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Biopics are our best available guides to how India in the 21st century shapes and gets shaped by the values of the new middle classes, writes Rachel Dwyer.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2012 22:59 IST
Rachel Dwyer
Rachel Dwyer
Hindustan Times

The biopic has been a relatively unproductive genre in Indian cinema, despite the massive international critical and commercial success of the Indo-British biopic, Gandhi (1982, directed by Richard Attenborough) and its hatful of awards, among them eight Oscars. Although biopics form only about 5% of Hollywood's output, they have high visibility and an enviable success rate at the Oscars, which are unlikely to have escaped the notice of the Indian film industry and its critics, who keenly observe global awards and Hollywood ones in particular. Over the last few decade, few Hindi biopics have been made, yet many more are planned. What's going on, and why is interest in the biopic peaking now?

The realist strand of Hindi cinema - also known as parallel or middle cinema - produced many biopics, notably of leaders of the freedom struggle. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first cycle of 'new' biopics in the early 2000s was part of the broader revival of the historical genre, among them films about Ashoka (Asoka, 2001, directed by Santosh Sivan) and the Great Mughal, Akbar (Jodhaa Akbar, 2008, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar).

This was followed by a second cycle of semi-fictionalised biopics which depict figures who are part of living memory; not rulers or leaders, nor those committed to public service, but figures whose success was achieved mostly in business or entertainment, and who have become the heroes and heroines of India's new middle classes. These movies reveal this group's understanding of Indian history and culture in what Charles Taylor has called "the social imaginary".

The shift from the first cycle to the second cycle of biopics also tracks major changes in Hindi cinema, now called 'Bollywood', which is closely associated with the rise of the new middle classes. Their new heroes suit their values - ambitious individuals who, rather than seeking political or social change, operate within what they regard as the unnecessary legal and other constraints of pre-liberalised India. These heroes - industrialists, sportspeople and entertainers are those who have shaped - and are shaping - the new India, forging a new and affluent class, generating more wealth for it, and who believe it is not in their interest to discuss financial crime, the treatment of minorities and the increasing number of the poor.

The new middle classes like the stories of their heroes to be hagiographical rather than 'warts and all' portrayals. Explaining why hagiography persists, producers and filmmakers may cite respect for the character's family, along with the fear of potential legal action or the censor, as either of them could delay a film indefinitely as well as be extremely costly. Producers remain wary of biopics too, as although digital effects make historical reconstructions easier, their budgets are huge. This goes hand-in-hand with a belief in India that one should never speak ill of the dead. Juicy stories now circulate in other media, in particular in the digital realm, but, till recently, rarely did they find their way onto mainstream cinema screens. While the media itself is interested in biopics, as can be seen by the circulation of stories around them, it is debatable whether audiences share the same, often prurient, interest in the subjects of such films and not be uncomfortable watching a forensic examination of someone else's life.

What the new middle classes are deeply interested in is the private morality of their heroes. They must uphold traditional values of family, and religion in particular, and these are often shown as closely linked to their public success, whether through a supportive wife or the blessings of god. The private domain is both separate from and more highly valued than the public. The heroes are also likely to enjoy romance and be seen happy and rewarded in love, a mirror for their public standing where they are successful and respected, if not revered.

A cycle of semi-fictional biopics in the late 2000s dealt with the recent lives of less revered figures, often using alibis, although the stories were closely based on the heroes of India's emerging new middle classes: businessmen, the most successful being Guru (2007, directed by Mani Ratnam) which looks at the struggle of a figure who can be closely identified with Dhirubhai Ambani, who taught the new middle classes to become shareholders and who they admire for building up enormous wealth.

In the current ferment of interest in the biopic, many are announced but then withdrawn or cancelled, including those of Nehru (based on Alex von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer), and a biopic of Indira Gandhi, which was to star Madhuri Dixit. It seems that certain characters, such as political leaders, remain too contested - whether revered or controversial - to be shown on screen, though they are discussed in academic books. Life stories are more malleable if semi-fictionalised, so that they can be told in ways which fit the Hindi film form of mixed genre, spectacle, star, big dialogues, songs, and entertainment. Silk Smitha's story in The Dirty Picture (2011, directed by Milan Luthria) has been changed to emphasise its melodrama of failure and the quest for love, which bring it squarely into the demands of the requirements of a Hindi film.

The biopic, or the quasi-biopic, which tells the life stories of figures who are important to the 'new India' may be our best available guide to how Indians see themselves at the beginning of the 21st century, as they shape and are shaped by the values of the new middle classes. This dominant social group continues to expand its control of cultural capital, thereby reinforcing its position as the key player in shaping the nation's self-image. The role of the biopic in mainstream Hindi cinema forms is key to our understanding of this group.

Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, SOAS, University of London.The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Mar 30, 2012 22:35 IST