'RRR', 'Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy': Can fiction become fact in historical films?

With two big historical films due to release this year, the debate on the judicious meeting ground between fact and fiction is a very relevant one.
'RRR', 'Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy': Can fiction become fact in historical films?
'RRR', 'Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy': Can fiction become fact in historical films?

Finding the right balance between historical facts and fictional liberty in a mainstream film narrative is a tricky space. The filmmaker is often caught in a crossfire, between staying true to the story of the historical figure, pleasing the supposed-fan bases of the lead actor(s) and making the execution feel engaging at the same time.

What directors fail to gauge is the danger of fictional liberty being presumed as facts by the average spectator and how a particular film might be considered a piece of historical evidence by many future generations.

Given Tollywood is to produce two mainstream films RRR and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy based on the lives of legendary Telugu freedom fighters Alluri Seetharamaraju, Komaram Bheem, and Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy in quick succession, the debate around the judicious meeting ground between fact and fiction is very much on among filmgoers.

When fiction becomes fact

Cut to the 1974 blockbuster film Alluri Seetharamaraju, a biopic of the legendary Telugu freedom fighter, starring actors Krishna, Vijaya Nirmala and Jaggaiah in the lead roles. The writer of the film Tripuraneni Maharathi gave a fictional spin to the word Seetha in the legendary freedom fighter's name, attributing it to a woman who was deeply in love with Alluri and was also one who supposedly breathed her last when she was forcibly married to another gentleman. Alluri, who was called Rama Raju till then, firmly announces that he would henceforth be addressed as Seetha Rama Raju after her death (in memory of her).

Although Telugu spectators are well aware that this premise is only fictional, filmmaker SS Rajamouli's insistence that this is indeed a true chapter of Alluri's life at the press meet of RRR has created more ambiguity than clarity. The filmmaker said, “Alluri had a maradalu named Seetha (to be played by Alia Bhatt). They had romance in their lives before marriage,” and this statement hasn't gone well with historians and biographers, who claim that there is no historical evidence to say that Seetha had existed in the life of Alluri. Though Rajamouli had clearly said that the movie is a work of fiction involving real-life characters, the director ought to have got his facts right at the announcement, they feel.

A journalist, biographer and writer Goparaju Narayana Rao, who recently came up with the novel Akupaccha Suryodayam based on Alluri's life, says, “Veteran actor Krishna's film Alluri Seetharamaraju too had little or any historicity. Firstly, the Visakha tribals didn't have any people of the Koya tribe in their group. Alluri had only empowered the Bhagatha community to fight for our freedom. Seetha too is a character that didn't exist in Rama Raju's life. According to several accounts of British officers and civilians of the times, the freedom fighter was only addressed as Alluri Sri Rama Raju and not Seetha Rama Raju. It's our negligence for historical accuracy that we have held onto his wrong name to date. Also, SS Rajamouli's statement that Alluri had a romantic interest in his life is quite unfortunate. Maybe, the film industry doesn't value celibacy as much and I can even say, this is a case of character assassination.”

Besides, the RRR filmmaker had gone on to add that there are no accounts and evidence of the places that Komaram Bheem and Alluri had visited between 1920-21, but this doesn’t seem to be true either.

“There are enough documents that validate that Alluri was in Barrackpore and Calcutta during those years and had met the likes of political leader Surendranath Banerjee too,” Narayana Rao adds.

Meanwhile, a few historians claim that Komaram Bheem had spent the time during this phase in Assam. Rajamouli's claim that these years marked a definitive transformation in their lives is hard to buy, for the two freedom fighters had proven their leadership qualities among their respective communities by then.

Bringing historians to the table

Meanwhile, filmmaker Allani Sreedhar's biopic of Komaram Bheem (which released in 2010) isn't free of commercial liberties either. The film doesn't address the fact that there were multiple women in his life and makes only his outrage against the Nizam rule, its focus. This doesn't do much damage because the priority of the film is to show the larger contribution of Komaram Bheem to his people. In fact, it can be argued that the narrative's focus on his personal life could have proven counterproductive to the impact of the film.

Allani Sreedhar, is, however, a happy man now, after witnessing the attention surrounding Komaram Bheem post the announcement of RRR. While cautiously adding that the writers of RRR need to do some homework in preserving the sanctity of the people's leader, Sreedhar shares, “The world will know of the leader now; but what aspects will they come toknow about the leader are also important. I hope Rajamouli garu is successful in his pursuit. As the director of Komaram Bheem's biopic, I am quite happy that Google searches about Komaram Bheem are on an all-time high.”

In the latter half of 2019, all eyes will be set on the release of Chiranjeevi's most ambitious project to date, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, the biopic of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy which has a humungous star cast boasting the likes of Nayanthara, Tamannah, Vijay Sethupathi, Amitabh Bachchan and Sudeep in its lineup. It's also surprising that it took so long for filmmakers to make a film based on Narasimha Reddy, a pensioned Poligar of Uyyalavada in Koilkuntla Taluk, who was one of the earliest Telugu freedom fighters who lead a rebellion against the British East India Company. He had an army comprising over five thousand people in the 1840s before he was hanged to death.

Among the few popular accounts based on his life (besides a biography titled Renati Surya Chandrulu) is a novel Palegadu, written by Telugu writer SDV Aziz, that gives a concrete account of the freedom fighter's life leading to the rebellion, while not touching upon his personal life in great detail. In conversation with TNM, Aziz doesn't deny that filmmakers twist historical facts according to their convenience. However, he doesn't quite blame them for doing so.

“With a film, the directors are under pressure to provide the navarasas through a product. There's only basic information that history can provide but a filmmaker needs to build a world in those times. The cinematic liberty is necessary because of the emotional charge it needs to provide to the viewer,” Aziz reasons.

Aziz also advises filmmakers to bring historians and writers together to verify facts and the fictional liberties they could take for a particular story, prior to the shoot. “The script then would be true to facts and will also enjoy commercial appeal.”

Films like The Darkest Hour and Lincoln are instances where reality met certain fictional liberties and yet the films were largely well received in Hollywood by audiences and critics alike. Is this humble plea for a sound factual basis for films based on historical figures asking for too much in Tollywood?

Srivathsan, a journalist by profession and an explorer by choice, finds purpose to his life through the books he digs into and the stories he writes. A walk in the park with music gives him a sense of calm while catching movies at the theatres week after week is a ritual he can't get enough of.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute