There's something about the past. We romanticise it, we look back on it with anger and we hope to learn from it by recounting the stories contained in history. The past has not only offered a treasure trove of stories for filmmakers, but the way bygone events and eras are recreated often helps to hold a mirror to present-day society. Here are 10 films that explore the past, offer perspective upon the present and leave you a little bit wiser (or so we hope).
Directed by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi follows the life of Mahatma Gandhi, our very own father of the nation. Written by John Briley and starring Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the movie won eight Academy Awards and five Golden Globe Awards. The National Film Development Corporation of India sponsored $10 million for the movie's production. Especially since Hollywood films of the past had presented India and Indians as exotic clichés, Gandhi was widely praised for its attention to historical detail and the way it depicted both India and the Indian independence movement.
Director and producer Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List follows industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved 1,100 Jews from being killed at the concentration camp in Auschwitz. While it ended up being a mission for Schindler, initially all he wanted to do was make sure his Jewish workforce in German-occupied Poland wasn't too badly affected by World War II. Among the many memorable scenes in the film is the one with the "red coat girl" (Oliwia Dabrowska), whose parents were made to promise Spielberg that she wouldn't watch the film until she turned 18 years old. (She ended up watching the film when she was 11 and was appalled).
Another Spielberg film, Amistad is about the revolt of Mende captives aboard a Spanish ship. After the vessel is seized off the coast of Long Island, a controversy is sparked in the United States where it falls upon the courts to decide whether the Mende are slaves or free individuals. The movie stars Nigel Hawthorne, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, and Matthew McConaughey. Hounsou as Cinque has an iconic moment when he stands up in court and says, "Give us free!"
Set in 1947, in the midst of the India-Pakistan Partition, the movie chronicles the lives of a group of working-class friends as they find their way through communal violence, loss and betrayal, and love. The movie is directed by Deepa Mehta and stars Aamir Khan, Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna. This film featured Khan in his first negative role, for which he received much praise. Earth is the second movie in Mehta's Elements trilogy, with Fire (1996) as the first and Water (2005) as the last. An endearing scene is when Shanta (Nandita Das) flattens a kite on her head like a cap, following which Dil Navaz (Aamir Khan) teaches her how to fly it.
The movie is based on Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman's autobiography, The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 (1946), but also includes several autobiographical elements from director Roman Polanski's own life. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) along with his family is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and he is later separated from his family. His survival has as much to do with luck as resilience and his determination to survive. In real life, Szpilman's autobiography was suppressed by Communist authorities in Poland and it was Polanski's film that brought Szpilman back into the spotlight.
Indian cinema was conceived with Dadasaheb Phalke's endeavour to create Raja Harishchandra (1913), India's first feature-length, black and white silent film. Harishchandrachi Factory, directed by Paresh Mokashi, is a Marathi-language film that recreates the making of Phalke's film. In 2009, it became India's official entry to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film Category. It was the second Marathi film after Shwaas (2004) to be granted this honour. In the film, we see him fall for the allure of cinema as he watches a silent film accompanied by a live orchestra. That's when he starts dreaming of making movies.
Based on 12 Years a Slave (1853), a memoir by American abolitionist Solomon Northup, the movie follows his struggle for freedom. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film, set in the pre-Civil War United States, shows how Northup went from being a free Black man to a slave for 12 years. His life changes after a meeting with a Canadian abolitionist.
It was also in 2013 that the hashtag Black Lives Matter became a slogan, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the accused in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Neerja Bhanot was a purser who passed away while protecting the passengers on Pan Am Flight 73, which had been hijacked by terrorists. She was shot while assisting travellers to escape via the emergency exits. Directed by Ram Madhvani and starring Sonam Kapoor as Neerja Bhanot, the movie depicts the events of that horrifying flight. Jim Sarbh made his film acting debut with Neerja. Rama Bhanot's (Shabana Azmi) speech in the movie is sure to move one to tears so keep the tissues handy.
Directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving is about Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), who were arrested for interracial marriage in the American state of Virginia in the Sixties. This initiated a legal battle that ended with the landmark 1967 ruling of the Supreme Court that declared any law prohibiting interracial marriage violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. Nichols chose to spend very little of the film's screen time in the courtroom and this brings home how the Lovings ended up experiencing the court case — from afar. Their fate was at the mercy of a process of which they had little knowledge.
Directed by Shoojit Sircar and starring Vicky Kaushal, Sardar Udham focuses on the 20 years that revolutionary Udham Singh spent plotting the assassination of Michael O'Dwyer, former lieutenant governor of Punjab. O'Dwyer was a key figure in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar which led to the death of 379 people and left 1,200 injured in 1919. This film was Sircar's first biopic and included an extended scene that recreated the horror of the massacre. Through its critique of the British colonial government, Sardar Udham raises pertinent questions about dissent and the abuse of power by figures of authority.