eager to see stories that spoke to the beliefs and emotional conflicts that are part of our collective cultural subconscious.

Often in successful mythological films or historical dramas, filmmakers layer references to religious texts, stories about gods, and conflicts between religious or historical figures. RRR is full of Ramayan references with Ram Charan playing a character named Ram, betrothed to a woman named Sita, and disguising himself as Lord Ram at 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 Mahabharat where a crippled father wanted the throne for his selfish son, two brothers clashed over a kingdom, and the daughter-in-law’s insult at a public gathering became the reason for which the family broke ties. Sanjay Leela Bhansali also likes to link his historical films to Indian epics. Whether it was Kashibai comparing himself to Rukmini and Mastani to Radha, or Rani Padmavati comparing Khilji to Ravan who had his eyes on Sita; Bhansali magnifies the aura of his actors and characters, drawing parallels with beings who have become timeless symbols of good and evil.

sanjay leela bhansali Sanjay Leela Bhansali also likes to link his historical films to Indian epics. (Photo: Deepika Padukone/Instagram)

While mythological/historical films are visually appealing as they are usually edited on a grand scale and have lavish costumes and sets, spectacle also comes at a huge cost to the producer. Each of the movies slated for filming and release is worth hundreds of crores.

But whether or not these films do well 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 new perspective to a tale or characters most of us are already familiar with. Here’s hoping that these many tales of kings, queens, gods and demigods can prove to be the divine intervention Bollywood needs.

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