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The Bollywood Time Machine, Destination 2500 BCE: Mohenjo Daro

My previous installment for the Gutter, Dharam-Veer, falls into the Fully Fictional sub-genre of Historical Wackadoodle. Today we’ll look at an example of its counterpart: the Real-Ish. These films are part of a grandiose tradition of Hindi films that refer to real events but usually give them musical, architectural, and sartorial makeovers beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. It is perhaps a truth universally acknowledged that leading men want to play men who lead, who stride about confidently with booming speeches around big-picture concepts like unity, victory, and destiny, so historical figures everyone (mis-) learns about in school have long been popular. The earliest I have seen is Sikandar (1941), a not particularly accurate but exuberant and context-appropriate take on Alexander the Great’s campaign to reach India. More recently, the Fully Fictional two-film series from a southern Indian cinema industry Baahubali (shot in Telugu and Tamil and then dubbed into Hindi for release in Hindi-speaking areas)  was a monstrous box office success, leaving filmmakers across the country scrambling to copy its formula. None of the Hindi-language attempts at spectacular historical films has come anywhere close to Baahubali’s creativity and artistry, but big-name releases have tried with stories based far enough back in time to be beyond living memory: the Indian independence movement of the 1940s (Kalank), freedom fighters of the 19th century (Manikarnika), and Maratha warriors and emperors of the 17th and 18th centuries (Bajirao Mastani, Panipat, Tanhaji).

You may notice the world-famous Mughal Empire is missing from this list, and I’m 99% sure this is because a right-wing Hindu government is currently in power. Indian and maybe particularly Hindi cinema faces extra problems when trying to frame historical stories. The current national government’s dangerously conservative and racist nationalism (sound familiar?) fights against the filming, promoting, and distributing of history-based films. Mobs threaten and damage cast, crew, and sets. Titles are changed to capitulate to people who think myth and literature are facts, and stars use social media to suck up to the national ruling political party (the BJP, which arose in Hindi-speaking northern India and has several former Hindi cinema figures as members of parliament). History is always political, especially now, as conservative leaders try to repaint the past solely in saffron, the color associated with Hinduism in the national flag and adopted by their followers.

Mohenjo Daro (2016) is essentially an abbreviated heroic monomyth. Orphaned farm boy Sarman (superstar Hrithik Roshan, who also played a Mughal emperor in one of Gowariker’s earlier films) gets a chance to take his uncle’s indigo crop to market in the big city and is dazzled by architecture, economy, and Chaani (Pooja Hegde), the daughter of the city priest. Chaani’s birth was interpreted as a sign of the blessings of the river goddess and an omen of regime change, so you will not be surprised to hear that the evil senate chief Maham (played by Kabir Bedi, last seen on the Gutter as crocodile fodder in Khoon Bhari Mang) felt the need to re-arrange her destiny by forcing her engagement to his thug son Moonja (Arunoday Singh, who plays the heavy to the French general in the ITV/PBS series Beecham House). Maham fights off all challenges to his authority, including Samran and Chaani’s romance. It is revealed that Samran’s father and uncle, Chaani’s father, and Maham share a dramatic past, and the echoes of it crash down on the characters and the city in a frankly spectacular finale of nature vs. civil engineering. Gowariker revisits some ideas he has explored in some of his other historical films— wrongful leadership (Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey) and oppressive taxation (Oscar-nominated Lagaan)—and adds in a splash of bullied democracy, which are more interesting than they sound.

The setting is loosely inspired by the ancient Indus Valley civilization that flourished 2500–2000 BCE (making it a contemporary of the Great Pyramid of Khufu). By choosing this setting, the filmmakers have to balance multiple pressures: using ideas known by scientific archaeology while also depicting early Indian civilizations in ways that please the government-controlled censor board. This is an advanced degree of difficulty. At the time of this release, Gowariker had made three other historical films, all on different periods of South Asian history, and he should have known better. To be fair, I don’t know how any movie could succeed when the makers felt they had to create such an elaborate disclaimer.

Despite promising that nothing you’re about to see should be taken as accurate, or even related to accuracy, this is not a completely invented environment. Real archaeological evidence is invoked throughout, starting with the film’s title and continuing through elements of plot (indigo farming, the arrival of horses in South Asia, the significance of the unicorn motif that appears on seals), set and costume design, and even a song.

On top of the historical references, so much is brought up in this movie plot-wise: political intrigue in two generations, corruption, tragic childhoods, religious practice topped off by a Chosen One, crocodile hunting, international trade gatherings, civic taxes (never as interesting as writers hope), the back story of an entirely separate Indus Valley site, environmental disaster, a love story (plus another that got sidelined).

