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Why Argo and Kai Po Che are the new history books

Thursday, 28 February 2013 - 11:10am IST | Agency: dna


Movies on the ancient and medieval historical events of the past have been very common. Innumerable films have been made on people and events from the distant past - the Crusades, King  Ashoka, even on the World Wars and the Indian Independence Movement.  A recent trend however shows that more film-makers are now looking at contemporary history as subjects for their films. These films delve into events that occurred a few decades ago, the consequences of which are still directly relevant for present times.

Film-makers as history narrators are free of the self-imposing responsibility that professional or academic historians carry as their burden: to educate the people about their past. Take for example, the recently released Kai Po Che - the story of three friends in Gujarat during the 2001 earthquake and 2002 clash between Hindus and Muslims. The characters are fictitious but the circumstances that they find themselves in are reflective of a historical reality.

Film-makers realise they are entering the realm of the documentary film here; but these boundaries are increasingly getting blurred. Just like the debate between history books and works of literature, it is no longer a struggle between fact and fiction. People are writing stories and making movies, derived from the different memories from the past, and the perspective of history as a mere narration of absolute facts is being increasingly contested.

This is not to say that there are no more facts left in history. The macro narratives of nations, wars and kings will continue to dominate history textbooks. However there is increasing awareness of the micro-realities that unravel in the interstices while nations are being formed and wars are being fought. The experiences of nation building or surviving a war would in themselves vary subjectively. This has made history a matter of pluralities and perpetual contestations, expanding the scope of history and allowing many more to participate in history telling.  While these new histories still need to be completely taken up by those writing history books (especially textbooks), their uptake in film have lent a boost to their popularity.

This said, just as there are responsible and irresponsible pieces of history writing, films of historical depiction also must be scrutinised. Take the instance of this year’s Oscar winning Best Film, Argo. There has been much criticism of the film’s dramatisation of events, especially in the climax that portrays a very close escape for the American hostages from Iran. Interviews with the hostages have indicated otherwise. The film also considerably downplays Canada’s role in the rescue operation – fuelling the already dominant ‘America saves the World’ narrative. Films have a powerful visual appeal and tend to leave a more lasting impact than books on most people. Moreover, when films conforming to dominant political views are made, they are promoted even more vigorously- via endorsements by political voices and awards etc, as is evident in the case of Argo. 

With the entry of new voices and audiences engaging in the questions of history, a multitude of perspectives are bound to be created. While this is good news, celebrating the increase in quantity without scrutinising the content and quality might be premature. Among the many new insights that will emerge from this wider engagement with history, some are bound to be repetitive of dominant and existing histories, some may be nuanced and fresh, while some others may be outrightly one-sided.

In addition, as the pursuit of narrating histories moves further away from concepts of ‘absolute truth’ and ‘scientific facts’, being sceptical of each new narrative becomes even more important. The incorporation of historical themes in films thus, while is a welcome move, a renewed onus lies on both - responsible film-making and responsible film-viewing.