Starting December, Bollywood will hark back to the past to create a bunch of large-screen spectacles that it hopes will draw crowds to theatres in an era where video streaming services have restricted entertainment to hand-held devices.
As soon as next week, Arjun Kapoor, Kriti Sanon, and Sanjay Dutt will be seen in Ashutosh Gowariker’s war film Panipat. A week later, Mammootty brings Malayalam period action film Mamangam that will be dubbed in Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi. Less than a month later, Ajay Devgn plays a Maratha warrior in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, while Sanjay Leela Bhansali has already announced two period films, Gangubai Kathiawadi and Baiju Bawra.
Meanwhile, Deepika Padukone will co-produce and play Draupadi in an adaptation of the Mahabharat from the female lens, while Akshay Kumar will feature as king Prithviraj Chauhan in a Yash Raj Films production.
The primary reason for the focus on historicals, industry experts say, has to do with the inherent appeal of stories that are well known and entrenched in audience’s memory.
“As filmmakers and content companies, we are always looking for stories that come with some sort of assurance or are established," said Shibasish Sarkar, group chief executive officer, Reliance Entertainment, which is distributing Panipat worldwide.
This could translate into either remakes of popular films, several of which are lined up, including Pati Patni Aur Woh, Coolie No.1, Laxmmi Bomb, Jersey, and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, or adaptations of novels or biopics such as Thalaivi in which Kangana Ranaut plays Jayalalithaa, Shakuntala Devi-Human Computer where Vidya Balan plays the lead, and Sardar Udham Singh, in which Vicky Kaushal features as the titular freedom fighter.
“There is always a connect with historicals because they are not fiction," Sarkar said, crediting the monster success of war epic franchise Baahubali, which though fictional, combined a costume drama with a mythological and historical setting, made more than ₹1,700 crore worldwide and is the highest grossing Indian film of all time.
Other superhits, this year alone, include Kangana Ranaut-starrer Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari, which earned ₹90.81 crore and ₹151.87 crore respectively.
Indians know a lot of these mythological and historical tales like the back of their hand and it is exciting for directors to come up with their individual takes and perspectives of stories that audiences are likely to relate easily, if told well, according to film trade and exhibition expert Girish Johar.
The other big advantage of historicals is that they are larger-than-life spectacles that necessitate big screen viewing at a time when video streaming services have restricted several stories to the comfort and convenience of hand-held devices at home.
All of the films mentioned above, Johar said, would definitely be capital intensive projects with budgets exceeding ₹100 crore, depending on the individual director’s vision.
“If you’re looking to tick the large-scale box when making a film, a historical is always a good opportunity to create a spectacle though it’s a highly expensive exercise and not up everyone’s alley," Sarkar said.
Historicals often run the risk of inciting protests and objections, as in the case of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, but they are equally capable of giving big returns, Johar said.
“When done right, historicals have often gained global recognition, right from the time of Mughal-e-Azam to, most recently, Padmaavat. But as films such as Mohenjo Daro show, they can also go wrong. As audiences know the story, they want all the details to be convincing," he said.