What’s common between Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Thackeray and Accidental PM? Bollywood’s obsession with history. The films are all biopics—inspiring stories of heroes glamorously reinvented with greasepaint and gore under the LED glare of the past.
The extremely risk-averse Indian film industry seems to have found a sure shot blueprint in biographical dramas. Imitation is the best formula of flattery—it historically invests in projects belonging to a specific genre that sets the cash registers ringing. Biopics are the Bollytrend of 2019 with several of them such as Taanaji, Kesari, Batla House, Panipat, Saina, Gully Boy and Super 30 to name a few set to hit the theatres soon. “Biopics have always been popular in India such as Mughal-e-Azam, JodhaaAkbar.
The difference today is that more realistic biopics are being made because audiences are interested in real stories. The fantasy element in Hindi movies is changing,” says director Ram Madhvani of Neerja fame. In bioscopes, too, there are valiant heroes and vicious villains, tears and pain, sacrifice and redemption, romance and action, accompanied by smart lines (like ‘How’s the josh’ from Uri ) and trademark gestures. Biographical films ruled the box office in 2018, too.
Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal’s winning streak at the fag end of 2017 continued in 2018—a tearjerker that even got one of the real protagonists Bollywood roles. Sanju, Manto, Padmaavat, Gold, Padman and Soorma were welcomed and boosted by controversy. Sanju and Padmaavat raked in more than `300 crores each while Gold barged into the `100-crore club. Yogesh Raizada, Vice President of Wave Cinemas, says, “The first and foremost reason why filmmakers are making biopics is that they wish to woo the fans of celebrities—from actors, sports stars or any other legendary figure.
” Both filmmakers and audiences share a fascination for modern recreations from the pages of bygone years; exploring the lives of those who came before us, whether they’re vilified or admired. Mostly, curiosity and controversies drive the audiences’ desire to watch these movies. Says director Ashutosh Gowariker, “In a biographical picture you have to dramatise the life of a person from the present or the past. You have to imbue the story with cinematic drama in order to stay away from the documentary genre. Many a time, accuracy becomes the main issue, especially for the family or friends of the subject or historians who have studied the person. Casting is a tough decision, too. A combination of similarities in looks and the chosen actor’s talent to best portray the characteristics of the protagonist decide the role.”
PATRIOT GAMES: Politics is the inspiration behind this year’s film biographies. The opening on-screen lines ‘based on real events’ is far too common, but a section of the audience is not fooled. They label such films as ‘propaganda’. Reality is celluloid fantasy now: a string of films guaranteed to raise national pride such as surgical strikes (Uri), nuclear tests (Parmanu) and national security related events (Batla House, RAW) are patriotism at its cinematic best. India’s hyper-nationalist present has forced a re-examination of the past and interrogation of the present. With the general elections to be held in April-May, movies such as Uri have the audience wondering. “Vicky Kaushal might be hot, but he did a propaganda film and I don’t like him anymore,” read a tweet that snowballed into a Twitter-storm. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap defended the film.
“The jingoism in Uri was far less than what I see in American films or war movies from anywhere in the world. We watch everything from the coloured glasses of the time we live in and just don’t trust anyone’s intention,” he said in a series of tweets. However, when Major Vihan Singh Shergill, the macho Indian paracommando played by Kaushal bashes in the face of the Pak terrorist, the hall erupts into applause. Patriotism is good business. Elections are the cinematic battlefield in South India, too. Two movies on NT Rama Rao, the actor-turned-political giant of Andhra Pradesh will reinterpret history. Lakshmi’s NTR by Ram Gopal Varma versus the one directed by Teja is guaranteed to stir the populist broth. Varma has successfully plundered contemporary history: Veerappan and Vangaveeti (2016) did very well at the box office.
POLITICAL POTBOILERS: Says filmmaker Hansal Mehta, “Political films, by nature, will be controversial. They will take sides. The audiences connect to the characters and their world, because these are stories of people who have lived or live among us.” Perhaps, playing a real-life character is easier since there is a historical template in place. Shift your vocal pitch here, add a baldspot there, throw in a prosthetic nose—like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who portrayed Balasaheb Thackeray in the eponymous biopic. “We have been making movies on fake characters.
Thank god for the new trend of movies being made on sportspersons or other real-life heroes. Politicians, too, go through the great journey called life. It is no shame to make films on them. Elections keep coming and going. Some people have been calling Thackeray a propaganda film, but do you think Bal Thackeray needed propaganda to promote his life? He is firmly etched as a strong man in our minds already,” says the actor on the increasing number of political biopics. Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar had shades of the Shiv Sena Iron Man, though it was more of a mafia story than a political biopic.
