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Whose life is it anyway?

With at least eight biographical films due in theatres soon, the biopic seems to have come of age in Bollywood. The focus is no longer on great political and historical figures; now attention has moved to more ‘real’ people and their fascinating lives. But will filmmakers be brave enough to tell us their real stories?

entertainment Updated: Jul 03, 2010 19:36 IST
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi
Hindustan Times

Cover storyA student leader, a legendary athlete, a seven-time champion athlete who became a dacoit, two underworld dons, a singer, a painter, a starlet who killed herself... These are some of the people you will soon see on the big screen as heroes and heroines. But none of them are fictional characters, products of the imagination of writers and directors. Every one of these people is (or was) a real person. A person with a story that a filmmaker thinks is worth telling.

With eight biographical films due in theatres soon, this seems to be almost a new genre in filmmaking in India. Not that we’ve never had biopics before. As director Rakeysh Mehra, now working on a film on champion athlete Milkha Singh, says, “In one way or another, Hindi films have always been inspired or based on someone’s life story.”

But there are differences now. For the longest time the Hindi film industry based its biopics mainly on great historical characters like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh or historical figures like Ashoka. True, movies such as Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Bhumika, Godmother and Bandit Queen were based on more ‘down-to-earth’ people, but these were few and far between.

Essentially, filmmakers liked to focus on ‘big’ heroes. But now, the people inspiring filmmakers are closer to us in time. And, as they put it, “they are real. Not larger than life.”

From athlete Milkha Singh to athlete-turned-dacoit Paan Singh Tomar, from the smuggler of the ’70s, Haji Mastan to artist Raja Ravi Varma who created a flutter with his nude paintings, from sex siren of the South, Silk Smitha to the legendary singer-actor Kishore Kumar to student leader Chandrashekhar – all of whom we will see soon in theatres – there is a variety of people closer to life in all its hues. Because these are not ‘great’ people in the way the leaders of our Independence movement were. These are more regular people – with fascinating stories.

The real thing
“It’s true what they say – that real life is head and shoulders above fiction,” says director-producer Mahesh Bhatt, known for a number of semi-autobiographical films such as Arth and Zakhm. “It has the sense of authority that fiction lacks. And with even the masses becoming more cinema literate, dramatic events in the lives of regular people that made them part of history have become attractive to almost everyone.”

Vikas Behl, chief creative officer, UTV Motion Pictures, which is producing three of the soon to be released biopics – on Kishore Kumar, Guru Dutt and Paan Singh Tomar – agrees. “Cinema is changing big time. It is no longer about just a masala mix. The story is the biggest player and that’s where biopics, especially those that focus on heroes who emerged from amongst regular guys, are so fascinating,” he says.

It isn’t as though we aren’t inspired by people like Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and so on any more, adds Behl. “We are in awe of them. For most of us, they are demi gods. But people like Milkha Singh or Paan Singh Tomar or even Kishore Kumar or Guru Dutt are much closer to our lives. They were regular people who were turned into celebrities by circumstances. We relate to them more easily.”

But if the audience connect is easy, the actual movie-making is not. “You can’t afford to go wrong anywhere,” says Milan Luthria, director of Once Upon A Time In Mumbai, a film that roughly sketches out the lives and times of Mumbai dons Haji Mastan of the ’70s and Dawood Ibrahim of the ’90s. “Biopics are a huge responsibility,” says Luthria who, nevertheless, is in talks with Balaji about a film on actress Silk Smitha. “A person’s entire character depends on you. You can make or break a person with your imagery and that is very tricky.”

You also have to make sure you’ve done extensive research on the person, because mistakes are very easily caught. “You can’t cheat on the character,” explains Behl. “Making a biopic is a very fundamental and delicate process and that is why many filmmakers stay away from it.”

The complete picture
It’s much easier to make up a character than recreate a person – and in India, that is so for two reasons. One: what was discussed above – the need for extensive research. But the second reason is a little harder to cope with. The fact is, in India at least, it doesn’t matter what historical records show. If the hero of a biopic is already a real hero to the audience, it will not do to show his or her darker side. The audience will simply not accept it.

“It’s a catch 22 situation,” says Tigmanshu Dhulia, director of the film Paan Singh Tomar. “On the one hand we have to present a character in all his or her shades. On the other hand, the character also should have enough substance to be a hero. After all, why else would I want to make a film on him, and why would the audience wish to watch that film?” Presenting a real person with all his or her flaws is difficult, agree most filmmakers. Especially if the real person is a real hero. “Why would I want to show or even see the negative sides of Gandhi or Bose?” continues Dhulia. “They are my heroes and their positives far outweigh their negatives. So why concentrate on the negatives at all?”

But the fact remains that no person is perfect and it would be foolish to portray anyone that way. “Every person has shades of grey and no one can change that. The trick is how the filmmaker shows them,” says Rakeysh Mehra.

