A still from Bohemian Rhapsody trailer.(YouTube)
A still from Bohemian Rhapsody trailer.(YouTube)

The Taste With Vir: How close to reality is a TV show or a movie based on true events?

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi speaks about films and TV shows based on true events, but what about one that distorts the truth but goes on to become one of the year’s biggest hits and earns an Oscar for its star?
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON APR 05, 2019 02:28 PM IST

Can a movie or a TV show that claims to be based on true events ever be an accurate representation of what actually happened? Well, the first problem is the age-old Rashomon syndrome.

Everyone sees things differently. And as most such movies are based on one person’s perspective, others who were around at the time may feel they were misrepresented or that the events went down differently.

Let’s take The Accidental Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru’s memoir of his time in Manmohan Singh’s PMO. When the book came out, many people who were mentioned in the narrative said that their recollection was different. That’s fair enough: you would expect that to be the case. Each of us sees things differently.

But when the movie of The Accidental Prime Minister came out earlier this year, there were howls of derisive laughter because nobody (not even Baru himself judging by the book) remembered things that way. The defence of the film’s producers (to the extent that they had a defence) was that a movie cannot be a documentary. Certain corners have to be cut to take a story forward in just two hours of screen time.

It is not an invalid defence and may have worked had the film not been a piece of shoddily made propaganda. By the end, Congressmen were privately joking that they wished the movie did not flop and remained in the cinemas because everybody needed a good laugh.

When a film that plays fast and loose with the fact fails, nobody pays much attention. But what about one that distorts the truth but goes on to become one of the year’s biggest hits and earns an Oscar for its star?

Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen movie received abusive reviews when it came out because it was badly made (except for the Live Aid section at the end) and misrepresented the facts. But viewers did not care. It will remain up there with Mamma Mia as a huge musical fantasy hit.

One reason why Bohemian Rhapsody took so long to make was that nobody was sure what version of the story to tell. According to Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Ali G etc.), the band wanted a movie in which Freddie Mercury (the lead character who Cohen was supposed to play) died of AIDS at the end of the first half. The second half would be about how plucky Brain May, Roger Taylor and the rest kept the band going.

Cohen walked out. A script written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen, The Crown etc.) was handed in but it got ignored till the band finally settled on the narrative on which the movie is based.

Apart from the many minor (and not so minor) inaccuracies, the plot hinges around the notion that Queen had more or less split up, that Freddie was already suffering from AIDS and that the Live Aid concert was the climax of their career.

None of this is true. The band had not split up. They had kept releasing albums. The year before Live Aid they had played Sun City defying the anti-apartheid ban. And, as far as we know, Freddie had not yet been diagnosed with AIDS. Nor was Live Aid any kind of climax: they continued to churn out hits after that show.

But here’s the thing: does all of this matter?

Was the movie meant to be a biopic of Freddie Mercury or was it just an excuse to play the hits again (as Mamma Mia was to ABBA)?

Viewers seem to have inclined to the second view. Yeah, well, they have made up a lot of the story but, so what? It is fun to watch. The concert performances are realistic and we see the Freddie we remember from TV and the videos? What else matters?

Fair enough. When Oliver Stone made a serious biography of Jim Morrison and called it The Doors, nobody cared because it was too serious. Bohemian Rhapsody, on the other hand, was a jukebox musical that left you feeling good.

Similar questions swirl around Delhi Crime, a new Netflix show loosely based on the events surrounding the Nirbhaya rape. There is much to like about the show. It is well-shot, many of the performances are excellent and a large part of it captures the ethos of a certain kind of Delhi.

Speaking purely as a viewer, I thought there were a few false notes in the dialogues. (Do DCP’s really say things like “Don’t blow smoke up any ass” to colleagues especially when the show uses both Hindi and English?) And the writing collapses by the end making the last few episodes dull and boring.

But that’s just my view and anyway, I am more impressed by the fact that a streaming service was willing to commit time and resources to an Indian story and make a world class show.

However, the controversy around the show does not have to do with its quality. It has to do with its veracity. Already one policeman who believes he has been poorly portrayed in the show has threatened legal action.

Delhi Crime walks a tight line between truth and fiction. It is clearly about the Nirbhaya case --- the claims at the end about rape laws being changed after the case and that one of the murderers was found dead in Tihar jail are all based on the facts of the case.

Except that, too many of the characters in the case are fictionalised. In this version, Sheila Dixit is not the Chief Minister of Delhi, an ambitious and devious man is. Even the Union Home Minister and an absurdly young Cabinet Secretary bear no relation to reality.

Like Bohemian Rhapsody, I guess, the show takes real events and plays around with the characters who populated those events. This serves two purposes. One, it makes for a better story and two, it allows the writers to fit the events into a TV series framework.

Is this fine? Can you really do this with such important cases where real people played such important roles? I don’t know. But I am sure that going forward, there will be debates on this issue.

And the second question is one of perspective. The media come off badly so it is not surprising that journalists have complained that the show is too sympathetic to the Delhi Police (which it is). But, as with the book of the Accidental Prime Minister you have to accept the perspective of the central character. And the central character here is a DCP so it is her perspective that will dominate.

Nevertheless, Delhi Crime takes us into dangerous territory. Can filmmakers make shows about real crimes, invent bogus characters, blur timelines and present only one perspective?

I think they can. But I doubt if everyone agrees with me.

To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here

Follow more stories on Facebook and Twitter

Story Saved