It Could Happen to You

Why is everyone so hostile to Mohenjo Daro?

Is it because we are all historians now?

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  5-minute read |   21-08-2016
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It was a movie for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Ashutosh Gowarikar's Mohenjo Daro. I went in with no expectations and came out with a singular question: why is everyone so hostile to Mohenjo Daro?

A colleague of mine was fuming recently: "Do you know that the movie shows horses? Horses came only with the Aryans. And Mohenjodaro means Mound of the Dead. No city would call itself that, would it? That's what local people called the ruin before it was discovered in the 20th century."

Oh, really? But did we even blink when Elizabeth Taylor pronounced in the classic 1963 Cleopatra, "I am Egypt"?

It should have been "I am Kemet", for the sake of historical authenticity. Kemet (or the Black Land, from the dark soil of the Nile) is what ancient Egyptians called their country, after all. (And we don't even know what Mohenjodaroans called themselves.)

Also read: Akshay Kumar best thing about Rustom; Mohenjo Daro was okay

Scholarly reviews

It took guts to go and watch the film. For, our scholarly film reviewers had, one and all, heaped scorn on it already - in the name of history: "Mohenjo Daro is another grim reminder of how Bollywood skewers history" (Daily O); "Tries the audience's patience" (The Hindu); "They Were Dark and Short! A History Buff Analyses Mohenjo Daro" (The Quint); "Ashutosh Gowariker, why are your characters calling their city 'mound of the dead'?" (The Indian Express); and "Historic blunder" (The Telegraph).

I looked for courage across the seas. Even Hollywood's history films rarely match a professional historian's sense of history. There, too, gods, goddesses, Greeks and Romans, speak with an American accent, dinosaurs fight with cavemen 60 million years after they disappear, and the Queen of Nile becomes a porcelain-skinned, gold lamé-clad English rose.

Yet they win multiple Oscars and huge box-office success. What's more, I have always enjoyed those films.

Shame, I enjoyed

And, I'm ashamed to say, I enjoyed Gowarikar's Mohenjo Daro: who can take away from the romance of a lost civilisation that takes the history of India to almost 9,000 years from today?

Who can resist the thrill of imagining a past that makes us one of the first, smartest and most innovative people to populate the planet?

I completely agree with Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay, the archeologist who first discovered Mohenjodaro from beneath a Buddhist stupa in Larkana (and whose English boss later took all the credit, dismissed him and forbade him to enter Mohenjodaro ever again).

He wrote in his Bangla historical romance, Pashaner Katha (A Stone Speaks): "The past has not left its remains arranged layer by layer for your convenience… I am a witness of past eras, take my word for truth. If I had the ability to measure time, then, like you, I would have calculated the year, the month, the day… If I had eyes, then I would have said, I have seen, in person…"

Also read: Nastiest review of Mohenjo Daro (without even watching the film)

History's poverty

As for history, where's really the blunder? If you say, the film shows iron weapons, Gowarikar could, just as well, say they are bronze.

Mohenjodaro is known to be the largest Bronze Age city in the world. Early on, the Indus people used weapons made of stone and copper. But 4015 years ago (2016 BC in Gowarikar's film), Mohenjodaro was definitely using bronze weapons. Hey, remember the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro? She is made of bronze.

No. Gowarikar does not show horses. They come in as a novelty, animals brought in by traders from the distant Middle-East, that the people of Monhenjodaro had never seen.

According to archeologist Gregory Possehl, one of the greatest authorities on Mohenjodaro, domestic horses were not found there but horses were brought in by outsiders.

Weren't the Indus people "dark and small"? So what's a good-looking fella like Hrithik Roshan doing there?

Oh, come on, if Hollywood can whitewash ancient Egypt all the time - Ten Commandments to The Mummy - what's your problem?

mohenjo-embed_082116060831.jpg Mohenjodaro is known to be the largest Bronze Age city in the world.

(And, secondly, what's this whiff of racism? Tamils and Bengalis should protest, because all South Asians are considered "dark and small" compared to white-skinned Caucasians, Roshan included. Just visit one of those countries.)

Gowarikar could actually cite research and say, the Indus Valley civilisation had a cosmopolitan population in its cities, thanks to huge commercial links and migrations, hence a lot of racial intermingling.

Take the bronze Dancing Girl again. While indologist Mortimer Wheeler thought she had Baluchi-style features, ECL During Casters suggested Nubian from ancient Sumeria.

Ok. So why do they call their own bustling, thriving city the Mound of the Dead? Well, Gowarikar could say the film begins with a gobbledygook language (acknowledgment of the lost Indus language) which transforms into Hindi, as a metaphor. So who knows what they called their city? It's Mohenjodaro for people like you and me.

Also read: Mohenjo Daro makes historians cringe, Hindutva bigots proud

Only the trailer

Strangely, I realise now, most reviewers (in their race to hit the headlines first) have actually just seen the little movie trailer (and some internet leaks). And not the actual movie.

Hence, they have raised points that are irrelevant or outright wrong. Most of them have actually confessed to that crime somewhere in their pieces, though. Pundits who teach and write about film and culture, and look for the hidden messages of popular films, often say: cinema is a product of history but also a shaper of history.

To me, it seemed, Gowarikar wanted to speak to the moment - to a nation that's tortured about its past, present and future. The trailer clearly failed the man - and everybody else.


Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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