Is the wave of bio-pics off to a flying start in Bollywood?

Sep 07, 2013, 07:18 IST | Subhash K Jha

With films like Paan Singh Tomar, 'Bhaag Milkha Bhaag' courting success at the box office and the Mary Kom biopic starring Priyanka Chopra waiting in the wings, that certainly seems to be the case

Even as viewers get a juicy bite of the Apple in the Steve Jobs bio-pic, there are other erudite mavericks whose lives are being put on celluloid in India. The contemporary maths wizard Anand Kumar of ‘Super 30’ fame has his own bio-pic directed by Anurag Basu coming up. But wait. Anurag Basu also wants to direct a bio-pic on Kishore Kumar with Ranbir Kapoor in the lead. So while Anurag does his own maths, Anand may have to wait.

Ranbir Kapoor
Ranbir Kapoor is slated to play Kishore Kumar in the bio-pic of the singing legend’s life

Mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan never had it so good. There are as many as five major bio-pics about him on the cards. One of them with actress Rekha’s nephew Abhinay Vaddi playing the maths wizard is to be directed by Gnana Rajasekaran. The Tamil director has earlier made bio-pics on the lives of poet Subramania Bharathi and political activist E V Ramaswamy. But why only in Tamil? Director Rohit Jugraj has for long been planning a bio-pic in Tamil Hindi and English on Ramanujan with Tamil star Suriya in the mathematician’s role.

'The Flying Sikh' with Farhan Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor at the music launch
‘The Flying Sikh’ with Farhan Akhtar and Sonam Kapoor at the music launch of the movie. Pic/Satyajit Desai

Madhavan has already shot for another Ramanujan epic being directed by Matt Brown. Before delving into the subject Madhavan did considerable research. He visited the town of Kumbakonam where Ramanujan grew up, and spent time with the maths genius’ family and friends. Says Madhavan, “There is really no point in playing a celebrated figure unless you can give it your full attention the way Farhan Akhtar did for Milkha Singh.”

Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays ‘mountain man’ Dashrath Manjhi in a new biopic. Pic/Satyajit Desai

Indeed, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s bio-pic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag on athlete Milkha Singh is a game-changer as far as bio-pics in India are concerned. With the film being granted entertainment-tax exemption in a majority of Indian states, Rakeysh says he is still trying to figure out its impact.

“What I do understand at the moment is that the impact cuts across all sections of people. The other day Farhan Akhtar and I were in a coffee shop when a young NRI couple spoke to us. They said they had seen the film twice already, and it made them feel proud to be Indian. Then the waiters came forward and said how much they liked the film.

Priyanka Chopra
Omang Kumar directs Priyanka Chopra in the role of Mary Kom

Farhan and I get such responses everywhere. It’s most humbling. I still remember my conversation with Milkha Singh four years ago. I said I’d like to make a film on his life and times, and I heard myself saying, ‘I’ve a feeling your life goes way beyond athletics. I feel there’s a Milkha Singh in all of us.’ The challenge for me as a director was to put the Milkha in me across to my audience.”

Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom
Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom

Rakeysh now wants to make a bio-pic on Mother Teresa, though he says the process of making celluloid versions of famous lives as a prevalent practice will take time in this country. “Evolution of new ideas has its own curve.” And now there are a number of bio-pics on sportspersons including hockey champ Dhyan Chand, wrestler Dara Singh and of course boxer Mary Kom, coming up.

Isn’t there a risk of sporty bio-pics turning into a saleable formula? Rakeysh Mehra refuses to see the advancement in the evolution of bio-pics as a manipulative motion into money-making. “There is nothing like formula. There are just good and bad films. The human angle must be explored. Somewhere Milkhaji’s story and its theme of suffering during Partition connected with the entire global community. That’s why Carl Lewis reached out to Milkhaji after seeing BMB. There are persecuted minorities and ethnic communities all over the world.”

Irrfan Khan
Irrfan Khan won a National Award for his portrayal of Paan Singh Tomar in the eponymous movie 

Omang Kumar, who helms the Mary Kom bio-pic with Priyanka Chopra in the title role, sees a great potential in the depiction of real lives on screen. “Bio-pics are deeply inspiring for everyone. But the director has to be very careful about the facts and the emotions associated with the subject matter.” Omang however insists that he isn’t riding the Milkha wave by making a bio-pic on another sports personality. “I started Mary Kom nearly three years ago. Maybe some films about sports legends coming together is just a coincidence.”

However, the trend to bend the bio-pic into an engaging massy format doesn’t seem coincidental. In the coming year we will have one bio-pic coming out after another in quick succession. First off is Mountain Man, Ketan Mehta’s film on Dashrath Manjhi, an impoverished peasant from Gaya in Bihar who spent 22 years from 1962 to 1982 cutting a road through the mountain using just a chisel, so that there would be easy access between his village and the nearest hospital.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays Manjhi, not only lived in Manjhi’s village but also cut mountain rock with his own hands to get a feel of the struggle and hard work that Manjhi undertook. Says Nawazuddin, “To play a real-life character like Dashrath Manjhi 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.”

