Like the mythological film, biopics and other depictions of historical events have been an enduring genre in Bollywood cinema. Sagas of patriots, war epics, and biographies of well-known historical figures have filled the screen since the days of silent cinema. But as in Hollywood, adherence to the truth and actual facts isn’t always a guiding principle.
Mughals, Emperors, and Queens
Prior to the advent of sound, when language became a barrier, cinema was a wonderful medium for showing the grandeur of historical events. Films about the Mughals such as Kalyan Khajina (1924) or heroic tales from Rajasthan about Queen Rani Padmini (Sati Padmini (1924)) were popular not only in India, but even found audiences in England, during the Wembley Exhibition of that year.
In the early days of talkies, director Sohrab Modi was a pioneer of the romanticized historical epic, and films such as Pukar (1939), Sikandar (1941) about Alexander the Great, and Prithvi Vallabh (1943) were all box-office hits. Yet when he later turned to smaller, more modest historical subjects, such as the life of Lakshmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi (The Tiger and The Flame (1952), the first Technicolor film to be shot in India), audiences were less impressed, and the film was a financial failure.
Biopics have also been a staple of Bollywood cinema over the years, and most have employed imaginative methods of adding musical numbers, which by the 1940s was practically a requirement for all Bollywood films. Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946), by Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram, which tells of the tragic true story of a doctor who sacrificed himself in war-ravaged China managed to incorporate a few songs, as did the biopic of the Marathi poet Honaji Bala, Amar Bhoopali (1951).
Also popular are films that depict lives of martyrs, none more so than the story of revolutionary and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, whose life has been the subject of a generous handful of films over the years. It is in these tales of martyrdom that the truth tends to be molded a bit to fit the needs of the director. They also contain more than a subtle hint of patriotism, and have proven time and again to be popular with audiences. Examples include Pehla Aadmi (1950), which is a biopic about Subhas Chandra Bose, or Sabyasachi (1948), based on Sarat Chandra’s novel which was banned for a period in pre-independence India.
Oft-Told Tales...Anarkali, and the Lives of the Saints
Another historical figure whose story has been often told is Anarkali, a courtesan in Emperor Akbar’s court who falls in love with his son, Prince Salim. Of the many filmed versions of her tragic story, the most popular was Mughal-e-Azam (1960), K. Asif’s big-budget extravaganza filled with all the visual splendor of a Hollywood epic, including a the recreation of the glass palace (sheesh mahal) with a thousand reflections. It’s interesting to note that Anarkali’s fate has been altered for nearly each film, with some staying faithful to the original tale, in which she is entombed alive, while others have gone so far as to tack on a happy ending where she is set free by the Prince.
Films depicting the lives of saints are a proven box-office success formula, particularly those that that recount tales of local saints that hail from the region where the film was made, such as Sant Tukaram (1936) and Sant Dnyaneshwar (1940). Though saints are meant to be incarnations of the gods themselves, the films tend to portray them as even more popular with the masses due to their simpler approach to religion, which is built around humanist goals rather than ornate rituals. Actors portraying these saints have for many years been treated as such by the local population when visiting small towns and villages.