Thackeray to Thalaivii: The Banal Business of Bollywood's Biopics
Examining Bollywood's tendency to whitewash biopics and present the subjects as demigods.
A law that the Hindi film industry abides by is that of repetition. Biopics fit seemingly well as the mood of the masses, both, in front of the screens and behind them. This year has seen a multitude of biographical stories, many yet to release—Thalaivii, Gangubai Kathiawadi, and several other names to join from the South as well. The sustained influx of biopics also compels one to inquire if there is a blueprint to follow for these stories.
The most frequent subject for biopics gravitates towards icons from the field of sports, hovering towards political figures from time to time. No matter what the subject, a tendency of biopics has been to present these individuals as heroes, devoid of any flaws. The very lens of a biopic lacks objectivity. Human life cannot be depicted with sincerity if it cuts out the blemishes, frailties, and failures. Most of these films have the emotional complexity of a nursery rhyme. The result is often unidimensional characters that the film ends up idolising and worshipping. They are demigods, their legacy untainted, unquestioned.
When the subject is a national hero, which was the case with Shershaah, idolisation is only natural. The very purpose of the film was to honour the late Captain Vikram Batra and pay homage. But the treatment with sportspersons has been similar. M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Mary Kom, especially the more recent Saina, provide no insights into the character and are simply events of their lives stitched together. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag succeeds at least in painting a picture of the era and adds a layer through the emotional heft of the Partition.
Credible Biopics Are a Rare Entity
In contrast, there have been compelling Indian biopics, that have refused to pander to the rules of popular taste. The films go back to the beginning of the decade when the biopic invasion hadn’t taken full form. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar traces the story of an army subedar who becomes a national-level athlete and then a dacoit in the Chambal Valley. Hansal Mehta’s Shahid follows the tale of a human rights activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi. But in doing so, it also brings to surface communalism, Islamophobia, and the dreadful ramifications of the draconian laws. It’s interesting to note that Sanju, which came out much later, deals with TADA and unfair prison violence too, but does it in a way that caters to whitewashing the public perception of its subject. Another example of a gripping biopic for the time would be The Dirty Picture. These work because of the nuanced characterisation and the layers to the protagonist’s personality.
Hollywood counterparts like Scorsese’s Raging Bull’s excellence would have been incomplete if it had rejected the complexities of the subject— jealousy, obsession, and of course, rage, while also showing how they affected his personal and professional life. Another brilliant example would be Muhammad Ali’s biopic Ali, which also discusses his opinions and acutely represents the socio-cultural dynamics of the time.
The Politics of 'Objective' Biopics
When it comes to political biopics, the stakes get higher, and with time—the glorification. Moral ambiguity is absent, and most of them end up becoming hagiographies. The cultural ideology that silently looms over the art produced in a country—more often than not—aligns itself with that of the ruling government. Art, especially the medium of cinema, is thus used extensively for nationalistic revival. Biopics become the perfect tool for the purpose as the attachment to reality adds more credibility, inciting stronger sentiments. Take for instance Uri: The Surgical Strike, which was based on the surgical strikes conducted in 2016 as retaliation to the terrorist attack in Uri. It celebrated the strike without nuance, and by default, the ruling party.
Several films with political plot lines—even political thrillers—have been made that dare to include controversies that are constantly put under the carpet. But a full-fledged political biopic is rare. And those that do exist become mouthpieces or agenda-setting instruments. PM Narendra Modi, Thackeray, and The Accidental Prime Minister were all released in 2019—the year of the general elections. The last decade has also seen a tremendous shift in the kind of biopics being put out. That Shahid came out in the year 2012, and The Accidental Prime Minister in 2019, is perhaps not that much of an accident after all.
Even Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi came out 34 years after Gandhi’s death. Gandhi, My Father (2007) received massive criticism and protest for depicting him as a self-indulgent father. However, Oliver Stone’s unsparing film W. based on George W Bush’s life and presidency was released in 2008 when he was still in office. In a statement, Stone had said, "I want a fair, true portrait of the man. How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world was not lost on the viewers as well as the subject himself.”
Constraints of Making an Unbiased Biopic
The growing number of biopics on public figures while they are still alive, some even practising the profession, is rather interesting. One cannot separate the commerce of the movie from its making. Most feature-length biopics, like their subjects, attempt to put out a larger-than-life illustration. They are thus usually aimed for large-scale commercial success, consequently indulging in profit-making. When a biopic on a celebrity or a public figure with an active fanbase is made, there is already a ready audience.
An entirely authentic account of a public figures life, especially political leaders, seems more and more unachievable as we focus on the perspective of the filmmakers. An entire family, sometimes community, is attached to a biopic. If including certain details—even when they have been in public knowledge—smear the name of the person through the film, the family will naturally object. Defamation cases with biopics are not uncommon. Sometimes releases have been halted. In such cases, the filmmaker's careful steering away from certain details is understandable.
The production of biopics hugely depends on the kind of reception it will invite. The political climate of a country dictates what kind of cinema is put out, especially that is political in nature. In the current scenario with extreme political divide and mob censure, filmmakers cannot put out specifics that are compromising. When stories about mythological and historical figures, even mere titles can cause buses to burn, it ultimately is the viewership that decides how true a movie can afford to be.
Moreover, compressing an entire lived life into less than three hours is a herculean task. It is finally the filmmaker’s discretion as to what parts of the subject’s life and to what extent they want to personify. A truly authentic telling in the post-truth world, with a singular, accepted version of a story, is no longer an actuality. It is then unsurprising that elaborate disclaimers read out that creative liberties have been taken, and that the film is "inspired by" the life events. Not an accurate, but a deliberate representation, only partly authentic.
Cinema is a document of its time. When creative liberties lead to fictionalising of facts and political events, it is a forewarning of the slow alteration of history in public memory. The liberties then must have limitations as well.
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