Biopics are a much-loved genre even as movie-goers are looking to be inspired by real-life heroes
The success of a trendsetting film opens doors for many other filmmakers to try out the same genre. Right now, biopics are clearly the flavour of the season. And so we have upcoming films like Sarbjit, Azhar, Dangal and MS Dhoni: The Untold Story all set to release this year. Each film has an impressive cast and crew backing the project.
It is common trade knowledge that Indian filmmakers as well as viewers have a healthy appetite for biopics, at least today. In the past too, there was a time when five films based on freedom fighter Bhagat Singh hit cinema halls and despite such a large number of films based on the same person, one or two managed to do well.
Earlier too, films like Neerja, The Dirty Picture, Paan Singh Tomar, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, and Manjhi: The Mountain Man proved their mettle. These films not only set the cash registers ringing, they also won critical acclaim, not only for their lead actors but also the filmmakers attached to these films.
Since Bollywood loves to follow a trend, we have a slew of biopics announced, each one with big names. For instance, Ketan Mehta had announced a biopic on Rani Laxmi Bai, with Kangana Ranaut in the lead role. Amole Gupte is all set to helm a biopic on badminton player Saina Nehwal, while last year Karan Johar had announced on Twitter a film with Aarti and Pooja Shetty, a biopic on hockey player Dhyan Chand. Then there’s Sushant Singh Rajput, who after playing ace cricketer MS Dhoni has signed another biopic on the life of Paralympic gold medallist Murlikant Petkar.
Some of the other biopics that have been announced are: Haseena – The Queen Of Mumbai to be directed by Apoorva Lakhia, based on underworld gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s sister Haseena; a biopic on hockey player Sandeep Singh, to be produced by Chitrangada Singh; and a biopic on actress Meena Kumari to be helmed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, who earlier made Paan Singh Tomar.
With a stellar line-up of biopics all set to hit the marquee, here’s the industry’s take on the box-office potential of these films, the biopics trend that our industry is following, and why filmmakers now want real on reel:
In the last year, biopics have done huge business at the box office. Earlier, these films were considered niche and were not commercially viable. However, the last year has changed all that and the audience is now open to watching good movies, regardless of whether they feature a big star or not. They are mainly looking for good stories. That’s why, when Omung Kumar came to me with the script of Sarbjit last Diwali, I said ’yes’. Today, the audience is looking for real-life heroes and for a real connection, which means you will do great business.
But when it comes to biopics, you have to be careful what you are making and about whom. The person we choose to make a film on should be a national/international name; you can’t make a film on just about anyone. We all know what Sarbjit endured for 23 years in a Pakistani jail and his sister’s struggle. The connection is very important.
While it is true that the Hindi film industry sometimes displays a herd mentality by following successful precedents, and that the success of ‘Bhaag Milkha..’ triggered a landslide of interest in biopics, it is good that people are exploring new genres. Biopics or, for that matter, adaptations from literature were not considered great source material for scripts a few years ago. Today, many filmmakers are rushing to seek them out. Good! No need for us to dismiss their efforts simply because they may be precedent-driven. That is how popular culture evolves, anyway.
Mahesh Mathai approached me in 2010 to mentor a script that he wanted done on the life of a wonderful person he knew. I agreed. Eventually, as it happened, I began writing it for him myself last year, and it has been an interesting ride. Writing the Bhagat Singh biopic was challenging in itself, but to script the life of a living person can be an extremely delicate exercise. To extract a story from the person’s life and narrate it back to him can be a daunting task! Can only succeed when you know the character better than the subject knows it. Sounds crazy, but there it is! There’s the subject’s life and personality, which he best knows; and then there’s the story and the character, which you ought to know best. I’d say, only then is a biopic really possible.
Every era has seen a new trend. The ‘40s was the era of melodrama, the ‘50s were about religious films, the ‘60s saw love stories, the ‘70s was the era of action films, the ‘80s was when South remakes were working. The ‘90s saw innocent love stories, and, in 2000, we saw a huge change in cinema in terms of technology as stories were now more relatable.