Mahesh Bhatt describes it as a process of simply shifting the spotlight. “At a play, the audience is fully aware of all that is present on a stage, but they concentrate only on where the spotlight is shining,” he explains. “It is the same with films. The director has to make sure that he or she puts the spotlight on the bigger and better aspects of a character while not completely ignoring the faults.”

However, no biopic can ever present viewers with the complete picture of a person, says director Shyam Benegal. What appears on screen, he explains, is actually a character sketch based on certain important events that turned the life of the protagonist.

“You can never show a complete life story in two-and-a-half hours of screen time,” says Benegal. “So a lot depends on what the director wishes to show and how he perceives it. Most people have multi-faceted personalities and we can show only one or a couple of those facets. So I may choose to make a film on an actor-singer but decide to concentrate only on his singing career. As long as the facts are correct, no one should object.”

What's in the name?
Given this situation, many directors prefer to play safe, and not name the real-life people they base their films on. For instance, Mani Ratnam refused to acknowledge that his film Guru was based on the life of industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, even though many incidents in the movie indicated that was the case. Milan Luthria claims that Once Upon A Time... is more of “a biopic on the city of Mumbai” than one based on the lives of two underworld dons. Even his film on Silk Smitha, he says, is a story of an actress who committed suicide. He will not name her.

“But you can’t blame a filmmaker for this,” Luthria says in his own defence. “It is a very controversial thing to make a biopic, especially when there are aspects to a person that may not be very pleasant. And, to be honest, who really wants to get into the nitty-gritties of taking permission from family, cross-checking every detail and still not be able to do complete justice to the story because someone somewhere may raise an issue?”

Mahesh Bhatt, who faced a lawsuit filed by Abu Salem when word leaked that his film Gangster was based on the don’s life, agrees entirely. “It is impossible to satisfy all parties. Especially when a lot of sensitive issues are linked to each other. That was what happened with Abu Salem. We had to go to court and prove the film was not based on him, and only then could we release the movie,” he says.

Families are also known to make a fuss and interfere if they feel that the film shows too many of their relative’s shades of grey. And the bigger the name, the more the problems.

“When you are dealing with the life of a celebrity, you have to go through checks and balances,” says Tigmanshu Dhulia. “But if you’re making a film based on someone like Paan Singh Tomar, who is completely unknown, it is easier to create a storyline without playing too much on the side of caution. When no one knows the person, you can build up the character and not create controversy. Though you still have to be honest to the person you are portraying, it’s easier to fictionalise events in his life without fictionalising him.”

There’s no denying, however, that keeping the foundation of the biopic anonymous makes things easier for the filmmaker in many ways. For instance, director Madhur Bhandarkar, who is about to make a film loosely based on yesteryear actress Madhubala, says, “I am not saying that. My film is based on the life of a heroine. It could be anybody – from Madhubala to Marilyn Monroe!”

It helps to keep things vague, says Bhandarkar, because ultimately, a filmmaker is making a film.

Not a documentary

“We are in a medium that needs dramatisation,” agrees Rakeysh Mehra. “And unless we botch the facts, there should not be a problem with adding drama.”

Ultimately, a commercial film is about putting in a lot of money and making it too, adds Vikas Behl. “So it becomes necessary to keep the ingredients that are fundamental to cinema viewing and add to the entertainment value. Dramatisation is the core of the scenario, not fictionalisation. And it should be taken at face value.”

Kishore Kumar
Title: Kishore
Producer/Director: UTV Motion Pictures is in talks with Anurag Basu
Cast: Unconfirmed, but rumour has it Ranbir Kapoor will play the lead
Status: Script, casting still in process

Singing wasn’t the only thing Kishore Kumar was famous for. He had a colourful personal life with four marriages, and was famed for his eccentricities. It is said that he refused to record songs unless and until he was paid beforehand. He is also supposed to have hidden in trees when the Income Tax people came knocking. “The film is not a justification, but it will put the man in perspective. He wasn’t holier than thou and we don’t say that. We will simply try to present Kishore, the man, the human being,” says Vikas Behl, CCO, UTV Motion Pictures.

Guru Dutt
Title: Yet to be decided
Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Producer: UTV Motion Pictures
Cast: Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif are rumoured to be playing Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman
Status: Anurag Kashyap is still writing the script

One of the greatest directors of Hindi cinema, Guru Dutt made haunting black-and-white classics such as Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, and Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. He invariably played the doomed, self-destructive hero. His personal life was uneven: He is rumoured to have been in love with his heroine Waheeda Rehman, while being unhappily married to singer Geeta Dutt. But the man himself remained an enigma. “That was the most exciting thing about him. In spite of being so much in the spotlight, he was a mystery,” says Vikas Behl, CCO, UTV Motion Pictures.

