The impact of film and television in our lives cannot be summed up more perfectly than by looking at how a lot of people are looking at 2013. It marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I have a dream” speech. It also marks 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, an event that affected US foreign policy and, by extension, the world in more ways than people care to admit. But while news outlets, politicians and academic outlets are spending sufficient time looking at these (and other) important events – go and check out the recent New Statesman issues for some fantastic examples – the more common 50th anniversary that seems to be recognised this year is that of Doctor Who. This is not based on concrete data, mind you, but a quick look through social media and even the focus being provided by the BBC (admittedly, the network in charge of Doctor Who) is enough to prove that the Time Lord has a disproportionately large influence compared to the most famous figure in civil rights and a former US President.
This post is not a criticism of this situation. In fact, the only reason I mention this at all is to point out how big a deal cinematic media is in our lives. Given that importance then, what really is worrying is how little it is used to talk about the past. And with films being able to reach out to an extremely large group of people – certainly more than print media – they are an extremely important and criminally underused way of disseminating information. A specific problem is how studios in Asia (and Africa, though I cannot speak with much authority with regards to that continent) have yet to create a production that does justice to their rich histories.
Bollywood has had a decent track record when it comes to biopics. (It should be stressed that when I say biopics, I refer specifically to films that deal with actual individuals, rather than being inspired by them. This rules out the likes of Guru, for example.) The Legend of Bhagat Singh is a well-known example, as are the likes of Chak De India! (Mir Ranjan Negi) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Milkha Singh). However, one issue with these productions is their inevitable compliance with the norms of Indian mainstream cinema – namely, their use of song and dance. Yes, Bollywood films need songs scattered into the story itself to make them commercially viable. Unfortunately, what this does is damage the historical integrity of the plot. For instance, it makes it a little difficult to feel fully invested in the trial and execution of a war hero if he goes singing to his death. Still, at least India has produced such films. Enough biopics are made, along with films like Laage Raho Munnabhai (Mahatma Gandhi) and Rang De Basanti (various freedom fighters) which tell of the values and legacies of historical figures, to at least keep the populace informed of their heritage. Whether they actually fulfil the purpose of being biopics is debatable.
Bangladesh and Pakistan, however, have completely failed when it comes to telling their histories through film. You would be hard-pressed to name a biopic made in these countries without the help of Google. Part of the problem lies in the political climate prevalent in these nations. Figures like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, both of whom deserve to have large-scale film productions made based on their lives, are also politically divisive. To make a film that positively portrays Mujib, for instance, would only be possible when the Awami League government is in power. While this reality is one that people have accepted – or at least become resigned to – it still does not make artistic ventures any easier. A similar problem lies with Pakistan. There is, however, no excuse for the lack of films made about less controversial figures. For example, if a film about Belal Muhammad, the co-founder of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, is ever made, it would not create any issues on either side of the aisle. If anything, a film about Muhammad would be a true asset to historical narratives as he has not had the same level of scrutiny he merits. And yet his life, like the lives of so many others, is still ignored in cultural representations of history. Ironically, India has recently beaten Bangladesh to the punch by making a film about the Chittagong uprising led by Surya Sen, another figure who would cause no problems were he to be the focus of a local production.
You could argue that the West – I say this because Hollywood is too narrow a group – should take on the challenge to tell these stories, just as they did with Gandhi and will be doing again soon with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. After all, they have the resources and it would be a refreshing way to solve the lack of original stories available nowadays. However, the problem with that solution is that the West cannot tell our stories without taking the wrong kind of artistic license. Take Gandhi for instance. The British production gave a lot of screentime to the fictional character of Vince Walker, portrayed by Martin Sheen. Not all of Gandhi’s friends and allies were Indian, but sacrificing the screentime of figures like Bal Gangadhar Tilak or Lala Lajpat Rai in favour of a Caucasian journalist highlights a major flaw in Western productions. Namely, how there is always a need for a recognisable heroic ‘self’ even in stories set in locations and time periods that are very far removed. It is understandable for films to show nationalistic and political bias – such as the overwhelming anti-slavery in Lincoln – or oversimplify narratives – such as the shortened timeline in The King’s Speech. However, the problem with the West making films about the rest of the world is that the bias can shift away from the actual heroes and their backgrounds. (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom might not fall to the same problem, but that still remains to be seen.)
This is nothing to say of the fact that Western productions are far more likely to cast their own stars rather than pick actors from the countries where the films themselves are set. Brit Idris Elba is to play Nelson Mandela, while another British actor, Ben Kingsley, played Gandhi. Although, to be fair to them, the same casting situation arises when you look at biopics about Western personalities – American Meryl Streep played Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady), British Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln), and Australian Eric Bana and Canadians Taylor Kitsch and Alexander Ludwig will play US Navy Seals (Lone Survivor). Being able to act – and draw crowds – is the main criteria and one that cannot really be faulted.
However, it is impractical and, frankly, lazy to expect other countries to tell our stories for us. We spend enough time as it is complaining – mostly justified – about colonial influence and the ongoing dominance of Western hegemony. It is high time we take our destiny in our own hands and finally show the world where we come from. This is our history; shame on us if we do not share it with others because if we don’t, who will?