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From Neerja to Dhoni: The rise of biopics at the Indian box office

As the film on MS Dhoni enters the Rs 100 crore club, we look at why biopics have become so popular in Bollywood, and what makes them click.

bollywood Updated: Oct 12, 2016 09:17 IST
Prashant Singh
Prashant Singh
Hindustan Times
Sushant SIngh Rajput,Aamir Khan,Mary Kom
Sushant Singh Rajput’s MS Dhoni: The Untold Story has made over Rs 100 crore at the Indian box office.(HT Photo)

Remember successful Hollywood biopics such as Chariots Of Fire (1981), Ali (2001), The Fighter (2010) and Lincoln (2012)? The international film industry is known for regularly making movies that are based on the lives of iconic individuals. Although Bollywood hasn’t been as gung-ho about showcasing stories on real people, it seems the Hindi film industry is now catching up.

In big numbers

Within the past two years, over a dozen biographical dramas have either released or have entered various stages of production. The list includes Manjhi: The Mountain Man (2015), Aligarh (2015), Neerja, Azhar, Sarbjit and the recently released movie MS Dhoni: The Untold Story. Some upcoming biopics are Dangal, Daddy, Manto, and films on Super 30 founder and mathematician Anand Kumar and gangster Haseena Parker, among others. Interestingly, a number of them have done exceedingly well at the box office. Neerja and the MS Dhoni biopic, for example, have already made over `100 crore at the box office.

“For so many years, only the west was making biopics, while we didn’t touch them. It is great that Bollywood film-makers are taking them up now. Biopics are always interesting, as they aren’t made-up stories,” says film-maker Omung Kumar, who directed Mary Kom (2014) and Sarbjit.

Priyanka Chopra played Indian boxer Mary Kom in Omung Kumar’s film. (HT Photo)

Actor’s den

Even actors are “excited” about the new challenge. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, for instance, is looking forward to playing the late Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto in Nandita Das’ next. “That zone (doing a biopic) is still unknown to me, and I don’t know how I am going to play that part. But once I am done with the film, I am sure I will be happy to have played a role that was worthwhile, and through which I got to know more about a person,” he says.

Vidya Balan, who played the lead in The Dirty Picture (a biopic on Silk Smitha; 2011), is now preparing to portray the late writer Kamala Das in a film. She feels Das was “a unique person”, and wants to “know her better”. “Kamala was progressive. She was strong. I loved the script [of the film] the minute I read it,” says Vidya.

Irrfan Khan played athlete-turned-dacoit Paan Singh Tomar in the film of the same name. (HT Photo)

But while film-makers and producers are rushing to make biopics today, is there a risk that the trend might fade away soon? Omung disagrees. “No, it won’t die out. People might experiment with their techniques (of telling the stories), but biopics are here to stay. Plus, actors also find them interesting because they offer them parts that are challenging. They have already heard about the people [they will be playing],” he adds.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte in Manjhi: The Mountain Man. (HT Photo)

In the past few decades, several biopics have made their way to the Indian screens, but only intermittently. Films such as Gandhi (1982), Bandit Queen (1994), The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), Paan Singh Tomar (PST; 2010), The Dirty Picture and Shahid (2013) were released in the past. Other iconic figures, who have caught the attention of film-makers and actors today, include Guru Dutt, RD Burman, Kishore Kumar, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Sahir Ludhianvi, among others.

Tread with caution

“The biggest advantage of making biopics is that there is an immediate connect with the audience. So, because they are based on popular figures, they automatically get a big marketing push,” says film-maker Tigmanshu Dhulia, who directed PST, and is credited with having revived the industry’s interest in biopics in the recent times.

Aamir Khan plays ex-wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat in Dangal. (HT Photo)

But even as biopics become the flavour of the season in Bollywood, experts point out that makers need to be “careful about certain things” and not go overboard. “It’s true that we should be trying our hands at all genres. To make a good biopic, makers should stay true to the story, people must be aware of the person [on whom the story is based], and the plot should be of interest to the audience. Also, not every actor can play such characters, so that’s also a tricky part,” says trade analyst Taran Adarsh.

First Published: Oct 12, 2016 09:16 IST