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Made in La La Land: Why Do Most Indian Biopics Fail to Impress?

We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.

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Biopics and Bollywood don’t really go hand in hand. Though you wouldn’t think so going by the number of official biopics churned out in the last year or two. Even as Dangal is raking in the moolah in China, Ranbir Kapoor is shooting for the Sanjay Dutt biopic. Shraddha Kapoor is essaying the role of gangster Haseena Parker, while Arjun Rampal’s role in Daddy is said to be inspired by gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli. Rajinikanth’s Dharavi gangster in Kaala is believed to have shades of notorious gangster Haji Mastan.

We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.

Quite a haul this. And super intriguing stories all with the promise of generous doses of drama, action and entertainment. But would they deliver? Would we really see the dark space Dutt is sure to have been in during his drug-seeped days or Haseena’s evil-steeped ambition?

A look at Bollywood’s biopic track record doesn’t leave much scope for hope.

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Public figures - be it politicians, actors or gangsters - are put on a pedestal in India and come what may, they can do no wrong. The movies reflect just that. With very few exceptions - I can think of Aligarh, Shahid and The Dirty Picture over the top of my head - our films usually portray one-dimensional, whitewashed characters on screen who struggle to reach the pinnacle of success but never fall prey to any human frailty. They are never nasty, they don’t lie, cheat, or let anyone down. In short, they are demi-gods.

Take Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Mangal Pandey: The Rising, Dangal or even the docu-drama Sachin: A Billion Dreams. These people are legends in their own right, but does that make them less human? Have they never been mean even once in their entire lives? Don’t their family/ friends/ colleagues find a single irritating trait in them? The films seem to say so. 
We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.
Naseeruddin Shah

And this makes you wonder. Why are we so afraid to show the grey side of our icons on screen? Would that diminish their image and work in the public eye? Is the Indian audience incapable of revering flawed greatness?

If the same practice had been implemented in the West as well, would we have films like Raging Bull, The Social Network or A Theory of Everything? Perhaps not.

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Family Matters

The primary reason why watchable biopics can’t be made in India is because it involves obtaining permission from the protagonist’s family. And where Indian families are concerned, it’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! or nothing on screen. No washing dirty - or even dusty - linen in public here.

And this also means, that if the family doesn’t like something in the film, they take the producers to court. And everyone knows how that works in India!

Take the Vidya Balan-starrer The Dirty Picture for instance. The makers initially announced an official biopic with the family on board. But along the way, disagreements blossomed and they parted ways. Producer Ekta Kapoor announced that it was not an official biographical film and was inspired by many actors like Silk Smitha. They were still served a legal notice by Silk Smitha’s brother V Naga Vara Prasad, who felt that the actor had been depicted in an “obscene” way in the film.

Cut to Anurag Basu’s yet-to-begin biopic on Kishore Kumar. While according to media reports the legendary singer’s family might have cleared the project, there has been strong objections from his second wife Madhubala’s family. According to a 2013 report by Times of India, Madhubala's sister Madhur Bhushan had serious qualifiers for the project.

We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.
Kishore Kumar and Madhubala in the still from a film. 
I won’t let them do anything without my permission. They will have to substantiate their claims. Yes, they can show that Madhubala was a great actor, had an affair with Dilip Kumar and they can talk about her romance and marriage to Kishore Kumar, her heart ailment... but I won’t tolerate anything beyond this. I will strongly object if they show her affairs or the fight between Kishore Kumar and her. Which couple doesn’t have misunderstandings and fights? Only my sister, Kishore and I know the truth. 
Madhur Bhushan, Madhubala’s sister (As told to Times of India)
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We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.
Mahesh Bhatt
And if you are dealing with a gangster as your protagonist, well, expect to be sued/ visited by his/ her family. While SRK’s Raees got sued by Mustaq Ahmad for “defaming” his father, underworld don Abdul Latif, Shraddha Kapoor, who is playing gangster and Dawood Ibrahim’s sister Haseena Parker in the upcoming Haseena, got a visit from her children on the sets. Luckily for her and the team, they reportedly liked the footage they saw.
We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.
Shraddha Kapoor in and as Haseena.

And now, Sundar Shaekhar, who says he’s the adopted son of the infamous underworld don Haji Mastan Mirza, has sent a legal notice to Rajinikanth asking him not to depict Haji Mastan as a ‘smuggler and an underworld don’ in his upcoming film Kaala.

Also read: Rajinikanth Gets Legal Notice From ‘Don’ Haji Mastan’s Adopted Son

Who in their right mind wants to get killed for a movie, right?

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Power Punch

Now most Indian films revolving around real-life characters don’t even declare them as official biopics, so they can be spared the trouble. They go the fictionalised route that come with the qualification “inspired by”. But escape doesn’t lie that way either. Not always.

We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.
Suchitra Sen’s character, Aarti, in Aandhi was said to have been modelled on then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Take Gulzar’s 1975 film Aandhi, which was banned 20 weeks after its release because rumour mills went on an overdrive drawing similarities between then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the film’s protagonist Aarti played by Suchitra Sen. Gandhi, My Father met with huge protests in the country for depicting him as a distant and self-indulgent father. While The Making of the Mahatma managed to slip through, a public interest litigation or PIL was filed hours before the premiere of Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero. The issue? The film depicts Bose as married to Austrian Emilie Schenkl, and that he died in a plane crash in Taiwan. Many of his followers believe he disappeared instead.
We portray one-dimensional characters who struggle to succeed but never fall prey to any human frailty.
Shyam Benegal.

(Of course, these days we also protest against films around mythical characters - think of the dust kicked up over Padmavati and the poster of Behen Hogi Teri!)

Also read: Rani Padmavati Controversy: Myth vs Reality

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So caught between the faimly, goons and politicians, where does the Indian biopic go? To la la land, of course!

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from entertainment and bollywood

Topics:  Biopic   Dangal   Bhaag Milkha Bhaag 

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