Vishal Bhardwaj’s period drama Rangoon has crash-landed at the box office. The ambitious production cost an estimated Rs 70 crore but has earned less than Rs 20 crore so far. Distributor Viacom18 Motion Pictures is looking at a chasm that will probably take a lifetime to be bridged, if at all.

Rangoon is a pre-Independence love triangle between a stunt film star, her Svengali, and an Indian soldier in the British Army who is a secret agent for the Indian National Army. Despite stellar production values, memorable camerawork, and assured performances, Rangoon is torpedoed by its unwieldy ambition.

The movie didn’t have the magical “buzz” that attaches itself to a few films every Friday and elevates ordinary fare to hit status. The trailer left the film trade cold, and the soundtrack didn’t make a dent on the charts either. Of the lead actors Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan and Shahid Kapur, only Ranaut has box office pull because of her recent hits Tanu Weds Manu, Queen and Tanu Weds Manu Returns. But her Julia, a thinly disguised version of the 1930s stunt film heroine Nadia, didn’t forge connections with audiences in the way her previous characters had. The mostly negative reviews and discouraging word of mouth sealed the film’s fate.

Mere Miyan Gaye England from Rangoon.

Does the movie’s inability to conjure up an exciting phase in Indian history mean that period dramas, films based on headline-grabbing events and biopics are unpopular? Far from it. In recent times, the past has been resurrected with great regularity. Writers and filmmakers are diligently revisiting the archives and dusting off the history books in a quest for interesting and potentially saleable subjects. From notorious murder victims to famed cricketers, Bollywood has been in flashback mode with determination.

In 2015, Talvar reopened the case files of the 2008 twin murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Bhanjade in Noida. Bajirao Mastani reincarnated seventeenth-century Peshwa ruler Bajirao and his rumoured second wife Mastani. The following year was flooded with backward glances. Airlift recreated the operation to rescue over one lakh Indians in 1990 from Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Neerja was a biopic of the Pan-Am airhostess Neerja Bhanot whose bravery in 1986 helped prevent a hijacking from reaching its brutal conclusion. Aligarh revisited the persecution of and death of a homosexual Aligarh Muslim University professor.

Neerja (2016).

Both Azhar, the biopic of Mohammed Azharuddin, and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story revisited crucial phases in Indian cricket through two of its most charismatic captains. Rustom was about the notorious KM Nanavati case from 1959. 31st October was set against the backdrop of the anti-Sikh riots that swept Delhi after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Dangal brought to the screen the formative years and early struggles of wrestler Geeta Phogat, who was coached by her father, Mahavir.

In 2017, The Ghazi Attack dived underwater to reconstruct the battle between Indian and Pakistani submarines on the eve of the Indo-Pak war in 1971. The Sanjay Dutt biopic, featuring Ranbir Kapoor as the troubled action hero, will be released in December.

Upcoming releases include Haseena, about fugitive criminal Dawood Ibrahim’s sister Hasena Parkar, and the beleagured Padmavati, set in Rajasthan in the fourteenth century. Dramas and biopics based on Mohun Bagan’s win over a British football club in 1911, India’s first Olympic gold in 1948 and Saadat Hasan Manto are also in the pipeline.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Saadat Hasan Manto. Courtesy Twitter/Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

Not all excursions into the bygone have worked. The films that have, including Airlift, Neerja, MS Dhoni, Rustom and The Ghazi Attack, tackle different themes¸ but they share easy-to-follow storylines, celebrate Indian achievements in trying circumstances, and patriotism. Each of these films picks up a single subject and sticks to it, without leaving the burden of deciphering long forgotten events to the viewer. Films such as Airlift, Rustom and The Ghazi Attack are pop history narratives that will not impress experts or viewers with sharp memories and respect for rigour, but their risk-free handling of their subjects has made them box office winners.

Rustom proves that a period film need not pay any attention to detail. Movie star Akshay Kumar’s charisma helps disguise the tacky production design and questionable handling of the Nanavati murder case. Authenticity is hardly the reason these movies have worked: if the basic plot is interesting and has the added charge of being inspired by facts, it can be good enough. When the film has a popular hero who beats the odds even though archives suggest collective rather than individual accomplishment, the movie can be as unassailable as the leading man.

A case in point: Airlift, which reduces the complex rescue operation in Kuwait that involved the efforts of several people and Indian government departments to the heroism of one man.

A scene from Airlift.

The flashback film that clearly doesn’t work is the one with the sprawling plotline that, it is assumed, will reel in audiences who are fed up with reductionist filmmaking. Bollywood audiences are currently in the mood to celebrate Indian contributions to civilisation. The nationalistic fervour that has been raging across television studios, Twitter, college campuses and electoral battlefields has infected the movies too. A period movie that suggests a complex and multi-faceted reading of the past faces challenges, especially when the material is poorly and unconvincingly handled, as was the case with Rangoon.

The makers of Rangoon left nothing to chance – the movie has two renditions of the INA version of the national anthem, a villainous British Army officer, and battlefield valour. But the movie is neither a compelling romance nor a celebration of the INA’s contributions to the freedom struggle.

Rangoon is, in a milder way, the Bombay Velvet of the year – a movie that attempts the personal-political braiding of fictional lives set against a historical canvas that Hollywood does so efficiently. Bombay Velvet was set in Mumbai in the late 1960s, and explored the romance between a street tough and a club singer against a backdrop of corruption, crime and blackmail. The hugely expensive production (rumoured to have cost Rs 120 crore) crash-landed despite the presence of A-listers Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma and earned as little as Rs 22 crore. Both films were unable to get a handle on complex material. Their failure means that we are stuck with simplistic period productions of triumphs, real or concocted.

Bombay Velvet and Rangoon kill off key characters, as if to suggest that the burden of history was too great for their characters. What our moviegoers want are real winners, not imagined victims.