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My local shopping mall multiplex mostly runs the usual big-budget action films and rom-coms, but one of its 18 theaters is dedicated to Bollywood films. So when I noticed that it was running a movie about Mohenjo-Daro, one of the cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, I decided I had to go and see it. Mohenjo Daro (2016, dir. Ashotush Gowariker, Hindi with English subtitles) is set in 2016 BC in a civilization that most people have never even heard of.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re interested in seeing this film, you should stop reading after my summary of the Indus Valley Civilization, because I discuss major plot points, including the resolution of the plot.


The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley was home to one of the first four great civilizations of the Old World. It emerged around 3300BC, so it was slightly younger than Sumeria and Egypt, but slightly older than China. At its peak, from about 2600 to 1900 BC, it may have had as many as 5 million inhabitants, making it much larger than those other three civilizations, and more than 1000 cities and town are known to have belonged to it. Although it possessed a written language, scholars have not yet been able to translate it, and consequently it is known purely through archeology.


The Indus Valley Civilization

As the name implies, the IVC developed along the banks of the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers, in what is today Pakistan. The cities of the IVC show considerable urban planning efforts, including a regular street grid, warehouses for goods, and most impressively of all, a sophisticated system of hydraulic engineering that provided running water, efficient sewers, public baths, and the world’s first flush toilets.

All of that suggests a complex urban government, but the nature of that government has largely eluded scholars so far. There is no evidence for temples, so it does not appear to have been a theocracy, nor is there evidence for palaces or large homes, which suggests that the cities did not have powerful monarchies or wealthy elites who monopolized the wealth. But there was considerable standardization of units of measure, such as weights and building bricks, across the IVC, suggesting that there was large-scale co-ordination of efforts. So scholars are divided as to whether there was a single over-arching government, a network of monarchies or religious leaders in individual cities, or some more egalitarian system we cannot currently work out.


Statue of a so-called ‘Priest-King’

The IVC is thought to have been the first culture to produce cotton, and may have been the first to domesticate chickens. There is evidence for fairly sophisticated dentistry. And they clearly traded with Mesopotamia and Egypt. They had a complex writing system of between 400 and 600 symbols, which were used on seals and pottery, but what these symbols mean or what function they played is unknown.


Seal with symbols and a ‘unicorn’

The IVC began to go into decline around 1800 BC, for reasons that are unclear. The best theory is connected to climate change. This theory holds that changes in the climate caused the monsoon that brings so much water to India to shift southward toward India proper. That would have caused the decline in the amount of water reaching the Sarasvati and Indus rivers. The Sarasvati also seems to have shifted its route, causes its water to drain into the Ganges watershed rather than the Indus. Accompanying these hydraulic changes may have been increasing salination to the soil, thus hurting the IVC’s ability to grow crops. There is also some evidence that violence may have been a factor. And archaeology suggests that Mohenjo-Daro, one of the IVC’s two best-excavated cities, may have been destroyed in a flood. One theory holds that the IVC population migrated eastward to the Ganges and helped lay the foundations for later Hindu culture.


The ‘Dancing Girl’ statue

Mohenjo Daro

Ashotush Gowariker was serious about trying to recreate some sense of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like. He consulted a half-dozen experts to get a sense of how the community’s architecture looked, and one scene takes place around what archeologists have called The Great Bath. His city has an upper and lower city, which roughly corresponds to the citadel that rose over the main city. There are only hints of what IVC clothing looked like, so Gowariker admits they simply made it up, but they tried to reflect surviving artifacts where possible; one character is dressed exactly as the statue of the ‘Priest-King’ is, and the Dancing Girl statue appears in one shot.


The Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro

Unfortunately, given that we cannot read the IVC script, the plot was made up wholesale (and to Gowariker’s credit, a prologue text admits as much). The plot turns on Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) a small-town indigo farmer who is drawn to Mohenjo-Daro by a strange dream involving a unicorn, which is the symbol of Sindha, the goddess of the local river. He meets Chaani (Pooja Hegde), the Chosen One of Sindha, and this being a Bollywood film, immediately falls in love with her and starts trying to win her hand.

But Chaani is engaged to marry Moonja (Arunoday Singh), the villainous son of Maham (Kabir Bedi), the ruler of Mohenjo-Daro. The city is governed by a Senate, made up of representatives of all the major occupations (farming, mining, merchants, weavers, etc). Maham is the chief of the Senate, something like an elected president. That’s not a totally implausible idea for a society that lacked the usual foundations for ancient government. Maham has dammed the Sindha river so that he can mine gold from the river bed, and he is using the gold to buy copper weapons from Sumeria and hire thugs to help impose his rule on the city by force, as part of a plot to destroy Harappa, the city that exiled him twenty years ago.


