Spotlight: Biopics in Bollywood

The first time filmmaker Omung Kumar heard about MC Mary Kom was long before she won the bronze medal for boxing in the 2012 London Olympics. Having worked in the industry as an art director for a while, Kumar was ready to make the big shift as a director, and he was bouncing off ideas with long time friend and creative collaborator Saiwyn Quadras. When Quadras told him about this woman who had won the world boxing championship five times, despite taking an eight-year-old hiatus from the sport, Kumar was irritated. “Omung was like ‘why are you narrating an international story to me? I want a Indian story… of an Indian woman’,” recalls Quadras, who was written that screenplay for the film. Kumar’s jaw dropped when he got to know that Mary Kom hails from Manipur and like “almost 90 per cent of the people” around Quadras was ashamed that he wasn’t aware of such an excellent athlete.

Puncing Bag Poster Final
Three years later, Mary Kom, a film “inspired” from the Olympian’s story, with Priyanka Chopra in the lead, is up for release in September. “A lot of people have asked us whether we thought of this biopic after Mary won the bronze medal,” says Quadras. “The truth is that we had started working on this from June 2011 and it worked in our favour that she finally did win that medal.” The medal won the duo a producer, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and Mary Kom joined the league of the still fresh and unexplored genre of biopics in Bollywood.
Starting with the success and acclaim that came the way for films like Paan Singh Tomar and The Dirty Picture, Bollywood seems to have taken biopics a bit more seriously these days. The fact that the leads of both these films, one based on a champion athlete turned dacoit and the other on a south Indian sex siren, landed both Irrfan and Vidya Balan the National Award for acting, explains one part of this enthusiasm. The latter part can be explained by the simple economics of the box office that Hindi films always fall back upon. The next biopic that hit Indian screens, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, based on the life of ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh, went on to rake in the moolah and gained entry into the exclusive Rs 100 crore club. This has led to a flurry of announcements of upcoming projects, with many an A-lister star showing interest in portraying real-life heroes.
It is not that biopics are new to Hindi films. There was Shekar Kapur’s much celebrated biopic on Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen. In 2002, there were three back-to-back films made on Bhagat Singh, one of which fetched Ajay Devgn the top acting honour. Shyam Benegal made one on Netaji Subash Chandra Bose (Bose: The Forgotten Hero) and there have been others which have been ‘inspired’ by the lives of many famous and infamous personalities like Dhirubhai Ambani (Mani Ratnam’s Guru), Bunty Chor (Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye), hockey player Kabir Khan (Shimit Amin’s Chak! De India) and more recently grassroots level activist Sampat Pal (Soumik Sen’s Gulaab Gang). But due to the not-so-enthusiastic response to such films in the past, Bollywood had steered clear from biopics.

However, the time is ripe now, says Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom 18, which has produced both Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom. “The trend, actually, is not that of biopics, but of good films,” he says. “There is a huge audience who has good exposure to world cinema and is ready to promote good content now. This is being reflected in the success of films like Paan Singh Tomar and Milkha.” At the end of the day, it is the story that matters. And who doesn’t like a good story with struggle and victory in the end? asks Andhare.
Sidharth Roy Kapur, managing director of Disney UTV, which has produced PST and is gearing up for a biopic on legendary actor-singer Kishore Kumar, however, warns that one should be careful while picking the right person to base a film on. “Sometimes we tend to be confused the real person and his/her achievements,” he says. “With due respect, sometimes the work produced by a person or an achievement is worth talking about and celebrating, but his or her life may not have enough drama and conflict which will translate into good cinema.”

Writer Saiwyn Quadras with Priyanka Chopra
Writer Saiwyn Quadras with Priyanka Chopra

The next step, after picking the right person, is to do adequate amount of research. While Tigmanshu Dhulia garnered initial information on Paan Singh from his peers, family members and colleagues, Quadras had to rely on the internet for his initial pointers. “I collected everything that was available about her–interviews, articles, newspaper clippings everything,” he says. “Only after I had made sure that what I had gathered was celluloid worthy, did we get in touch with Jimmy, Mary’s manager, through whom we met her and her family in Manipur.” For Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, director of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, it was easier because the subject and his family themselves had rounded in on him to make the film. During the promotions of the film, Mehra spoke about how he lived in Chandigarh for two years and spent time with Singh talking to him and getting to know him. “I got to know him better and entered the dark corners which he had kept close even to his dear ones, children and wife,” the filmmaker said.

