Mumbai, Jan. 11 -- In 2015, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali brought the epic historical romance - between the Maratha warrior Peshwa Bajirao and his second wife Mastani - alive on big screen in Bajirao Mastani, he took box office by storm.
Clearly, Hindi cinegoers lapped up the historical drama.
Now, in 2017, a number of film-makers seem to be taking the historical route for their on-screen sojourns. To start with, Shoojit Sircar's next revolves around India's Independence struggle and a 'forgotten' martyr, Udham Singh.
The muchtalked-about Battle of Saragarhi has reportedly inspired three films by three different filmmakers, starring Ajay Devgn, Randeep Hooda and Akshay Kumar in each of the version.
The one featuring Akshay is in partnership with Salman Khan and Karan Johar, in which he will play havildar Ishar Singh. Bhansali's Padmavati is based on Turkic ruler, Alauddin Khilji's clash with the Mewar ruler, Rawal Ratan Singh, over the latter's wife, Rani Padmini.
Also, Kangana Ranaut will play Rani Lakshmibai in Ketan Mehta's next, while Nawazuddin Siddiqui will portray famous Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto in his biopic. Madhur Bhandarkar's next, Indu Sarkar is set against the backdrop of the 1975 Emergency - a 21-month long period from 1975 to 1977, while Rangoon has the backdrop of the Second World War and Indian film industry. Salman Khan's next, Tubelight is a historical war drama set against the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
"History will always fascinate people. And showcasing real-life elements on big screen will unfailingly get audiences interested, especially since we have all heard and read about them. The only trick is to remain as honest as possible to the stories, but within the cinematic format to avoid letting them become a documentary. Also, such stories shouldn't be picked up just for the heck of it," says trade analyst Taran Adarsh.
Sircar reveals that he wanted a film on Udham Singh to be his first directorial venture. "In the '90s, I was part of the Act One theatre group in Delhi. At that time, when the Sikhs were coming out of the emotional turmoil (owing to the anti-Sikh riots), we had travelled to Amritsar to perform a few street plays," says the film-maker.
While in the city, he decided to visit the Golden Temple. "When we got to know that Jallianwala Bagh is nearby, we went there. I found the ambience moving and also got to know about Udham Singh. So, I studied about him and wanted to make a film on him. In fact, I had come to Mumbai with the script of that film to make it. But as luck would have it, it's happening now. The idea is to introduce people to freedom fighters about whom many, especially youngsters, don't know much about," he says.
Film-makers have taken inspiration from history in the past, but never have they done it with such vigour. The list includes Mughal-EAzam (1960), Umrao Jaan (1981), Border (1997), Asoka (2001), LOC Kargil (2003), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Jodhaa Akbar (2008), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and Mohenjo Daro (2016), as well as biopics on historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose, among others.
"India has had a very rich history, and when you pick up a historical event or person that has a connection with our country, all of us can relate to them because their stories are about our people. Plus, there's always mystery involved with history," says exhibitor-distributor Akshaye Rathi, who feels that the "sky is the limit" if such stories can be told properly through cinema. Ask Sircar about the fascination with history, and he says: "If you ask me, 'Will people connect with it?' I say, they will, definitely. Everyone should know how we won our freedom. Whenever a story is about, how it happened, it always evokes an emotion," he says.
Actors, however, feel that such roles come with huge challenges. Kangana Ranaut, who plays a film star from the 1940s in Rangoon, says that shooting for the movie was "very hectic". "The depiction of a '40s star and her life was extraordinary. A character has never tested me so much - especially physically. I have never played a part where I was expected to do superhuman feats. And on top of that, the character is emotionally potent and has a lot of emotional stamina," she says.
In the same vein, Deepika, who plays Rani Padmini in Padmavati, says, "It's exciting that I have been given an opportunity to play such a powerful role. It's something that I am extremely proud of, and I feel lucky that something like this came my way."