Bollywood’s Biopic Boom

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Bollywood’s Biopic Boom

Sunday, 17 February 2019 | Himanshi Sharma

Bollywood’s Biopic Boom

Not long ago, Bollywood aligned itself with the cultural ideology of the ruling party, which favoured a nationalistic revival. This new cinema demanded a sense of national pride in its stories, and the biopic genre fulfils this condition without ruffling many feathers, writes Himanshi Sharma

On February 9, Rupesh Paul dropped a teaser for his upcoming movie based on the life of Rahul Gandhi titled My Name is RaGa. The film is due to be released in April, just in time for the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. Just two days prior to this, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had released the official film poster of an upcoming Narendra Modi biopic to be directed by Omung Kumar of Mary Kom fame. This year has already seen the release of Thackeray, a biopic based on the life of Shiv Sena firebrand, the late Balasaheb Thackeray; The Accidental Prime Minister directed by Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, which tracks the tenure of Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister of India between 2004 and 2014; and Kangana Ranaut starrer Manikarnika based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai. The phenomenon is not limited to this year either. The year 2018 saw the release of several biopics, including Pad Man, Sanju, Soorma, and Manto, and the genre has been gaining steady rise for over half a decade now. How do we account for this seemingly sudden surge in the popularity of the genre? Why are Bollywood producers and audiences alike smitten with biopics of late?

Biopics were not a particularly attractive genre for Bollywood producers and directors even less than a decade ago when Paan Singh Tomar was released in 2012. They were scattered in Bollywood’s neglected “serious” cinema by-lanes: Films that usually steered clear of portraying contemporary political actors, and often chose to portray fictional interpretations of historical figures. Think of The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), or Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005). Contrast this to Hollywood cinema of the time when the Academy Award for best female actor went to Reese Witherspoon in 2006 for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line, and in 2007, to Helen Mirren for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Hollywood’s romance with biopics as potential Oscar-bait is an open secret; it allows actors to display their acting prowess in terms of both physical impersonation as well as through nuanced interpretations of the motivations of their real-life counterparts.

In Bollywood, on the other hand, even in the event that the film was based on the real life of a contemporary figure, the film was produced as a drama rather than a biopic. Mani Ratnam’s Guru (2007), for instance, though rumoured to be based on the life of business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani, was never promoted as such. And yet, just a decade later, there is a slew of movies based on the real-life stories of sportspersons, film actors, and contemporary politicians, including those who are yet to professionally retire. 

One reason for this massive change in the way films are produced and marketed is the shift in public discourse. Popular Bollywood cinema in the recent decades has recalibrated itself; moving away from its position in newly-independent India as an instrumental opinion-shaper, it has adopted for itself a more subdued reflective role. It’s no wonder then that earlier films shied away from explicit politics. The spike in NRI movies during this period is not coincidental, as multiple academics have consistently noted. Cinema became a reflection of desires; so when the new middle class, itself a product of globalisation, desired to see the ultimate dream of desi mobility against Western backdrops on the silver screen, Bollywood delivered. There was limited scope for meaningful engagement with contemporary politics in such narratives. Indian biopics rarely allow for fancy foreign locales, and so it’s no wonder that the Hindi film industry sidelined the genre.

The global recession of 2008, while it didn’t have much impact on the Indian economy, changed the configuration of Indian politics. With global economy in decline, the momentum of growth and development from the first UPA term dipped. We know the story, of course: A weak Congress embroiled in multiple corruption allegations lost to a much stronger NDA. However, this wasn’t merely a change in political Governments. Bollywood aligned itself with the cultural ideology of the ruling party, which strongly favoured an involved nationalistic revival. This new cinema situated itself in small towns replete with stories of social and economic aspirations, and its unique set of moral and infrastructural challenges. The nationalistic project requires neat heroes and villains, it requires inspiring stories of survival, it involves mythmaking, but above all, it demands a sense of national pride in these stories. The biopic genre fulfils these conditions without ruffling many feathers. Think of it this way: Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dangal both came out in 2016, and both movies tried to capture the many kinds of oppressions that continue to beleaguer women, especially in a small town context. They were both reasonably well made films and both were declared blockbusters, yet while one of them was heavily censored by the Certification Board for being “lady oriented”, the other was declared tax-exempt in certain States.

The story of the Indian biopic boom is incomplete without a discussion of profits. ‘Critical’ cinema in the Indian film industries usually refers to films that do well at the festivals and scoop National Awards, but perform poorly at the box office. They’re usually produced at shoestring budgets, and if a film is lucky, it may sometimes do better than just recovering the cost of production. Shahid (2013) was made on a budget of Rs 65 lakh, its total collection was about Rs 3.6 crore; Paan Singh Tomar (2012) made on a budget of Rs 4.5 crore collected Rs 20 crore. These were peanuts, of course, compared to the profits of big-budget movies; Dabangg (2010) had an opening day collection of Rs 14.5 crore. And yet, in scale with their budgets, these films seemed to be doing quite well. Manjhi (2015) earned double its budget of Rs 8.5 crore, though Hansal Mehta’s widely acclaimed Aligarh (2015) — which was released in India in February 2016 — failed to even recover its cost. But 2013 also saw Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which grossed over Rs 100 crore. Priyanka Chopra starrer Mary Kom (2014) garnered both critical and commercial success, earning over Rs 56 crore. The commercial success of sports biopics resulted in a flurry of similar films vying to cash in on the opportunity. Dangal, M.S. Dhoni, and Sachin: A Billion Dreams were made on budgets that were huge compared to Paan Singh Tomar, and they all made upwards of Rs 50 crore. It’s an easy logic to follow — these sport stars are celebrities with huge followings. They ensure quick publicity, assured audience, and therefore, huge profit margins. But big bucks don’t just make big profits, they also sanitise.

