There is a story, no doubt a product of Oxbridge cloister apocrypha, that when it was pointed out to the famous historian, Jack Gallagher, that the maps accompanying his essay on the partition of Africa were all wrong, he retorted, “Maps are supposed to make men mad.” Filmmakers in India being challenged today about the “facts” they are portraying in their films, could perhaps retort in the same vein.
The great editor of the Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott, was fond of saying, “Comment is free, facts are sacred.” This injunction could easily be turned on its head since facts are often used as it suits the user. Facts are even created. Take the example of the figure called Jodhaabai, the subject of a controversy and of a much-hyped movie, Jodhaa Akbar.
Following a hallowed tradition established by the film Mughal-e-Azam, Jodhaa Akbar depicts the Mughal emperor, Akbar, as having a Rajput wife by the name of Jodhaabai. There could be nothing objectionable in this depiction save the claim that it is based on history.
As India’s foremost authority on the Mughal period, Irfan Habib, has commented (see The Telegraph, Feb 1, 2008) that it is true that Akbar married the daughter of the Raja of Bihari Mal, but there is no evidence in any contemporary source, Persian or Rajasthani, that she was called or named Jodhabai or Jodhaabai. That Akbar had a wife called Jodhaabai is thus a pure figment of the imagination of filmmakers.
Filmmakers, given their craft and their profession, are entitled to take recourse to their imagination. This has been the tradition of filmmaking and the theatre. No one can say that Shakespeare’s his- tory plays are historically accurate. One of his most loveable characters in the history plays, Falstaff, has no existence in history, despite some similarities with Sir John Oldcastle.
While watching a play or a film loosely based on history, the audience suspends its disbelief and gives the playwright or the film director a lot of leeway. (Bengali theatre-lovers will recall Utpal Dutt’s biting comment in his play Tiner Talwar that in Bengali plays every non-Bengali, from Alexander to Nadir Shah, spoke in pure Santipuri bangla, only Clive and the English acquired a peculiar accent while speaking in Bengali.)
There is one point, though, that needs to be borne in mind. It is that imagination should not be made to pass as history. Any film director or dramatist is free to create a love story around a Mughal Emperor and his wife or any other woman, and such a tale can indeed be very poignant. But the claim should not be made that this has basis in history.
In India, the problem is that the rather thick line separating history and story is often erased. If Persian and Rajasthani sources of the period do not mention a person called Jodhaabai as one of Akbar’s innumerable wives, it stands to reason that she was not a historical figure. She can figure as a character in a historical romance, but that is not the same as history. A love story with a historical setting cannot be read as history. Unfortunately, in India it often is.
In a country where comic books like Amar Chitra Katha take over the role of history books even in educated urban households, there is a need to carefully distinguish between fact and fiction. It is perhaps not unreasonable to argue that the claim to History in no way increases the popular appeal of Jodhaa Akbar.
To avoid confusion, the facts relevant to the issue need to be stated. In January 1562, Chaghatai Khan, a courtier close to Akbar, raised with the emperor the question of the exceptional loyalty shown by Raja Bihari Mal, the head of the Kachwaha clan. Chaghatai Khan took pains to point out that Bihari Mal was suffering at the hands of Mirza Sharaf al-Din (married to Akbar’s daughter Bakhshi Banu), who wanted to possess Amber, in Marwar, the seat of Bihari Mal’s ancestors. Bihari Mal was summoned to the emperor’s presence. According to the Akbarnama, Akbar’s “discerning glance read devotion and sincerity in the behaviour of the raja”, and the emperor elevated him to be one of the distinguished members of the court. To cement this political alliance, the raja offered his daughter in marriage to Akbar. The wedding was conducted with great fanfare and the daughter was placed in the royal harem. In 1570-71, Akbar married the niece of Raja Kalyan Mal of Bikaner, and the daughter of Raja Har Rai of Jaisalmer. None of the Rajput wives of Akbar was called Jodhabai or Jodhaabai.
So was there a Jodhabai or Jodhaabai in Mughal history? The nearest reference is to Jodhbai, the daughter of the Mota Rai Udai Singh of Jodhpur who married Akbar’s son, Salim, later emperor Jahangir, Akbar’s successor.
If the film’s Jodhaabai is supposed to be Jodhbai, then a hideous confusion has been perpetrated. If, on the other hand, Jodhaabai is a creature of the director’s imagination, then all claims to History should be denied.
This is not to make a case for the banning of the film. In fact, the film should not be banned at all. It is a question of how filmmakers should treat history and historical characters. There exists a good example of how cinema and history can be brought together. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi had historical characters — Wajid Ali Shah, Ali Naqi Khan, James Outram, the latter’s ADC and doctor. It also had many fictional characters, including the two protagonists. In depicting the historical characters and in the reconstruction of the historical setting, Ray took no liberties with history. Neither did he make the claim that this was history. The charm of the film came from the merging of the two elements.
It is often argued in India that distortions are permitted or can be ignored when history is brought out of the specialists’ discourse into the domain of the popular. All sorts of spurious arguments like the need for myth-making, the demands of nation-building, entertainment and artists’ freedom are brought to bear upon the issue.
Given its nature, history cannot be left to the specialists. History calls forth a general interest. To make history sacred has too many dangerous implications, especially in a country like India. History is free and should be so. But because it is free, it demands a profound sense of responsibility on the part of those who choose to use it. Distortions in the name of history, whether by historians, politicians, writers and filmmakers can only be a stain on Clio. History can be entertaining and popular without distortions and errors.