However, films make an intentional personality statement that does not always go with the characters. Manmohan Singh, played by the talented Anupam Kher sails close to caricature while Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Uri is almost a pale version of himself, sighing and grimacing while trying to look determined. The 1975 film Aandhi, in which Suchitra Sen looked eerily like Indira Gandhi generated controversy though its director Gulzar denied it. After Mrs Gandhi lost the 1977 election, he got the courage to admit that it was indeed made on India’s only woman prime
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi
Starring: Kangana Ranaut as the Rani Laxmibai
Controversy’s Child: Karni Sena opposed a song sequence in which Kangana is seen dancing. However, the actor refused to apologise.
PM Narendra Modi
Starring: Vivek Oberoi as Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Trivia: Slated for release just before India goes to polls to choose the next Lok Sabha, it is seen as more of a propaganda film.
Starring: Ranbir Kapoor as Bollywood superstar Sanjay Dutt
Controversy’s Child: Many were critical of the way Sanjay Dutt was portrayed—as an innocent man who was doomed because of bad company.
Starring: Akshay Kumar as Havildar Ishar Singh
Trivia: The war drama is a fictionalised representation of the epic Battle of Saragarhi fought in 1897 when 21 Sikh soldiers of the British Indian Army fought 10,000 Afghan invaders.
Starring: Anupam Kher as the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Controversy’s Child: It was panned for largely being a propaganda film in an election year and showing the former PM in a poor light.
minister. Nearly two decades after, Madhur Bhandarkar made Indu Sarkar, an unambiguous portrayal of Indira and son Sanjay Gandhi which was received by the BJP with much glee while the Congress party was furious.
SPORTING CAST: The most formulaic yet successful Bollywood biopics have concerned sports. The floodgates opened in 2012 starting with Paan Singh Tomar which was based on an Indian Army soldier who won a gold medal at the Indian National Games. Tomar was played by the versatile Irrfan Khan. The resounding box office conquest of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), based on the life of Indian sprinter Milkha Singh played by Farhan Akhtar, further established the genre as a jackpot for filmmakers and producers.
Priyanka Chopra’s Mary Kom (2014), Sushant Singh Rajput’s M S Dhoni: The Untold Story (2017), Emraan Hashmi’s Azhar (2016) strengthened the argument further. Coming soon to your neighbourhood cineplexes are films on Abhinav Bindra (played by Harshvardhan Kapoor), 83, in which Ranveer Singh will play Kapil Dev, a yet to be titled Mithali Raj biopic, and one on Murlikant Petkar (played by Sushant Singh Rajput).
Bollywood’s obsession with itself lives on, though dogged by controversy. Mogul, a biopic on the murdered film and music mogul Gulshan Kumar, which was set to release in December 2019 was initially planned with Aamir Khan in the lead role. But what is B-town without some drama? Aamir walked out soon after. “Script pe humari thodi baat... (We did not agree on the script),” he told a reporter. Iconic 1960s actress Madhubala’s brother Madhur Brij Bhushan is planning to make a biopic on her. Shah Rukh Khan and Karisma Kapoor are said to unite again on the silver screen after 2001 for a production based on Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian astronaut to travel into space.
A VARIED FEAST: It is important to note that Indian biopics were not always centred on political characters. Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994) based on the life of infamous female bandit Phoolan Devi, is a cult film which bagged several awards including the National Film Award for Best Feature Film. Soon the sets were crowded with a variety of films portraying people who have captured the contemporary national imagination—Main aur Charles (2015) on Charles Sobhraj, Haseena (2017) on Dawood Ibrahim’s sister, Dirty Picture (2011) on Silk Smitha et al. No One Killed Jessica (2011) was about Jessica Lall, the Delhi-based model, who was shot dead by Manu Sharma, son of a wealthy politician.
Manjhi: The Mountain Man (2015) was on the life of Dashrath Manjhi, a poor labourer, who cut a path through a hill using just a hammer and a chisel. Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh (2015) was based on the life of Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, who was suspended for being gay. Soon, Zoya Akhtar will release two biopics—Gully Boy which is the untold story of Indian rapper Divine, and Super 30 about Indian math wizard Anand Kumar. Such films are exposing the biographies of achievers who do not row their boats in the mainstream. This year Richa Chadda-starrer Shakeela will portray one such overlooked story of soft-porn actress Shakeela, who played roles in numerous South Indian films.
“I enjoy real stories and real parts. The characters in Gangs of Wasseypur and Fukrey were inspired by real people,” she says. She then throws in some mystery pepper, saying, “I won’t tell you who, but expect an exceptionally dramatic story from me to make its way to the silver screen. The subject is alive and hence, I want to be careful. Of course, there is more freedom portraying with fictional characters. But then by telling the story of a real living person, you’ve already taken the liberty of inhabiting their personality,” says Richa.