Similarly, the present era is a time when we are looking for real-life heroes. We are looking for real stories with which we can make a connection. We are looking for a regular person as a hero among us. As a writer, I believe biopics are here to stay as they are not remakes and not based on a specific style. Since everyone’s life is unique, you have a different story to tell every time you make a biopic. In today’s times, we are looking for ‘real’ heroes who have done something very unique, like Neerja. I also believe it’s a time when we are looking for new heroes, an every city and every state in India has a real hero whose story can be told.
Trends in our business are temporary but a good story will always get the audience to the theatres be it a biopic or a fictional story. That being said, every writer will happily accept that there is a lot of real life inspiration in every piece of fiction. So in case of biopics, those stories that stay true to the adage ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ more often than not works brilliantly with the audience.
Fiction has more scope for creativity because the imagination need not be limited but in case of true life stories though creative liberties can be taken but the parameters are more or less set and the main challenge in them is to project reality in a manner that is film worthy.
Biopics are definitely the ‘in thing’ and we have been treated to some good ones in recent times as directors who chose to tell a real story did justice to the characters. It is very important for a director to do justice to the subject’s personal life. Recent biopics that I have loved are Talvar and Neerja, both outstanding films. Of course, our industry follows trends but I see this trend as a positive sign because in the quest to look for real-life stories, we are creating more and more original stories.
Nitesh Tiwari, Director
I don’t think it has become a trend or that Bollywood is following a formula. Biopics are still a very small fraction of the total number of films that are made here. Realistic cinema seems to have found its place in people’s hearts and biopics effortlessly cater to that demand. Also, what works in favour of biopics is that people relate to them much more since they are inspired by real life. However, one needs to make sure that these real-life stories transform into great cinematic experiences as well.
Today, the audience is open to reality, and not only biopics but even stories that tell you the truth about yourself or about society. You can see this penchant for reality in Kapoor & Sons too. Earlier, cinema was largely escapist but we recently saw that escapist films do not work as well as real films do.
At the same time, we are asking ‘who are our heroes?’ At one point, we had great heroes in our country, like Nehru and Gandhi. Now we are looking for people whose life stories can inspire us, where we feel, arrey usne kiya toh main bhi kar sakta hoon. I don’t mean this in a superhero kind of way but in a way that is relatable.
Now that we have watched the trailer of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, we know that Dhoni was a station master before he became a cricketer. In every era, we have had a film that has changed its genre. For instance, there was Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, where Shah Rukh Khan’s character stood for certain values, he didn’t run away with the girl, he waited for her parents’ permission. That was apt in a cultural context and the film reflected a value system. I am presuming that, at this stage, we are looking for real-life heroes.
I believe it is very dangerous to blindly follow a trend. What happens in our industry is once something works, everyone starts following it and tries to turn it into a ‘success formula’. But the audience doesn’t watch a film based on whether it’s a biopic or commercial cinema; they watch a film only when it’s good. This is why we need to deliver quality content. It’s been a few years since we realised that the audience has changed; they have been looking for realism. Airlift was not a biopic but it was based on a true event, so was Talvar. Even a story like Kapoor & Sons is easy to relate to. The audience is looking for real stories.
Another thing that works in favour of biopics is that it’s easy for producers to market these films because you market facts about the real person, you give out information and star-studded promotions. There was enough information about Neerja, which helped with the promotions.
It’s no secret that our industry loves to follow a trend to cash in on a genre that seems to be working, as we did with South remakes. But when you make a biopic, you have to be very careful with the subject and what you are going to show because the film is about one individual. Also, I believe we are moving towards ‘reality’ cinema or biopics because we are looking for people who inspire us as with the films Neerja and even Airlift.
Biopics allow you to create original content, and today because we can access all kinds of content being made in any part of the world, it is important to look for new and fresh stories. That is one reason biopics have a positive future.