India has multiple cinema industries just as it has a multitude of languages. Punjabi and Hindi in the North, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Odiya and Assamese in the East, Marathi in the West, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu in the South. Despite this diversity of tongues, cinema in South Asia suffers from a near-universal lack of imagination. This is a mystery given the ocean of subjects film-makers can draw upon – history, culture, religion, politics, folklore and mythology. The great majority revolve around a handful of themes – Indian nationalism, the romantic escapades of elite and middle class Indians, Hindu mythology, and organized crime. There are honourable exceptions. But they are exceptions which prove the rule. Even when Indian film-makers venture into the unknown, they seem unable to shed the psychological baggage attached to South Asian cinema.

A good example is the recently released film ‘Gautamiputra Satakarni’ in Telugu by director Krish Jagarlamudi. It received high praise from both critics and viewers for utilizing a slice of ancient Telugu history (the life and times of Gautamiputra Satakarni, one of the great dynasts of the Satavahana lineage who ruled over Telugu country) as the theme. Krish constructed a grand narrative around the monarch, relying on the time-tested elements of love, family honour, Telugu pride and Indian nationalism. The reviews were shy to admit the divergence between the protagonist of the film and his historical counterpart. Something that could have been ignored had the director not gone around boasting of the extensive research he carried out before making the movie. This is a most untenable claim.

This habit of bragging about painstaking analysis while substituting facts with myth and fantasy has landed many an Indian director in trouble. I will cite more instances later. It is the ignorance of viewers and the indulgence of critics that allows them the opportunity to keep repeating such claims. Here is a list of debatable points from the film ‘Gautamiputra Satakarni’ as reported in the newspapers:

  1. The Satavahanas being Telugu kings instead of being the kings of Telugus.
  2. Kotilingala (in Telangana) being the capital of the Satavahana domain instead of Pratisthana (in Maharashtra).
  3. The Satavahanas and their foes using modern stirrups (a critical component of mounted warfare that was introduced from Central Asia at a much later date than the dynasty’s reign).
  4. Gautamiputra Satakarni fighting Demetrius (who lived hundreds of years apart) instead of his Scythian and Greek contemporaries.

I am yet to see the film. The use of history as a backdrop for film-making is a most welcome development in an industry overly reliant on predictable formulas and jaded stars for box office success. From that perspective, ‘Gautamiputra Satakarni’ is a breath of fresh air. It would have been even better if the director had been a touch more honest and humble in his statements, before and after the release.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons, credited to Soham Banerjee, and based on a relief from the famous Amaravati Stupa (a grand monument closely associated with Buddhism, Telugu history and Satavahana rule).