These newer movies may have all been sports biopics, but they were a long way away from the Tigmanshu Dhulia film. Paan Singh Tomar was a sportsman who turned bandit due to the institutional indifference of Government machinery towards people in his position. It’s a masterful and empathetic insight into the character of a much reviled and feared baaghi, an “anti-national” if one was to use the political language of our time. M.S. Dhoni and Sachin:

A Billion Dreams are stories of one-in-million cricket players, who were able to make it in a system that is otherwise stacked against them. You wouldn’t know it after watching these films, though. They follow the recognisable format of building a story of rags to riches, or obscurity to fame. They are stories of struggle, personal failures, and efforts that overcome them.

The audience is invited to see themselves in the hero, to imagine that they can achieve the middle-class dream too if only they put in a little more effort, if only they overcome the barriers that hold them back. At the core of these inspirational stories is always the individual; the system is meant to be ‘won’ rather than questioned or dismantled. The limited budget biopics mentioned earlier do precisely this. Take Shahid, for instance, based on the life of the late Shahid Azmi, an Indian lawyer best known for defending cases of persons accused of terrorism. It is a film that uses the biopic genre to bring communalism, Islamophobia, Government overreach, and the dangerous consequences of cruel and draconian laws on the public life, into sharp focus. Shahid doesn’t just pay homage to Shahid Azmi, it honours his legacy by putting the bravery and perseverance of the individual in perspective by juxtaposing it against an apathetic system.

Both Shahid and Sanju have scenes from prisons, which bear witness to police violence of suspects, TADA’s fallout, and the grim reality of the country’s prison system. Sanju, however, evokes it to generate sympathy from its audience; the scenes overtly dramatise the pain of one man as if to convey that this treatment was reserved for him (think of the overflowing toilet in his jail cell); it might have even justified the same treatment had it been doled out to an ‘actual’ terrorist rather than Sanjay Dutt, who was mistaken to be one. Sanju doesn’t take the opportunity provided to it by the protagonist’s life to reflect on the injustice practised in disproportionately withholding bails of the underprivileged; the film’s only contention is that its protagonist was denied one. Shahid practices restraint but it is able to unpack layers upon layers of violence. In a scene in a police station with Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays Shahid’s brother Asif, he requests the police inspector to grant him permission to meet his brother. The conversation gets heated when the inspector denies the requests and abuses Asif; it’s a memorable scene that compels you to linger on it. The inspector’s ire is not limited to Shahid’s TADA charge; he is incensed when Asif speaks to him in English to make a point; it is a moment that only Hansal Mehta could have visualised. We don’t know the social background of the police inspector’s character, but we can guess it because he embodies the insecurities of the majority; that a Muslim man would speak to him in English is unacceptable to him. Shahid portrays the best of Azmi’s life, but it succeeds because it is able to expand itself by linking the story to those of millions of other stories, in and outside the country.

One of the other important losers in big-budget biopics is inclusion. Of the biopics released in 2017-18, only Pad Man based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham could have claimed to represent an overlooked community in cinematic adaptation. However, as Aswathy Gopalakrishnan notes for, even that remained unrealised: “All non-glitzy elements have been removed from the story, and that includes Muruganantham himself. His identity as a school dropout from an impoverished family of handloom weavers in rural South India gets modified on screen as an upper-caste man named Laxmikant Chauhan (Akshay Kumar) in a town in Madhya Pradesh. It isn’t a minor alteration which can be easily passed in a terribly skewed world where a large section of people are underrepresented or misrepresented in our popular culture.”

Dilip Mandal has pointed out how Manikarnika doled out the same treatment to the character of Jhalkari Bai, Dalit warrior and Lakshmi Bai’s confidante who was instrumental in facilitating the latter’s escape from the palace in Jhansi before her final battle. Though Manikarnika failed to recover its humongous Rs 100 crore budget, the formula has generally worked. I’ll use Mike Sholars’ words, in context of his critique of The Imitation Game, to put it another way: “If the positive outcome of sharing true stories is inspiration, then the negative outcome is the erasure of the struggles and existence of marginalised group and the conflation of entire swaths of the human experience with ‘messy details’ that can be expunged from a narrative with little consequence. It’s one thing to simplify a narrative and quite another to sanitise or sensationalise it.”

And what of the increasing number of biopics based on the lives of active politicians? The abysmal trailer for My Name is RaGa, and the failure of The Accidental Prime Minster  to draw audience might suggest that these stories will only have a short run. But let it be noted that the failure has more to do with the lack of compelling storytelling rather than their political bent. It is yet to be seen how Omung Kumar puts the formula to use in his Narendra Modi film. The truth is that while Bollywood may have climbed the bogey of social change and patriotic fervour, these films are more about the actors who star in them rather than the issues they claim to be addressing.

Much like Chak De! India and Pink, Pad Man and Dangal exist to put woke credentials in the kitties of established male actors. Fresh stories are rewritten in service of these actors relegating the principle subjects and their stories to the background. With female actors asserting their own power in the industry, the same thing has started happening on the other end of the permissible gender binary. Mary Kom had proven that women-centric biopics also make money, and Ranaut’s limited success notwithstanding, several similar biopics based on Anandibai Joshi, Laxmi Agarwal, Gunjan Saxena, Jayalalithaa, Saina Nehwal, Teejan Bai are either in works or slated for release this year. The bottom line? Biopics are hot because Bollywood has finally cracked how to sell them.

The writer is an Assistant Professor (Guest) at Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi

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