Biopics are the flavour of the season in Bollywood : Why we can’t get enough of them
In Bollywood, 2016 was a year of biopics – and Akshay Kumar. In the year of Dangal, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Neerja, Kumar had his own share of hits in Airlift, Housefull 3 and Rustom. But come 2018 and audiences will be served the all-new cocktail of Akshay Kumar in a biopic. Not one, but at least three biopics. The Toilet star is slated to play Gulshan Kumar, the late T-series supremo, in Mogul, Balbir Singh Sr, a hockey legend, in Gold and a film called Padman based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man behind the sanitary pads revolution in rural India. Even the very successful Kumar cannot resist the temptation of a biopic, though his muscular looks may have no resemblance with these three real-life Indian heroes. But it’s not just Kumar, Bollywood at large is obsessed with biopics.
“We are probably at a time when it has become important for us to have heroes to look up to because all the figures to look up to seem to be tainted in so many ways. It is great to be able to tell stories that may inspire us, which is why one is feeling that biopics are working much more today,” Siddharth Roy Kapur, producer of the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, a biopic on female wrestling, and Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, based on slain lawyer Shahid Azmi, told Hindustan Times.
In the last few years, the success of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, Dangal, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Neerja and Daddy have proved that biopics are a magic formula and if all the right boxes are checked, like Dangal, you may land up with a golden goose on hand. Dangal redrew the box-office roadmap, drumming up over ~2,000 crore in domestic markets alone. Besides India, it set the Chinese box-office on fire, where Aamir Khan is a minor celebrity thanks to his previous hits, 3 Idiots and PK. In June this year, media reports pegged Dangal’s China receipts at a staggering ~1,200 crore. Kapur believes that the film resonated with Chinese viewers for the same reasons that it did with Indians. “The family structures and the status of women in both countries are similar. And the fact that parents live their lives through their children. I think what struck the Chinese audience strongly was that in such an alien culture like India’s, the core values and humanity remains the same.”
Stadium to Celluloid
After Dangal’s colossus commercial takings, Bollywood’s appetite for biopics only seems to have grown, if the upcoming films from the genre are any indication. At last count, there were no less than a dozen biopics in various stages of production, all trying to capture the essence and achievements of their real-life subjects to make him/her more heroic than he/she already is. Not just Bollywood stars and sporting icons – two of India’s enduring passions – but even ordinary heroes are finding their way into celluloid glory.
A line-up of biopics on film stars includes Raju Hirani’s nod to Sanjay Dutt’s tumultuous life and Anurag Basu’s take on Kishore Kumar, both played by Ranbir Kapoor. Sports biopics on PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kapil Dev and Balbir Singh Sr are underway and so are films on politicians (The Accidental Prime Minister on Manmohan Singh), historical figures (Padmavati on Rani Padmini and Manikarnika on the Rani of Jhansi), astronauts (Aamir Khan as Rakesh Sharma), mathematicians (Hrithik Roshan as Anand Kumar of the Super 30 programme fame), Nobel peace prize winners (Jhalki starring Boman Irani as Kailash Satyarthi) and even, hardened terrorists (Hansal Mehta’s Omerta on Omar Sheikh).
Every culture around the world celebrates its heroes and India is no different, said Kapur. But he was quick to point out, “Unfortunately, because cricket and Bollywood dominate our lives so completely, often some very interesting stories of everyday heroes get lost.”
Movies on film stars and sports celebrities tend to perform well in India, elevating the sport biopics into a profitable subgenre. Make no mistake though – not all sport biopics are winners. For every MS Dhoni: The Untold Story and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, there’s also Sachin: A Billion Dreams and Azhar that do underwhelming business (Bollywood Hungama tabulated Azhar’s lifetime box-office at ~33.03 crore and Sachin’s at ~50.89 crore), sending mixed signals to producers and directors hoping to exploit a sportstar’s life.
As Vinod Mirani, a trade analyst, put it, “Even within the sports biopics genre, only underdog tales sell.” Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, said Mirani, was saved by the heavy dose of jingoism towards the climax. Even Dangal, he noted, was lifted by the climactic National anthem scene. “A classic Pak-bashing can never go out of fashion,” Mirani joked. “You can divide Hindus and Muslims, but when it comes to India both are on same side. It worked in the case of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.”
Truth over fiction
But slowly, writers and filmmakers are moving away from more well-known stories to lesser-known ones. “With real life stories, the magic is that famous Mark Twain saying, ‘Truth is stranger in fiction.’ When you look at these ordinary people you realise what extraordinary circumstances this person has been through to achieve what he or she has achieved. If you have a heroic journey then it’s a story worth telling. That being said, not every story can become a biopic,” said writer Saiwyn Quadras.
When Quadras was writing Mary Kom, it was a story nobody had heard of. “Here,” he continued, “was a five-time world boxing champion who went through shit almost every day of her life. In any other part of the world she would have been a millionaire. But here she was struggling. Forget knowing about her achievements, no one knew her name. Was it because she was a boxer from North East in a country that worships only cricket?”
