What Happens When We Learn about the Mughals from Movies, and Not Textbooks?

The decision to remove a chapter on the Mughals from history textbooks has been described by NCERT as rationalisation. Except there is little rational about what happens when it falls upon culture to keep history alive.
What Happens When We Learn about the Mughals from Movies, and Not Textbooks?

In Anegundi, the Northern bank of river Tungabhadra, opposite Hampi, there is a statue of Krishnadeva Raya, the 16th Century Vijayanagara king who expanded the empire to twice the size he inherited. Regal, lithe, and tall, like a filmic version of himself, it is impossible to look at this handsome statue and reconcile it with the description provided by travellers of that time — of medium height, fat rather than thin, pockmarked. But that is what time does, it sublimates life into memory and myth. And if there were no archives, no accounts of travellers, no diary entries or dream journals to set the record, then all we would have left would be these myths softened or hardened by age and its slimy prejudices. Myths we would consume, slowly but eventually, as facts — because no one can contradict a myth, and it becomes difficult to differentiate an incontrovertible myth from an impervious fact. Culture tends to have that effect. It can, for example, make us — through television, cinema, prayer paraphernalia, religious paintings  — think of Krishna, the god, as fair (or light blue), when his name literally means “the dark one”. 

While we came to the Mughals through the school curriculum — through the rushed details of taxation and wars, the many dates and chronologically memorised names — the historical figures congealed in our imagination through cinema and television, culture — Baiju Bawra (1952), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Jodha Akbar (2008), among others. So when the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s (NCERT) recently decided to remove a chapter on the Mughals from the history textbooks of Class XII students, what lingered on the periphery of all the justified outrage is the question of representation. If the Mughals slowly, but eventually leave our textbooks, all we have, remaining of them are the Mughals of our imagination, the myth formed by a drip feed of cultural productions that in turn romanticise and demonise this dynasty. 

It is impossible for the Mughals to entirely leave our imagination, given the architecture, literature, cuisines, clothing, storytelling, music and dance they have let loose upon the subcontinent. That image of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan dancing in the shadow of the Taj Mahal in Jeans (1998); Amitabh Bachchan trying to hug Chandragupta II’s Iron Pillar in the Qutb Complex, weeping, in Cheeni Kum (2007); Katrina Kaif and Aditya Roy Kapoor romancing in front of Humayun’s Tomb in Fitoor (2016); Kriti Sanon jogging around Lodhi Gardens in Shehzada (2023). 

The Mughals also — unlike the Vijayanagara kings, unlike most Hindu kingdoms — had an extensive archive. Babur wrote his autobiography with ripe details of mangos, nostalgia, and boys he had his eyes on. Akbar had Abul Fazl composing his biography, while Badauni wrote a counter-biography in secret, both surviving time. So the matter is not of whether Mughals will exit the imagination — they won’t, they simply can’t. The matter is about how their space in our imagination would become distended, with cinema pursuing its own mythologization and the academia receding its grip over the discourse. 

The historical is a fertile genre and the Mughal historical, all the more so. The success of Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018) sent producers scrambling to make the next big historical film. Karan Johar’s Takht — described by various people as the Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2002) of the Mughal era — was announced, then shelved. Then Om Raut’s Tanhaji (2020) earned success, validating the idea that building a historical Maratha hero on the backs of Mughal villainy might pay off. Let me rephrase that as the makers intended: The idea of building a historical Hindu hero on the backs of Muslim villainy mighty pay off. 

The evil and ruthless Uday Bhan (played by Saif Ali Khan) is used as a foil to the righteous Tanhaji, who is family oriented, loyal to his Maratha identity, and fights to avenge his father's death.
The evil and ruthless Uday Bhan (played by Saif Ali Khan) is used as a foil to the righteous Tanhaji, who is family oriented, loyal to his Maratha identity, and fights to avenge his father's death.

As the big screen yielded to the small screen, Disney+ Hotstar put out The Empire (2022), showcasing Babur as both violent and repentant, but also in love with India. There is a scene in which, after he wins the Battle of Panipat, he repeats the sweet words of his father, praising Hindustan. This, despite all we know of the contempt he felt for this new landscape, bringing in the architectural styles of his homeland to make this one feel more familiar. This desire to whitewash Babur in order to make him more palatable to the Right runs counter to the historical imperative of documenting things as they took place. To pursue the image of Babur as someone who took to Hindustan with the readiness of love is to deny him the humanity of an emperor who does not entirely vibe with his empire. When MX Player put out Chhatrasal, producing an Aurangzeb who is wicked and puritanical, deriving its force from Tanhaji’s success, the series followed a cultural script, one that needed to be pillaged by discerning voices. 

To see Hrithik Roshan as the hulking Akbar with a deep, kind voice in Jodha Akbar age into Naseeruddin Shah’s mousy Akbar with his irritable, gruff voice in Taj: Divided By Blood is to see what culture can do to the same historical figure. When we think of Akbar, will we imagine the 5’10’’ Prithviraj Kapoor, the 5’11’’ Hrithik Roshan, or the 5’7’’ Naseeruddin Shah? That Akbar was actually around Shah’s height is not relevant to culture as it is to history, and when the two butt heads, we know which skull crumbles first. 

We read the past through the present, and we explain the present through the past. In between this, what gets lost is the historical fact. Culture is always an interpretation. Which is why academia always chafes at it — questioning its intent, challenging its claims, complicating its certainties. What, then, happens when academia itself is made to recede? 

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