Ashutosh Gowariker has been in the eye of a storm ever since trailers and songs from his new film Mohenjo Daro became grist for blooper hunters. The August 12 release stars Hrithik Roshan as a character from the Indus Valley Civilisation and Pooja Hegde as his romantic interest. Historians and critics have had a field day tearing apart the anomalies and anachronisms in the trailers, even as Gowariker has been requesting people to reserve their judgement until they have watched the film. The director, who owns the historic drama space in Hindi cinema through such films as Lagaan, Jodhaa Akbar and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se, makes a case for taking artistic liberties with the past while also asserting that history can be entertaining.
The historical is a challenging genre in Indian cinema. How do you keep it relevant and why do you persist with it?
I don’t think it is relevant by default. Any part of history you choose to deal with, whether it is the Chittagong uprising in Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se or Mohenjo Daro, has to be made relevant. Your audience has to identify with it and feel for the characters. For me, unless there is something identifiable and relevant about the characters in that part of history, I will not take it up.
What takes me back to the genre again and again is the opportunity to tell the untold stories of another era. I enjoy creating a different world set in a different time.
There was nothing about the Indus Valley Civilisation in popular culture other than what was found during the excavations. And that gave me more liberty to create my characters and my story. For instance, we have seen pictures of an excavated figurine of a man playing drums. That became the inspiration for Sarman, played by Hrithik Roshan. The figurine of a dancing girl from the site was my inspiration for Chaani, played by Pooja Hegde. I have taken plenty of artistic liberties with the looks of the characters – after all I cannot show nudity for the sake of reality. But I did not take liberties with the architecture, the culture.
You must realise that there is still a lot of speculation about the civilisation because we know so little. Scholars are still debating, trying to redevelop the era. There is a lot that is based on hypothesis. But all this is the space for scholarship. I have only made a film and at no point do I say that it is meant to be a part of academic discourse on the subject.
Is the critical reaction to the trailer justified? Are we being unreasonable in demanding a realistic historical Hindi movie?
Each one of us has our own way of imagining history. Especially with something that is unexplored. We know nothing about the people’s lives [in the Indus Valley Civilisation] other than a few key professions and the architecture of the city. We have all built a picture of the civilisation from our imagination.
Let me give you an example. When you watched the film Gandhi, you knew it was not Gandhi but Sir Ben Kingsley playing the part. I would only request people to keep that suspension of disbelief active when they watch my film.
Having said that, whatever be its intent, the film should be powerful and gripping enough for the audience to forget all the external discussions and speculation and get drawn into the film.
What were your points of reference?
My point of reference was Mughal-e-Azam. The film was not remembered for its historical accuracy or inaccuracy but for its depiction of the compelling love story of Salim and Anarkali. When Jodhaa Akbar was made, there were a lot of discussions and debates about whether Jodha even existed. Surprisingly, it was the royal family of Amer, descendants of Jodha Bai, who came to the film’s defence.
When you are working with historic material of this nature which has several interpretations, you can only follow one school of thought. I chose to go with [anthropology professor] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer. I chose to go with one of the many ideologies about Mohenjo Daro. I am not saying I am right and everyone else is wrong.
Akbar had appointed two historians in his court, Abul Fazal and Badauni. Fazal wrote Akbar Nama in flowery language extolling Akbar’s virtues and making him and his achievements appear larger than life. Badauni was far more objective about Akbar and his policies, focusing on his land reforms and other administrative issues. He was, in fact, dismissive of Fazal. The two scholars wrote two very different versions of Akbar’s reign. You could either follow Fazal or go to with Badauni.
You did not have any problems with ‘Lagaan’. Was it because it was fiction and a more emotional story?
With Lagaan, we were dealing with recent history, still fresh in our minds. You had the British Raj, land owners, villagers paying lagan [tax]. There is more than ample material and references for that era. Mohenjo Daro is ancient history and the absence of enough material of the era has led to this intense speculation and debate.
How has Hrithik Roshan evolved since ‘Jodhaa Akbar’? Have the recent controversies affected his performance?
Hrithik since Jodhaa has obviously acted in three or four films with slightly more mature parts. He is more nuanced as an actor now. Both of us shared a comfort and joy after Jodhaa. We understood each other better. And he came up with certain details and nuances in his acting that came as a surprise. Any creative person learns from his experience and adds a new dimension to his craft. Hrithik has taken Sarman well beyond the script.
And how have you evolved as a filmmaker since 1993, when you made ‘Pehla Nasha’ with Deepak Tijori and Pooja Bhatt?
Thankfully, my parents inculcated in me a habit of reading Marathi and English literature. They took me to see films and plays and my introduction to the arts was very strong. However, I never desired to become an entertainer or a filmmaker. I had no formal education in filmmaking and am completely self-taught. All the reading from my childhood helped. From Pehla Nasha, my debut film, to Lagaan, there has been a constant development on the back of a lot of reading.
When I directed Pehla Nasha, I had only worked as an actor until then. I had no idea how to do a close-up or a wide angle shot or how to explore a cinematic language. Pehla Nasha did not work, but I think it is one of the most expensive diploma films ever made.
Then came Baazi, which gave me an insight into a different world of storytelling. By the time I did Lagaan, I was more in control of the script. But I still don’t know a lot of things. I know the machinations of filmmaking. Sometimes you hit upon a story and an extremely captivating idea, the crew resonates and you have a hit film.