Paan Singh Tomar
Title: Paan Singh Tomar
Producer: UTV Motion Pictures
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Cast: Irrfan Khan plays the lead
Status: Ready to be released at August end

He was an athlete who won several medals, joined the defence forces, but eventually became a dacoit in the Chambal ravines. Paan Singh Tomar’s life story is more fascinating than fiction. “He was an everyday person,” says director Tigmanshu Dhulia. “But his story is extraordinary. How circumstances and events can turn a champion into a rebel and ultimately a dacoit is a tale that needs to be told.”

Silk Smitha
Title: Yet to be decided
Director: Producers Balaji are in talks with Milan Luthria
Cast: Not decided but Vidya Balan has been approached to play the role of the late actress
Status: In early production stages

Born Vijayalakshmi, she was a Southern star who did over 200 films in most South Indian languages. She adopted Smitha as her screen name and added Silk after the name of her character in her first major hit, the Tamil flick Vandi Chakkaram. But more than her acting, it was her bold scenes and dressing style that made her the sex siren of the South. But, as director Milan Luthria points out, despite all that sizzle, she had a lonely life and death. He doesn’t confirm that the biopic is based on her life, but he does admit that his film is about an actress who died lonely and young. “Yes, there are instances and references that could be taken from her life,” he says.

Once Upon A Time In Mumbai
Director: Milan Luthria
Producer: Balaji
Cast: Ajay Devgn, Emraan Hashmi
Status: 30 July release

Based on the two power centres of the Mumbai underworld, the film takes references from the lives of Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim. “More than the two dons, my film is a biopic of the city of Mumbai and the shift of power from one man to the other. It plays in two eras and these two men represent the different eras of the Mumbai underworld,” says Milan Luthria.

Yet to be decided
Producer-Director: Mahesh Bhatt
Cast: Delhi boy Imran Zahid will debut in the lead role
Status: In early production stages

The film is based on the life of Chandrashekhar Prasad, the activist student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University who was shot dead in 1997 while addressing a gathering in Siwan, Bihar. “He was like any other young boy. But his views, ideas and ideology were very strong and different. And he didn’t sit idle. He wanted to make a change and was working towards it,” says director Mahesh Bhatt.

Milkha Singh
Title: Bhaag Milkha Bhaag
Producer-Director: Rakeysh Mehra
Cast: Not fixed but Akshay Kumar is said to be a likely choice to play Milkha
Status: Prasoon Joshi is nearly done with writing the script

Known as the Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh is a living legend; the most formidable athlete India ever produced. But the film focuses on more than just his achievements on the track. “The man and his life make for a greater story,” says director Rakeysh Mehra. “He saw his parents being butchered during Partition, and lived an orphaned life in penury. Milkha had every reason to go astray, but he didn’t. He fought against all odds to achieve what he did.” Milkha Singh has been Mehra’s childhood idol, someone he was “in awe of.” But, he adds, it’s sad that in spite of being an icon, Milkha is still not celebrated enough in his own country.

Raja Ravi Varma
Title: Rang Rasiya
Director-Producer: Ketan Mehta
Cast: Randeep Hooda as the painter Raja Ravi Varma
Status: Ready for release in September

Raja Ravi Varma is widely regarded as the man who brought about a renaissance in Indian art with his bold portrayals of women. “He was the man who gave our goddesses a face. And ironically he was castigated for obscenity,” says director Ketan Mehta who feels Varma's story is very relevant in today’s art scenario.

We’ve already seen..

Asoka: Directed by Santosh Sivan, the film told the story of the king who, after the bloody battle of Kalinga, gave up warfare and became a Buddhist. Shah Rukh Khan played Asoka

Gandhi: Richard Attenborough directed one of the best biopics on the father of the nation

Bhumika: Directed by Shyam Benegal, it was based on the life of the Marathi and Hindi movie star Hansa Wadkar

Guru: Mani Ratnam directed this film which was inspired by the life of Dhirubhai Ambani

Bose: A life sketch of freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose. Directed by Shyam Benegal

Sardar: Ketan Mehta directed Paresh Rawal in this story of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel

Bhagat Singh: At least five films have been made by different directors on the young freedom fighter from Punjab

The Rising: Based on the life of sepoy Mangal Pandey, hero of the the 1857 uprising. Directed by Ketan Mehta, Aamir Khan played the lead role

Godmother: Directed by Vinay Shukla, the film was inspired by the life of Santokben Jadeja who headed an underworld enterprise in and around Porbandar

Bandit queen: Based on the life of the fearsome Chambal dacoit Phoolan Devi, director Shekhar Kapur brought out the tragic events of her life

Dayavan: Based on the life of Mumbai underworld don Vardhrajan Mudaliar. Directed by Feroz Khan

First Published: Jul 03, 2010 14:51 IST