It was November 2014, more than a year after Jatt and Juliet 2, and the Punjabi film industry was growing. One film — Chaar Sahibzaade — stood out. It had all the makings of a failure when seen from a commercial perspective.
The average budget of a Punjabi film was about Rs. 2-3 crore but Chaar Sahibzaade cost nearly Rs. 20 crore. The scene was dominated by slapstick comedies but this one had a historical-religious theme at its core. It was also an animated film — a format for which there was nearly no market and a high risk. To complicate matters, most of the voice actors remained anonymous. And the film was by a director whose filmography largely boasted of romance/action flicks.
Despite all of that, Chaar Sahibzaade achieved unprecedented success, and eventually went on to become a trendsetter. It earned more than Rs. 70 crores, unheard of for a Punjabi movie.
A unique experiement
Films that dealt with the sensitive topic of religion in a non-hagiographic manner were rare. Films that chose to do so in animation format even rarer. More importantly, it also presented a modus vivendi on exploring the history of a religion through cinema while making it engaging to a lay viewer. In that sense, Harry Baweja’s Chaar Sahibzaade was a unique experiment.
“It was purely a passion-driven, rather than a profit-driven venture,” says Baweja, speaking to Leading Newspaper. “I began researching the topic in 2009, with the intention of bringing the history of Sikhism to celluloid in 4-5 parts. There was no precedent for such a movie and getting approval from the lead authority on this, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), was a challenging task. We had to narrow down to a few topics that could be shown, the themes for which we could obtain their permission.”
The film, set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, depicts a few episodes in the life of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru, and his four sons, Ajit Singh, Jujhar Singh, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh. “According to Sikh philosophy, it is forbidden to show a human being impersonating any of the Gurus or his family-members. Hence, we could only make it in animation format,” says Baweja.
He adds, “The film was centralised on the Guru, but we couldn’t show him in movement. There lay the challenge: of creating a movie without keeping it too static.”
Circumventing the challenge
Baweja circumvented this by showing the objects and people around the Guru — including his horse and his beloved hawk — in movement. The use of Om Puri as the sutradhar (narrator) also played a major role in keeping the thrill-quotient alive during battle scenes. That Baweja had some of best animation artistes also helped. “Among the most-loved scenes of the film is of the First Battle of Anandpur where the Guru kills Painda Khan with the shot of a bow.” The Guru is only visible in images but the intensity is not compromised. He first wards off Khan’s arrow with a sword (the sword is shown in movement in a frame where the Guru is not visible). He is then shown preparing his move in two static shots and then firing the arrow. The arrow is shown moving, hitting and killing Khan. “Here, the viewer gets accustomed to not seeing the Guru in movement but, at the same time. deciphering his actions,” says Baweja.
The film’s primary focus is on the martyrdom of the Guru’s four sons. “There were family tales of other Gurus as well but the sacrifice of Guru Gobind Singh’s four sons provided the most dramatic topic, one about which we have studied in our school-days but forgotten,” he says.
The history behind Sikhism
Guru Nanak, whose egalitarian philosophy forms the bedrock of the religion, was born in 1469. It was the period of the Bhakti movement when orthodoxy, idol worship and the rigid elements of both Hinduism and Islam were being challenged. Satish Chandra, historian of Medieval India, says Nanak did not have the intention of founding a new religion. His approach, Chandra says, was aimed at bridging the distinction between members of the two dominant religions, “in order to create an atmosphere of peace, goodwill and mutual interaction”.
However, like other credos of the Bhakti movement, such as those of Kabir, Nanak’s ideas were bound to pose a challenge to the ossified traditions espoused by the rulers of the age and hence come into conflict with the latter.
Guru Gobind Singh’s position is unparalleled in the pantheon of Sikh Gurus as it is under him that the military-spiritual brotherhood or the Khalsa Panth was found in 1699, giving the faith a political outlook. Out of necessity, the philosophy also acquired the form of an armed opposition to stave off attempts at annihilation from the Mughals, and to provide a protective environment where a new social order in Punjab could be nurtured. The killing of his four sons, through deceit and dishonesty, by the faujdar of Sirhind Wazir Khan, was an attempt by a section of the Mughals —then led by Aurangzeb — to silence opposition to their authority.
Chaar Sahibzaade’s sequel, Rise of Banda Singh Bahadur, will chronicle the tale of Banda Singh, Guru Gobind Singh’s disciple, who takes forward the latter’s struggle for truth and justice and also avenges the death of his four sons. “We got encouragement to make the sequel two-three months after the first film’s release,” Baweja says.
Speaking about Sikh history, Baweja corrects the assumption that records on the history of the religion are widely available. “The Sikhs were constantly being hounded by invaders from the west. The latter would make it a point to destroy many available records and hence, most of what we know are from third-person sources. It is probably only from the period of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that Sikh history, as documented in first person, is widely available.”
The historical-religious theme as a sub-genre
Films with historical-religious themes form a sub-genre of their own. Some, such as the Tamil films Thiruvilayadal and Saraswathi Sabadam, valorise the deeds of a particular god/goddess by narrating some miracles performed by him/her. Some like the Sirkazhi Govindarajan-starrer Agasthiyar and Gulzar’s Meera, establish the power of a learned devotee to establish connection with the divine.
There is another category of films, whose premise rests on a god/goddess making an appearance in the modern age to alleviate the sufferings of a beloved devotee. Jai Santoshi Maa — which released on the same day as Sholay and became a blockbuster — and the Gulshan Kumar movies of the 90s like —come under this category. However, a lot of such cinema, in the absence of authentic documentation, is premised on myth.
However, if there is one movie whose approach Chaar Sahibzaade looks to be closely following, it is that of Moustapha Akkad’s The Message, a 1976 film on the birth of Islam. The film’s aim, documenting the birth and propagation of Islam in the sixth and seventh centuries, is achieved primarily through reaction shots, by presenting the verses of Koran as recited through the Prophet’s companions like Hamza. Further, the role of the narrator is prominent. In addition, though the Koran forms the core, a largely non-didactic approach is adopted. And just like The Message, Chaar Sahibzaade sets an example for treading the terrain of religion through cinema, making the end product accurate as well as relatable.
Chaar Sahibzaade, which initially faced difficulties in getting released even in the Punjab, ended up being screened due to popular demand in 40 countries — including non-traditional markets like Southeast Asia and South America. Baweja plans to make Rise of Banda Singh Bahadur get an even-wider release in more than 50 countries. “I made the films as a way of connecting to my roots; it was my attempt to look at Sikhism, a religion about which knowledge is not very widespread,” he says.
Source : The Hindu