A still from Rang Rasiya
A still from Rang Rasiya

So how come this genre was so unexplored till now? The main reason is the creatively restrictive atmosphere that prevails in our country, points out veteran filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. “It is not easy to make a film out of somebody’s life and get away with it as easily as in the West here,” he says. Legal issues top the list of problems that filmmakers have to face when they foray into this genre. A week before Gulaab Gang was scheduled to release, Sampat Pal challenged the depiction of her life in the film in court and got a stay. However, the release went on unaffected as the court later withdrew the stay order. On simliar grounds, Silk Smitha’s brother Vara Prasad sent Balaji Productions a legal notice for having made ‘an obscene film’ on his sister without his consent. This time around, the makers were smart enough to completely deny that the film is based on Smitha’s life, despite the protagonist being called Silk throughout the film. Once Upon A Time In Mumbai, produced by Balaji and publicised as based on don Haji Mastan’s life, faced a similar court orders from the don’s daughter Shamshad Supariwala and his adopted son Sunder Shekhar. The producers once again resorted to the same tactic.
Another filmmaker who has time and again struggled to get his biopics to the public is Ketan Mehta. Having helmed films like Sardar, Mangal Pandey: The Rising, Rang Rasiya and most recently Manjhi: The Mountain Man, Mehta faced flak for showing freedom fighter Mangal Pandey visiting the house of a prostitute in the film. Rang Rasiya, his biopic of 19th century artist Raja Ravi Varma, although finished, has still not found any takers. After having wrapped up work on Manjhi, which is based on the life of Dasrath Manjhi, who literally moved a mountain for the love of his wife, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Mehta’s spirit for telling inspiring stories has not been dampened yet. The filmmaker, who is now in negotiations with Katrina Kaif for his next biopic based on World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan, says, “Sometimes, like in Manjhi’s case, the fact is stranger than fiction. Real life is more astonishing than a fictional story, which is why I find telling the stories of real people fascinating.”
When it comes to authenticity, many Bollywood biopics, however, fail to impress. Bhatt feels that Bollywood has never made a true biopic till now. “We as a country are not used to watching the gritty truth on screen, which is why we haven’t and will not in the near future see a pure and true biopic,” he says. Bhatt’s accusatory tone seems justified when you look closer at the films that claim to be biopics. Save a few, most of them have toed the conventional Bollywood song-and-dance formula, even while dealing with historically significant events and people. National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan says that sometimes a few factors have to be altered while depicting a person’s life into cinema. “A certain amount of compression and changing becomes necessary in biopics,” he says. “For instance, a character may have had five close friends. But for narrative economy, the film may conflate these five friends into one.”
It is always best to involve the person concerned or their families, shows past examples of success. Quadras, who worked closely with Mary Kom, while developing the script, says that the boxer had narrated broad aspects of her life during their discussions. “The best thing about working with her was that once we wrote the scenes, she would set the tone right,” he says. “Like, initially, I had written much harsher dialogues for Mary’s father who, as per her account of events, was dead against her boxing. But when Mary read the lines, she felt that they needed to be toned down because it was sending a wrong message. Mary explained to me the logical reasons her father had for weilding these oppositions and together, we reworked those scenes.” Andhare feels that having a Milkha Singh or Mary Kom endorsing a biopic made on their lives is the perfect marketing plan, apart from lending authenticity and depth to the project.

A still from Dallas Buyers Club Image via Google Images
A still from Dallas Buyers Club
Image via Google Images

Starring in a biopic and undergoing a drastic physical transformation to look convincing as the part has always been one of the sure shot parameters for an Academy Award nomination and many a times an assured win. If this year, Mathew McConnaghey won the Oscar for his portrayal of AIDS victim Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club, the year before that it was Daniel Day-Lewis who took the Oscar home playing President Abraham Lincoln. According to film theorist Andres Perez Simon, since 1998, at least one of the four Oscars for acting, in leading or supporting roles, has been awarded to a biopic performance each year. “Even more significant is the fact that, since 2000, up to 38 biopic performances have been nominated for Best Actor and Actress, and of those, fifteen of them have won an Oscar,” he writes on the Open Humanities Press blog.
Of late, even Bollywood stars are taking this aspect of “looking the part” into consideration. While Vidya Balan gained a few pounds to look convincing as the fading Silk, Farhan Akhtar trained with professional runners and underwent a complete physical transformation to play Milkha Singh and Priyanka Chopra, too, has gained some muscle to play a boxer. Siddiqui says that he based his entire character sketch of Dasrath Manjhi on the inputs he got from the villagers of Gaya, who knew the man personally. “For a whole month, I switched off my phone and had no contact with the world, not even to my wife,” says Siddiqui, about his prep. “To play a character of such depth, I felt such concentration was needed. I didn’t want to end up looking like a caricature.”
Such hardwork and dedication put in by stars lend an extra layer to these films, says Quadras. “A star lends a sort of universal appeal to the story,” he says. However, Chopra’s casting as Mary Kom hasn’t gone down well with many, saying that the makers could have used an actor from the North East to play the Olympian. “At the end of the day, films are both art and commerce and we need someone like Priyanka to get this movie to travel around the world,” Quadras justifies. While stars are not necessary, they definitely elevate the scale of the project, agrees Kapur. “A star’s value cannot be denied,” he says. “When we have a Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom, or a Ranbir Kapoor playing Kishore Kumar, there sure is more curiosity among the viewers.”
All said, it is about getting such stories heard in a way that is most accesible to the common man, says Siddiqui. “When I speak to people about Manjhi, they find it hard to believe that a man spend almost two decades of his life fighting with a mountain for love,” he says. “His will power is amazing and I hope it will inspire many to know that someone like him actually lived among us.”


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