While Vidya Balan’s Dirty Picture oo-la-laed through the box office, Irfan Khan’s Paan Singh Tomar is still running packed houses. Stories of a south Indian actress and an athlete turned dacoit; these two plots created history by compelling filmmakers to emulate their success and tell real life stories that could set the box office on fire. Setting benchmarks for the crass and commercialised Hindi film industry, these storylines made audiences re-think their perception of these public figures. In awe of these bold projects, critics and audiences endorsed this real deal. This was different. Gritty, dirty, raw, real and humane.
Seduced by the success of the genre, desi filmmakers are exploring the realms of this provocative cinema that has enthralled people world over. Desi scriptwriters are digging deep into the annals of history to reveal a bright spot and make that extra buck.
Winds of change sweep through Bollywood and these real life events are being used for their artistic allure and commercial gains. Exploring this much elusive genre, filmmakers like Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra are bringing the heroics of Milkha Singh to silver screen while films on painter Raja Ravi Verma, hockey legend Dhyan Chand, the well known Kishore Kumar, Begum Samru, student leader Chandrashekhar are yet to hit theatres.
This rage for biopics is a welcome change as compared to the stereotypical, itemised, rotten, Bollywood plots dominated by crappy RaOnes, Housefulls and other spineless story lines.
Stuck with the mundane song and dance routines, Hindi films have shied away from entering into the twilight zones of the lives of individuals. It is a biopic that sheds light on the fine points of a character and give an opportunity to the actor and spectator to discover this person. And what it would be to be this person.
Wary of the exhaustiveness of the research, Hindi film industry didn’t dare to risk with the chronicles of ordinary men and women that were way too intriguing and worthwhile. It wasn’t a gamble worth taking in the age of mindless, overtly romantic comedies that were far from reality.
A die hard fan of biopics, I have looked westwards for riveting stories that were successfully captured on reel. These films stimulated imagination and gave a glimpse into the lives of some extraordinary men and women. Gandhi, Chaplin, Schindler’s List, Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, I’m Not There, Aviator, Malcom X, A Beautiful Mind, Frida, Cinderella Story, Ray, Ed Wood, Catch me if you can, and many others convinced me not only to appreciate this genre, but embrace it. These films boldly and unconventionally challenged the audiences and summed up a life in just two hours. A fascinating achievement, something that Bollywood is yet to learn.
Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Jamie Foxx, and many others, were exceptional in portraying these individuals. A fresh impetus to their otherwise successful commercial careers, biopics made actors out of stars.
Leonardo Di Caprio tops my list for his alluring performances in several biopics. He made these famous and infamous men legends with his thrilling acts. Be it J Edgar or Frank Abagnale Jr or Howard Hughes, he opened a beautiful window for the audiences who sought to know more. His conviction in portraying these characters even helped him bag several other biopics that are in the pipeline. He could soon be seen as the legendary Frank Sinatra.
However, collisions of actualities and dramatic fiction caused a lot of resistance to these plots. More often, the thin line between fact and fiction was blurred to make the storyline more attractive. This has been one of the foremost criticisms of this genre and several instances of filmmakers deviating from fact to fiction have often come to fore. Even in Bollywood, gossip and folklore were often used to make films more titillating.
Bollywood preferred to sensationalize. In ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’, Ajay Devgan as the legendary revolutionary was dancing and crooning to fit the need of a typical Bollywood stereotype. Similarly, Shahrukh Khan was seen gyrating with Kareena Kapoor in ‘Ashoka’. This Ashoka was far fetched and audiences rejected this consumerist, metro sexual version of the great king.
These ridiculous commercialized innovations reflected poor treatment to such nuanced plots that needed special care and meticulous research. Historical facts were often fudged to make masala films that were still booed by the audiences. ‘Mangal Pandey’ was a classic case of a biopic gone wrong. Too much of fictionalisation of the plot led to its doom.
However, Hindi cinema has had its tryst with this provoking genre. In the past, several directors used original narratives to create an impact. Dada Saheb Phalke’s ‘Raja Harishchandra’, the first Indian feature film based on the life of a king who sacrificed his kingdom and family to honour a promise, is a legend. Sohrab Modi’s biographical works—‘Pukar’, ‘Sikander’, ‘Prithvi Vallabh’, ‘Jhansi ki Rani’, ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and ‘Meena Kumari ki Amar Kahani’ – are still considered as gems of Hindi cinema. Guru Dutt’s ‘Pyaasa’ and ‘Patthar Ke Phool’ were brilliant renditions of his own tryst with love and life. But, as time passed, biopics lost relevance and mindless action and comedy movies took over.
This was the beginning of the end. Though, ‘Bandit Queen’ did raise some expectations, but its bad show at the box office discouraged others to risk it all.
But, history might be repeating itself with new breed of filmmakers who are ready to unfurl the true potential of this genre and shed these stale and boring story plots.
Let’s embrace this genre with arms wide open.