Sarman (Hrithik) courting Channi (Hegde)

All of this brings him into conflict with Sarman, who thinks that Maham’s taxation is immoral, so he starts to foment rebellion, while still finding time to sing and dance (this is Bollywood, after all) and romance the Chosen One. Eventually, he realizes that the arrival of the monsoon is going to cause the dam to burst, and so in addition to leading a revolution, he has to persuade everyone to flee the city and migrate to the Ganges river. This last sequence, in which the city is destroyed by a torrential flood, is really the high point of the film, and feels a great deal like a classic Cecil B. DeMille epic.

So while the film’s story is entirely fictitious, at least Gowariker made some effort to incorporate what is known about the IVC. The film has a tendency to project later Hindu practice back onto the IVC; both cultures revere rivers and cremate their dead, for example. And at the end of the film, Sarman leads his people to what he declares to be the Ganga (Ganges) river, explicitly positioning the Indus Valley Civilization as one of the foundations of Indian culture. But Hollywood is constantly projecting its values onto the past, so it’s hardly surprising that Bollywood does exactly the same.


Old vs New

What I find most interesting about Mohenjo Daro is the way it dramatizes, probably unintentionally, the clash between a traditional agricultural society and an increasingly sophisticated urban society that is embracing new technologies and long-range trade. Given that the IVC was probably in the middle of that transition, it is not impossible that some version of that tension existed at the time.


An artist’s idea of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like

Sarman represents a traditional pre-urban farming culture that is barely out of the Stone Age. Throughout the film, he favors wooden tools, rocks, and his bare hands, only briefly making use of copper or bronze weapons when he has no choice; late in the film his followers use spears tipped with sharpened stones. On some level, he is xenophobic. All his enemies are in some fashion foreign to Mohenjo-Daro; when he discovers that Maham is buying copper weapons from the Sumerians, his solution is to attack the Sumerian caravan and force them to stop trading with Mohenjo-Daro. And after living in Mohenjo-Daro, he discovers a secret about his past that intersects with Mohenjo-Daro’s past, so he is literally a representative of the past returned to the city to restore the way things used to be (at least until the flood wipes out the whole city and he is forced to lead the people to a new place).

In contrast, Maham and Moonja represent new technologies and practices. Maham uses the new idea of trading gold to acquire the new technology of copper weapons, and he, Moonja, and his cronies all use metal weapons, often in a  way that makes them explicitly villainous. He is a merchant, and wants to make Mohenjo-Daro powerful by trading with distant cultures like Sumeria, Mecca, and Bukhara, but his new practices are explicitly corrupt and abusive. Early in the film, Sarman and Moonja come into conflict because Moonja refuses to offer what Sarman deems a fair price for goods, so Moonja is comfortable with inflation and Sarman is not. Maham uses the new technology of damming to divert the river. Ultimately, the river (or perhaps the goddess Sindha) rejects this new practice, destroying both Maham and the city, while Moonja is killed with his own metal dagger.


You can tell Maham is a villain just from his hat

So the film seems to be appealing to a conservative, anti-modern sentiment, showing how the old ways are both morally better and more reliable, whereas new things are bad, corrupt, and unreliable.

Unfortunately, the film resorts to the tired cliché of the Woman as the Prize. Chaani would be right at home in most American films from the 1950s. Although the film asserts through a prophecy that Mohenjo-Daro’s survival rests on Chaani’s decisions, in fact at no point does she actually make a decision and she has no agency whatsoever. Instead, when Moonja decides to kill her because Sarman has found a way to break their engagement, she is simply helpless until Sarman runs to her rescue, and thereafter she is just his reward for overcoming all the hardships of the film. Bollywood cinema is quite conservative this way, so it’s not surprising, but it is rather boring and predictable.

Still, it’s a reasonably fun story in a setting you’ve never seen before, and at least on the level of the sets and art direction, it offers an approximation of what the Indus Valley Civilization might have been like. And the dance numbers are decent. Check it out.

Want to Know More?

The movie isn’t available on video yet.

If you want to know more about the Indus Valley Civilization, you might look at Gregory Possehl’s The Indus Civilization.