NOISY MONEY: Controversies sell tickets and almost all the recent biopics have raised hell. Jodhaa Akbar (2008) centred on the romance between the Mughal emperor played by Hrithik Roshan and a Rajput princess played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. The portrayal of Rajputs was criticised by caste groups, who called for a ban.
Similarly, Bajirao Mastani (2015) made by Sanjay Leela Bhansali ran into trouble when the descendents of the royal family of Bajirao questioned the authenticity of the storyline. The community backlash that cemented Bansali’s reputation as a history buff was against Padmaavat (2017) where the Karni Sena slapped him on the sets and burned his effigy, causing a censor board crisis. Deepika Padukone who played Padmavati faced death threats and was given police protection. She told a reporter, “It would be nicer to feel safer or protected at this point.” She is ‘taking a break’ from doing historical biopics for the moment.
But the feisty Kangana Ranaut is not afraid. When Karni Sena objected to some scene in Manikarnika she threatened to finish them. The bullies backed off. Actors are not always comfortable getting into the skin of the lead subjects. Aamir Khan said he was unsure of playing the lead role in Dangal because he was afraid his fans would be disappointed to see him change from a six-pack hero to a fat old villager. “The question is whether the life of the subject on whom you are basing your biopic will be interesting enough to the audience. No amount of looks and the performance of a great actor will save a film that does not tell an interesting story,” says Gowariker.
Interesting stories seem to be fattening Bollywood coffers. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhani is still running in theatres and collected `52 crore in its first week. So did Thackeray, which scooped up `23 crore. Cinematic biographies are here to stay. Fiction and fantasy-based films allow us to escape reality but biopics force us to confront the past.
Starring: Shraddha Kapoor as Saina Nehwal
Trivia: Saina Nehwal, the badminton player, won bronze at the London Olympics 2012 and at the Asian Games 2018. She was the first Indian woman to win an individual medal in women’s badminton in 36 years.
Starring: Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev
Trivia: It talks of how, under the newly-appointed captain Kapil Dev, the Indian cricket team defeated West Indies in the final of the World Cup in 1983 and tracks the coming-of-age of a cricketing team.
Starring: Ajay Devgn as Tanaji Malusare
Trivia: It is based on the life of Subedar Taanaji Malusare, who was a superintendent in the army of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, and is celebrated for his role in the Battle of Sinhagad in 1670 AD.
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Balasaheb Thackeray
Controversy’s Child: The film was criticised for glossing over the Shiv Sena supremo’s anti-migrant and pro-Hindu stance.
The first biopic known to Indian cinema is Raja Harishchandra, a silent movie which was released in 1913. It was directed and produced by the legendary Dadasaheb Phalke in whose name an award is given every year. Movies on real life personalities have only gone up in number since then. World War II, the Independence movement and Partition were great camera fodder since the atrocities of history provide content for generations to come. Bhagat Singh saw many tinsel avatars with The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) and 23rd March 1931: Shaheed (2002) which were even released simultaneously.
Mahatma Gandhi got a fresh script with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982)—a joint collaboration of the British company New Goldcrest Production and the NFDC in India. It was released in India on November 30, in the UK on December 3, and in the US on December 6. Shyam Benegal made his own Gandhi film titled, The Making of the Mahatma in English and Gandhi Se Mahatma Tak in Hindi. Other biopics that milked the freedom struggle were Sardar (1993), Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004) and Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005).
Starring: Taron Egerton as Elton John
Trivia: This is a biopic on the life of performer Elton John: from childhood prodigy, to where Philadelphia freedom took him knee-high to a man, and into his wondrously fruitful partnership with lyricst Bernie Taupin.
Mary Queen of Scots
Starring: Saoirse Ronan as Mary,
Queen of Scots
Trivia: The film received mixed reviews, with praise for the performances and
costumes, but was panned for the
screenplay and historical inaccuracies.
Starring: Rami Malek as British rock-band Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury
Trivia: The film went through some
controversy after the Sacha Baron
Cohen, who was supposed to originally play Mercury, left mid-way.
Starring: Gary Oldman as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Trivia: It is an account of his early days as PM during WW II and the May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis, in the face of Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht sweeping across Western Europe.
Starring: Meryl Streep as Katharine
Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee
Trivia: Set in 1971, the film depicts the true story of The Washington Post that published the classified Pentagon Papers related to the 30-year involvement of the US in the Vietnam War.
The Iron Lady
Starring: Meryl Streep as the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Trivia: An intimate portrait of Thatcher, the first female PM of the UK and undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s most famous and influential women.