Whose truth?

December 15, 2019

'Panipat' makes one consider how accurate dramatised reenactments of history are

A storm is brewing with the release of an Indian film Panipat, an epic-war picture, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, starring Arjun Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Kriti Sanon. Afghans have protested about the distortion of historical facts and demonisation of the character of Ahmed Shah Durrani-Abdali.

They have ample reasons to protest because Abdali is a hero in Afghanistan, as the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan. After his successful raids of the sub-continent, he was powerful and rich enough to carve a new country in the borderlands, where power changed hands frequently; depending on the equation between Indian and Iranian Empires.

In India, particularly these days, the phase of Muslim rule is being seen as conquest, annexation and occupation of their land and people. Pakistani reaction rests somewhere in the middle; owning up to Muslim rule, but at the same time also remembering the vast levels of devastation and blood-letting that ensued, resulting in plunder on a monumental scale.

The film is about the third battle of Panipat where the forces of Abdali and the Marathas fought. The Mughal empire had been declining and was open to all kinds of invasions, beginning with Nadir Shah, followed by a series of raids under Abdali. Familiar with the weakening of the Mughal empire, he launched himself and his forces with the righteousness of a cause. It should not be forgotten that he was also invited by Shahwaliullah of Delhi to save the sub-continental Muslims from the infidel local majority.

In the end he was able to gather enough riches to set up a new country, while large swathes of northern India lay in utter ruin, fearfulness and insecurity. This was one of the worst periods for the Muslims here, paving the way for the establishment of Sikh rule and eventual subjugation by the British.

It is a classic case of looking at history and historical figures in a partisan manner. The hero and the conqueror of one people, race or tribe is someone else’s villain. These days with the battle lines of intolerance drawn more clearly and visibly, it is difficult to agree upon where truth actually may rest. The heroes are of course contested, glorified or vilified accordingly, but the important thing is that more and more figures and battles of historical nature are becoming the subject of films, such as in films like Padmaavat (2018) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) etc.

It should always be remembered, and often it is not, that history or heroes from history in films, novels, poetry and theatre are not representing historical truth, rather a mediated version called poetic truth. Art is not history, as in this case, the film is not a documentary but a feature, where the rules of film criticism rather than the archive are more relevant.

It should always be remembered, and often it is not, that history or heroes from history in films, novels, poetry and theatre are not representing historical truth, rather a mediated version called poetic truth.

History, characters from history and incidents have always been the subject of literature and arts. At one time historical events and characters merged into mythology and the lack of any distinction between the two became a great reservoir for writers and poets to dip into. The great characters from epics; gods and wars were probably events that took place in history and their ancient yet purely human context added a dimension to assess and recreate from.

The descriptive side of it gave writers and poets ample space to wax eloquence and ruminate; which adds to its evaluation. The latter also ensures the worth of description – for it cannot simply be a neutral unfolding of events and decision making. Hence at this junction, venturing into arts and liberating itself from the confines of history.

Historians assess historical happenings from a distance to give the impression of ‘objective understanding’. The more objective the assessment, the more dispassionate the account and the element of detachment. Hence we see an unsynchronised relationship between literature and history, where the two do not converge at some point, hence the greatest pitfall is confusing poetic truth with historical truth.

Directors and producers have picked on subjects from history because they know their contentious value, which serves as an important factor impacting the box office. It should also be noted that the extreme reaction and fury that it causes also certifies the dictum that; life imitates art and not the other way round. If what is on the screen or stage causes such fury, then the artistic purpose has been served. Attention has been drawn and it has garnered requisite levels of concern, interest, anger or curiosity, whatever, it may be; depending on the position it is being seen from.

If the character in the film or novel is complex and round then it may become difficult to frame and castigate or laud it but praised it may be artistically. If it is bland and simplistic asserting only one dimension, then it will serve the cause of propaganda and not really of art.

The basic problem with the dramatisation of the historical episodes is that it is difficult to stay true to history. The major difficulty is that most people view it not as drama but as history and treat everything as fact rather than fiction.

Characters or incidents from history, should be read and viewed as history. What one sees on the screen, is not history rather the dramatisation of it, where the exigencies of drama take precedent over the veracity of facts.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

Kriti Sanon, Arjun Kapoor’s Panipat: Is it distortion of Ahmed Shah Durrani’s character?