Biopic boom in Bollywood: Is it a sign of creative aridity?

Bollywood has been churning out biopics with clockwork regularity. During the five-year period from 2015-20 we had biopics on sportspersons, politicians, terrorists and gangsters, and unsung heroes

Representative image
Representative image

Subhash K Jha

Last year when a movie producer Nikhil Diwedi announced a bio-pic on the 1990s’ starlet Mamta Kulkarni, there were titters wafting right down the corridors of tinsel town. Ms Kulkarni is remembered more for her cheesecake skin-revealing magazine covers and her marriage to an alleged drug dealer than for her work as an actress.

The announcement came just weeks before the release of a biopic on the mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi in which Vidya Balan (no stranger to bio-pics, she had played the controversial Tamil starlet Silk Smitha in 2011 in The Dirty Picture) plays the incredible “human computer”.

Immediately after Shakuntala, another biopic, Gunjan Saxena- The Kargil Girl, featuring Janhvi Kapoor as the real-life martyred airforce pilot, also hit the OTT platform.

These are the latest in the long trail of biopics that Bollywood has been churning out with clockwork regularity. During the five-year period from 2015-20 we had biopics on sportspersons (Mary Kom, Dangal, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, M S Dhoni- The Untold Story, Soorma), politicians (The Reluctant Prime Minister, PM Narendra Modi, Thailavi) terrorists and gangsters (Omerta, Daddy, Gangubai Kathaiwadi) and unsung heroes (Neerja, Manjhi). Last year, a bio-pic Chhapaak on acid-attack survivor Laxmi Aggarwal played effectively by Deepika Padukone, came and flopped.

Notoriety sells on celluloid, specially when gift-wrapped in apparent truth, though the ‘truth’ according to a filmmaker may not match the truth of the biographical subject. When in 2018 director Raj Kumar Hirani (of Munna bhai fame) directed the blockbuster Sanju, a Sanjay Dutt biopic featuring Ranbir Kapoor as the notoriously rebellious terror-accused Dutt, the film was filled with embarrassing lies and half-truths (there was not even a passing reference to Dutt’s first-born daughter just as the Dhoni film completely ignored the cricketer’s brother just because they didn’t get along). Sanju was a resounding success, one of the few biopics that have worked at the box office.

Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, who has made a successful film The Tashkent Files on the mysterious death of the former Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, rues the selection of subjects for bio-pics. “Why Mamta Kulkarni when we should be making a film on the legendary actress Nargis Dutt, and why is there not one decent biopic on Mrs Indira Gandhi? Or A P J Kalam? Why have failed to make a film on Osho Rajneesh? Sure there was a biopic on MS Dhoni. But it was no classic. Where is an Indian biopic on any great Indian leader like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi? Why are we making mediocre biopics on mediocre subjects?”

Could biopics be the easy way out for the creatively arid Bollywood?

Writer-director Apurva Asrani who has scripted the biopics Shahid (based on the former terrorist turned defence-lawyer for terror accused Shahid Aamir) and Aligarh (about a homosexual professor in Aligarh University) feels bio-pics are not the last resort of creative scoundrels. “This is the age of reality. The more authentic the story and its telling, the more it is loved. I don't agree that biopics haven't done well. Whether it's our critically acclaimed films like Shahid or Aligarh or blockbusters like Dhoni and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, biopics are more than just the flavor of the season. Even for an actor or a writer, it's so exciting to delve into real life research material and give it our interpretation.”

Filmmaker Anubhav Sinha whose stunning Article 15 was based on a real political issue feels making biopics is not a creative compromise. “Who or what one chooses to make a film on are personal choices. I am sure the makers were really inspired by these personalities. Even a biopic writing must be very tough so no I won’t blame it on lack of creative ideas.”

Nila Madhab Pandya whose National award winning I Am Kalam was based on the ideas of former Indian president A P J Kalam feels the audience wants to see real-life heroes. “I won’t say it’s lack of creative idea. It’s certainly fun to see real-life characters in cinema. Also somewhere I feel we we don’t have too many real-life heroes. So we feel the real life heroes of different time has so much of conflict and drama. And of course biopics have worked like Dhoni, Sanjay Dutt, etc.”