Nawazuddin was also a small part of another bio-pic, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, about another unsung hero. Irrfan Khan played Tomar and the surprise success of the film on the life of the steeplechase runner, which was released in 2010, opened the door for biographical films on known and lesser-known achievers.

Hansal Mehta’s outstanding bio-pic, the soon-to-be-released Shahid on the slain lawyer Shahid Azmi, falls into that category of films celebrating unsung heroes. Hansal says he was fascinated by the life of the lawyer, who was booked under TADA and spent his life fighting for justice for those similarly wrongly accused. “I think bio-pics are important and it is heartening that many of them are being made in India. Stories coming from true events or biographies are much better than drawing inspiration from DVDs. The danger of success in our industry is the ‘formulization’ of genres and I hope this does not happen to bio-pics.”

Tigmanshu Dhulia feels it makes artistic and box-office sense to make a bio-pic. “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.”

Celebrating celebrity lives makes a whole lot of sense, says producer Shailendra Singh. “India has the youngest population in the world and bio-pics work as a huge inspiration for the young. If well-made and fictionalized without damaging the life that it tackles, then a bio-pic is bound to be winner.”

Sanjay Chauhan, who made the semi-factual film Lahore on sports and Indo-Pak relations, feels the current explosion of bio-pics in Bollywood is a healthy sign. “Immortalizing the lives of real-life inspiring individuals on celluloid has a tenacious connectivity with the audience. The fact that truth is more compelling than fiction is one of the reasons for the eruptive acceptance of the genre.” However, Chauhan warns that the possibilities of artistic licence are severely limited in a bio-pic. “When dramatically implausible twists show up, audiences won’t be tolerant of them in a bio-pic.”

Producer Shristi Behl is all for bio-pics too. “They make interesting inspiring stories. Bio-pics lend themselves to a unique human drama.” However writer Milap Zaveri feels bio-pics make sense only when done sensibly. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was a perfect blend of art and commerce. I feel the bio-pic on Mary Kom will be worth waiting for.” Bio-pics need to be made, says director Shoojit Sircar, adding, “There are so many personalities who have inspired us.

I’d personally like to film the lives of Sarojini Naidu, Bhagat Singh and Rabindranath Tagore.” Subhash Kapoor, whose legal drama Jolly LLB was based on real incidents, is surprised that bio-pics have taken so long to come into their own. “We are such a big country and there are so many interesting personalities in every walk of life. Sadly, more often than not, bio-pics in our country become controversial.”

It is the fear of getting into a controversy that is making writer-director Bhavna Talwar tread cautiously towards a bio-pic on Rajiv Gandhi. Says Bhavna, “My husband, producer Sheetal Talwar, and I are taking this project ahead only with the consent and approval of the people whose lives are affected. There is no point in plunging into something so significant and then being told to stop mid-way. I want to focus on the human side of Rajiv. I believe he was a true visionary and the architect of 21st century India.”

Kalpana Lajmi who is helming a bio-pic on her long-standing companion and musical genius Bhupen Hazarika feels bio-pics need to be treated with the reverence of literature. “They must arouse in viewers the same admiration and curiosity as the written biographies. A film on a personality like Bhupen Hazarika or Rajiv Gandhi must build a strong sense of values and ideology for younger viewers to take home.”

Of course not all bio-pics being attempted are about inspiring leaders. Prawaal Raman’s Bad is inspired by the life of the alleged global outlaw Charles Sobhraj. Says Prawaal, “In today’s scenario I am glad bio-pics are the flavour and the herd race for remakes and inspired take-offs have taken a back seat. And it’s not just about bio-pics. It’s about bio-pics as entertainers. They have to be packaged like any other story.”

Writer Prasoon Joshi, who scripted Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, feels we need to define the bio-pic in a proper perspective. “There is a difference between a full-fledged bio-pic and a film inspired by true life. One needs to tread on responsible ground, or risk creating a myth that is interpreted as the truth. Also, to strike a balance between truth and entertainment is a challenge. If a filmmaker can achieve this balance, this genre is home free.”

Writer Ila Bedi, grand-daughter of celebrated writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, is currently writing a bio-pic on the life of hockey champ Dhyan Chand. She thinks bio-pics are cool. “But the story has to be told in a non-documentary tone capturing the zeitgeist. We writers have to add imagination for self-expression. Our world desperately needs heroes. And where is there a better place to find them than in real life?”

Adds Prawaal Raman, “Poet/singer Jim Morrison had said once, “What is life if not worth basing a movie on?” Years later Oliver stone made Doors on Jim. Bio-pics are cinema influenced by society, a reflection of the lives and people around us. Whether a movie on Gandhi, Che Guevara, Al Capone or Ed Wood, bio-pics are simply the foundation of narratives from centuries.”

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