By Murtaza Ali Khan
An intriguing film, essentially a documentary-style feature length drama, about the convenience of rewriting history to suit selfish interests is currently doing rounds of the festival circuit. Directed by a French-American filmmaker, named Nicolas Chevaillier, Victor’s History revolves around a proud son, Victor, who hires an African-Vietnamese investigative journalist, Dorian and an Indian documentary filmmaker, Zuhair in a bid to try and immortalize his late father by making a film about his great achievements. He firmly believes that his father deserves a permanent place in the annals of history. So, the three men travel across France, hoping to capture Victor’s family legacy in a most appealing and presentable manner. But, during the course of the documentary shoot, a dark reality emerges that threatens to destroy the legacy of Victor’s father. The film that Victor has in his mind is supposed to celebrate his father’s greatness and not expose his follies. Determined to keep it buried along with the other family secrets, Victor tries to bribe both Dorian and Zuhair, urging them to get rid of the newly found evidence and help him rewrite a glorious history for his family. Victor’s History raises several important questions about the ethics of documenting reality. Photographed by an Indian film producer, Shoaib Lokhandwala, who also plays the part of Zuhair, Victor’s History was recently screened at the Siri Fort Auditorium as part of the 9th Jagran Film Festival. According to Lokhandwala, the film is an endeavor to expose the endless attempts made by the governments across the globe to tamper with history, and in India’s case to rewrite it completely, so as to fulfill their political ambitions.
Consider a scene in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavaat wherein Alauddin Khilji is shown destroying official historical records that don’t mention his name. “I want history to remember only me,” he tells Amir Khusrow. Earlier in the film when Alauddin declares himself the emperor of Delhi Sultanate, Khusrow himself makes it obvious that history is meant to exalt the victors. When a courtier reminds a triumphant Alauddin that history will never forgive him for murdering his uncle Jalal-ud-din, Khusrow answers back in Alauddin’s defense, “History will term it the need of the hour.” Interestingly, the title of Chevaillier’s film, ‘Victor’s History’ also points to the same tradition of history favoring the legacies of the victors. Bhansali, who has been on the hit list of the right-wing fringe groups ever since he made Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, is said to have played it safe with Padmaavat. He has been accused of trying to appease the right wing by making a film that portrays Alauddin Khilji, a Muslim ruler, as an outright villain. But are the accusations really true? What are Bhansali’s true intentions? Is he merely interested in showing us how Alauddin Khilji tampered with India’s history about seven centuries back or his real interest lies in exposing how the right wing is trying to rewrite history in a bid to bolster their idea of nationalism driven by the Hindutva agenda?
Now, a recent report by Reuters revealed that the Indian government quietly appointed a committee of scholars in 2016 to rewrite history by proving that the Hindus descended from India’s first inhabitants several thousand years ago. As far as the right wing is concerned, this will go a long way in perpetuating the Hindu supremacy over people belonging to other religions, the so-called outsiders. Also, governments in the BJP ruling states have been regularly accused of trying to fiddle with historical text books. A 2017 report by Hindustan Times highlights how the textbooks in Rajasthan don’t mention that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister. Also, there is no mention of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. There have also been attempts to alter the course of historical battles in the favor of Hindu rulers. If that’s not enough, Haryana now has new moral science books authored by an RSS-backed scholar. But, this is not just a local phenomenon. For, this is happening around the world. As per a recent report by the Washington Post, the right-wing government in Poland is making similar efforts to rewrite the history in an attempt to project itself as hero. Similar accusations have been made with regards to the Communist party government in China and the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, there are several other examples as well.
Going back to Lokhandwala’s comment about Victor’s History, one can now try and put it in the right perspective. Just like Victor is desperate to project his father as a hero, the political parties are driven by a desire to perpetuate their political supremacy in the eyes of their voters. Through the microcosm of an affluent European family, Chevaillier is trying to show us the bigger picture. And, just like Bhansali, he too does it through symbolism. While playing with facts isn’t something new, it has become easier than ever today. In fact, the technology has become so good today that you can easily create fake archival material that looks as authentic as the real stuff. And the opportunistic ruling regimes across the world are making most of it. Also, the thing about lies is that they are not only damaging but they are also contagious. There is a scene in Victor’s History wherein Victor insists that his mother must stay out of the documentary at all costs. “I want the documentary to be about a man and not a husband.” To justify himself, he talks about how the wives of Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X have been historically insignificant. And, he says it with such surety that one is tempted to believe him despite knowing better. That’s the power of a lie! If you say it loudly and with conviction, it begins to sound like a truth. But when you write it on a piece of paper and start circulating it around, then it actually becomes the truth, at least for the posterity.
Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He has also contributed to The Hindu, The Quint, Wittyfeed, etc. He is on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel News X.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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