Yet not enough of it coheres. Maybe Gowariker felt constrained, rather than inspired, by the tantalizing combination of what is known and unknown about the Indus Valley Civilization (its script is still undeciphered). I wish the team had chosen a few historical and narrative components and then really developed them with care. With a rich (and, to my knowledge, never before used in a feature film) real-life setting to explore and an array of Bollywood tropes to re-configure in this new-old context, the last problem Mohenjo Daro should have is being inert. It’s a mishmash of History 101—no previous study of the Indus Valley Civilization required!—and plot points that often happen in Hindi films, like orphans, love at first sight, and a magical outsider who somehow saves their adopted home.

Why did Gowariker set the story in such a specific culture but then choose to mostly ignore the real evidence and make it such a yawn of a place to visit? I’m not saying every film set in ancient times has to be the level of the manic hyperbole of Gods of Egypt, but the makers should have done something with the setting. Otherwise, why bother? The makers must have been worried about depicting a foundational culture “incorrectly” according to the easily agitated powers that be, so why didn’t they call the film something evocative but less specific like Indus River? Or just invent the setting entirely, like Bahubali or Dharam Veer?

Superstar Hrithik Roshan being heroic.

The dullness unfortunately extends to the lead character too. Sarman (Hrithik Roshan, who also played a Mughal emperor in one of Gowariker’s earlier films) is a goody-goody with no texture or depth beyond his indigo-tinted dreams of a unicorn. Once he arrives in Mohenjo Daro from the countryside and instantly gets embroiled in high-level politics of which he knows nothing, he never has any questions about what doing the right thing should look like or how he can accomplish it. Chaani is not fleshed out in writing or performance, and the friends and family are bland props for the hero.

When the film released, viewers commented that the city of Mohenjo Daro itself looks too tidy and blank, especially in the aerial views, which seem to have been put into the film without bothering to render any people and the byproducts of their daily lives, and the same applies to Sarman’s personality. There’s nothing magnetic or magic about the setting or the protagonist, which doesn’t help you care about their fate. Granted, I’m pleased that Sarman seems to be an actual grown-up instead of a man-child, but I wish there had been a way to let him, and us, have more fun.

Still, Mohenjo Daro is not a complete waste of time, though bear in mind I work in an archaeology and anthropology museum, so YMMV. Most importantly, this version of the past seems far less romanticized than the tales we humans often create. Instead, it depicts problems we still have millennia later. Education is given no attention, social strata are fiercely guarded, politicians make shady arms deals, laborers are overtaxed and undervalued, minority ethnicities are dehumanized as freaks, blood sports and execution qualify as entertainment, speaking out against tyranny is dangerous, and as a society we disastrously mishandle natural resources. Most strikingly to me, even in a primarily made-up world, there is still little room for women in Gowariker’s imagination. The senate, guards, citizens who speak out against wrongs in public, and people brainstorming how to save their city from disaster are all only men.

This film is not the textile fancier’s dream that is Jodhaa Akbar, Gowariker’s earlier film about a Rajput princess and a Mughal emperor (both real people from the 16th century), but I think the costumes and drapery are employed well without being distractingly luxe, and nice use was made of the madder, turmeric, and indigo look. From what I’ve read, we know very little about the clothing of the Harappan civilization, and whoever designed these had fun with them without going overboard, making distinctions between the rich and poor wardrobes while still visually uniting them in shape and material. While not the prettiest, my favorite single piece is a priest’s cloak clearly modeled on this famous artifact.

Accessories may be the area where Fully Fictional and Real-Ish Historical Wackadoodle films overlap most, and the headwear is probably the most gleeful element of this whole film, closely followed by the stone-centric jewelry. 

Somehow crazy accessories are fun where overly ornate clothes would be silly. Because she is very special indeed, Chaani gets a headdress of feathers, sequins, flowers (possibly inspired by this archaeological find), and slices of agate.

I know it’s unfair to ask for a movie that isn’t what the makers seem to be doing, but since the film is named after a famous city, I can’t help wishing for an ancient political thriller or noir, playing with ur-urban mysteries and dangers. There are hints towards that at the beginning, but soon enough the city is just full of people who do whatever the hero tells them to. This film’s purpose never emerges; it’s not very entertaining, it’s not visually striking overall, and it’s not quite pointed enough to be provocative. All I can do is wonder what Gowariker was trying to accomplish by evoking and then ignoring such a fascinating setting.

I’ve never understood how this prophesy ties to the actual plot, but who doesn’t enjoy a hairy old man spouting cryptic nonsense?

Mohenjo Daro is currently available on Netflix with English subtitles. Learn more about the Indus Valley sites and civilizations at Harappa.com (Harappa is the other major excavated city), including photos of the real Mohenjo Daro site.

And for a real treat, watch star Hrithik Roshan in one of his very best dance sequences.

~~~

Beth Watkins is ready for a cozy mystery set in Mohenjo Daro.

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