Telugu star Adivi Sesh who plays a real-life war hero Sandeep Unnikrishnan in his forthcoming film Major feels biopics are much more than a creative compromise. “Biopics like ALL stories IF done well, WILL work. The reason for their popularity is the success of a Dirty Picture or a Sanju, rather than the lack of creativity. As someone starring in a film inspired by the life of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, I find the task of telling a story inspired by real life, to be even more challenging. You have lesser flexibility to tailor the story to your desire. Your responsibility to honour that persons' life is greater. At the end of it all, you hope to make a worthy tribute to that life or event. I find it a beautiful trend and it enables previously forgotten or misunderstood life stories to be brought into the open.”

Ananth Mahadevan who has directed a number of biopics including Gour Hari Dastan, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal and Dr Rakhmabai feels biopics have a perennial shelf-life. “Biopics aren't a new trend. There were more honest depictions in films like Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani, Sardar, Gandhi and K G George's Lekha's DeathAn Untold Story on the underbelly of stardom.”

However Ananth feels the trend of biopics needs to be bridled. “Of late sportsmen, sanitary-pad innovators and even practising actors have become topics of films subjected to the over-the-top Bollywood formula. There is a clever manipulation of sentiment in these films with either a curious or a gullible audience becoming suckers.”

Ananth feels making biopics is a moral and creative responsibility. “When I made biopics of so-called non-entities yet significant unsung heroes like Sindhutai Sapkal and Gour Hari Das, both living, and the legendary but little-known Doctor Rakhmabai, my biggest responsibility was to make sure that I was as authentic as possible and not merely glorify my subject but present them with their frailties. Biopics call for integrity of approach even as one dramatizes the events . But biopics today have become a fashion. A kind of toeing the mediocre line even as you make a pretentious plea for serious cinema.”

Amole Gupte who is directing a biopic on the life of badminton player Saina Nehwal feels biopics are the order of the day. “Inspirational stories are required by society to wean it off greed. They serve as an antidote to the I-me-myself syndrome. When I speak in favour of biopics I mean biopics like Super 30 on mathematician Anand Kumar, Salute on astronaut Rakesh Sharma, Mary Kom, Soorma on hockey player Sandeep Singh and my own film on Saina Nehwal.”

Rakeysh Mehra who wants to make a biopic on Mother Teresa says the process of making celluloid versions of famous lives as a prevalent practice, would take time in this country. “Evolution of new ideas has its own curve. When a film like Milkha gets made and it gets acceptance on such a level, filmmakers and producers are bound to think about a new genre being opened up. I think the audience is very unfairly projected by the numbers game. It is insulting to presume audiences don’t want to think while watching a film. They’ve always accepted change, innovative ideas and experiment in cinema.”

Isn’t there a risk of sporty biopics turning into a saleable formula?

Rakeysh Mehra refuses to see the advancement in the evolution of biopics as a manipulative motion into money-making. “There is nothing like formula. There are just good and bad films. How wonderful would it be to have films on other sports heroes. The human angle must be explored. Somewhere Milkhaji’s story and its theme of suffering during the Partition connected with the entire global community. That’s why Carl Lewis reached out to Milkhaji after seeing Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. There are persecuted minorities and ethnic communities all over the world.”

The amazingly talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui who played a peasant from Bihar who cut a road through the mountains with his hands in Ketan Mehta’s Mountain Man and the controversial Urdu litterateur Sadat Hassan Manto in Nandita Das’s Manto says, “To play a real-life character like Dashrath Manjhi or Manto is not easy. Unlike Milkha or Mary Kom whose triumphs are well documented in print and in pictures, an unsung hero like Manjhi has not left any documented legacy behind. I have to use all my powers as an actor get it right. At least for me biopics are not an easy route to success.”

Hansal Mehta says biopics are important, relevant and indispensable. “It is heartening that many of them are being made in India. With the dwindling supply of modern Hindi literature, stories coming from true events or biographies is much better than drawing inspiration from DVDs. As a viewer I have always loved biopics, as very often they deal with events and/or characters that are far more relatable and provide an auteur's insight into lesser known details of the character/event. The danger of success in our industry is the 'formulization' of genres and I hope this does not happen to biopics.”

Tigmanshu Dhulia director of acclaimed biopic Paan Singh Tomar feels it makes artistic and box office sense to make a biopic. “You are artistically challenged because you have to be true to the character and to the period to which he belongs and cannot lean on fiction and fantasy. Box office-wise, you already have a captive audience which wants to know about the life chosen for filming.”

Film Critic Raja Sen feels biopics have their utility for Bollywood. “Biopics allow an actor a vehicle in which to mimic a known personality. The makers attempt to cash in on instant credibility with audiences for telling a story of true achievement. Also, producers may feel a good or popular life is writer-proof and doesn't need a plot.”

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