Quadras was first struck by Mary Kom’s story in a newspaper’s sports column. “It was a small report in a far corner of the paper,” he said, adding that it was the most dramatic and filmy story he had ever read. Quadras, who also wrote Neerja, bemoaned the lack of biopics on women achievers. “We are not telling enough female hero stories,” he said, attributing the reason to “commercial considerations.” He explained, “Even audiences like to see male-centric stuff. When we were making Mary Kom and Neerja, we were told who’s going to watch a woman boxer from the North East or a female flight attendant turning into a martyr. They said it might not work at the box-office.”
For filmmakers, the appeal of a biopic lies in more than just “commercial considerations” that Quadras referred to. Most of Hansal Mehta’s films have been biopics and he’s mildly surprised to be told that. “They are chronicles of real people, either living or dead,” he said. “Whether I make a biopic or not is not important. The primary inspiration is – the quest to tell a good story. Otherwise, we keep complaining about the bankruptcy of ideas and what ails our films and all that, but there are always real stories to fall back on.” Talking about 2012’s Lincoln, a biopic on Abraham Lincoln, the former US President, director Steven Spielberg had argued, “I never saw it as a biopic. I sometimes refer to it as a Lincoln portrait, meaning that it was one painting out of many that could have been drawn over the years of the president’s life.”
Mehta’s Shahid was based on lawyer Shahid Azmi, Aligarh on Ramchandra Siras, a gay professor suspended by Aligarh Muslim University, and the upcoming Omerta is on Omar Sheikh, the terrorist involved in the kidnapping and murder of WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl.
He said both Shahid and Omar Sheikh are the products of the same angst and that’s what fascinated him the most about the two biopics. “Both have the same angst, but one fights with humanity and the other fights it with remorseless violence. As a filmmaker, I cannot be judgemental. The person who’s doing evil believes he’s doing the right thing,” he said, adding, “One important thing about biopics is that every time a new government is in power we are fed a new version of history and history is always about conquests and emperors and kings and leaders and through their stories we are told history. But the real history lies in the lives of ordinary people in those times.”
The real win-win, some say, is for actors essaying the protagonists. It’s true that in Hollywood every second film that picks up an Oscar for their lead is a biopic, bolstering the notion that it’s a vehicle for prestige and a sure-fire way of hitting it big in the awards season. Are biopics, then, vanity project for stars? “In a biopic,” said Saiwyn Quadras, “actors get an opportunity to show off their acting chops by getting involved in a person that they can see in flesh and blood or imagine or research and explore their lives on screen.”
In several interviews, Ranbir Kapoor has been talking about how Sanjay Dutt’s eventful life, from his drug problem to terrorism charges, has left him in awe of the Munnabhai star.
And yet, he’s sure the reverence won’t come in the way of telling an honest tale. “It’s not a propaganda film trying to portray him as God,” he said in one interview. “We are trying to show a very human side of Sanjay Dutt, his perils, his downfall, his will to fight, his time in jail, terrorism charges, his drug phase, how he handled his mother’s death two days before the release of his debut film, his relationship with his father. These were human conflicts in his life.”
Whether biopics headlined by them fare well or not, expect Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan, Ranbir Kapoor and the like to score big at the awards night.
A tendency towards hagiography?
For filmmakers working on biopics, there’s always a risk – will biography turn into hagiography? Most directors and writers agree that there’s a thin line dividing the two. “The important thing to remember,” said filmmaker Hansal Mehta, who made Shahid and Aligarh, “is to maintain the essence of that person’s life and never lose focus on why he/she resonated with you in the first place.”
“It’s a trapping we have to avoid,” said Neeraj Pandey, director of MS Dhoni The Untold Story, in a newspaper interview earlier this year, responding to a question about why most Bollywood biopics glorify their subjects and the ways in which the fawning adoration can be reined in. Pandey added that during the making of the film on Dhoni, they used “this slang commonly in the team, ‘agarbatti nahi dikhani hai’ which resonated with all of us. He’s an achiever. And his is an impossible journey. If someone made this as a fictional story, people would walk out of theatres saying kya bakwaas hai yeh, aisa thodi hota hai. It’s that degree of impossible that he made possible. We have only tried to show that without being star-struck.”
“Biopics can be a whitewash of someone’s life and some films avoid the grey areas,” said producer Siddharth Roy Kapur. “But I think in Dangal and Paan Singh Tomar, we did manage to show the subjects with warts and all. Dangal depicted Aamir’s character as having antiquated notions of what women can do and what men can do. He doesn’t consider girls to be equal to boys. There’s also a certain amount of hardness and harshness in the way he trains his daughters. We have shown the grey areas within Mahavir Singh Phogat’s personality. What we celebrated is the personal achievement and his growth as a person and what he could do for his daughters in the end.”