Last week’s international release, Lincoln, is the odds-on favourite to be the biggest winner in the upcoming Academy Awards aka the Oscars, having garnered as many as 12 nominations – including the big ones: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role. As the title suggests, the Steven Spielberg-directed film is based on a biography of the iconic American President, Abraham Lincoln.
Hollywood is no stranger to biopics. The Diary Of Anne Frank, Cleopatra, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Patton, Tropic Of Cancer, The Assassination Of Trotsky, Papillon, Serpico, Capone, Dog Day Afternoon, MacArthur, Elvis, Raging Bull, Chariots Of Fire, Kennedy, The Untouchables, Born On The Fourth Of July, My Left Foot, Goodfellas, Bugsy, The Doors, JFK, Chaplin, Hoffa, Malcolm X, Schindler’s List, Dead Man Walking, Nixon, Truman, Evita, Elizabeth, Boys Don’t Cry, Man On The Moon, Erin Brockovich, Men Of Honor, A Beautiful Mind, James Dean, Catch Me If You Can, The Pianist, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Hotel Rwanda, Ray, The Last King Of Scotland, The Queen, American Gangster, Charlie Wilson’s War, A Mighty Heart, Frost/Nixon, Invictus, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, J. Edgar, Moneyball, Hugo, The Iron Lady and many more… one can literally list hundreds of memorable films based on real-life incidents of real people.
However, when it comes to our industry, one can probably count on one’s fingers the number of biopics that have hit the screens, barring a few usually hagiographic praise-a-thons on national heroes like Bhagat Singh, BR Ambedkar, Subhash Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel. And the biggest irony of them all, the biopic most identified with India – Gandhi – was essentially a foreign picture with Richard Attenborough directing Ben Kingsley in the title role.
A substantial reason for this reluctance to bring real lives to on-screen life is not because our country lacks fascinating life-stories, but our society’s extreme touchiness to the smallest of perceived slights to overly revered icons.
And who can blame our filmmakers for shying away from this genre? We need look no further than the very recent hullaballoo over Vishwaroopam, where Kamal Haasan had to face multiple bans and finally cave in before the film managed to see the light of day. And, mind you, that was just a piece of fiction with no real person either depicted or implied.
Indeed, protests and demands for bans are now par for the course for virtually every second film and whether Aarakshan, Mausam, Son Of Sardaar, Vishwaroopam or countless other films, our industry has got accustomed to either mollifying or succumbing to some group or the other in order to release their films.
Which is why even films like Guru and The Dirty Picture went to great lengths to present themselves as works of fiction even when their real-life parallels were obvious to everyone. And understandably so, given that a fabulous film like Bandit Queen had to face the wrath of the person it was based on, Phoolan Devi, who demanded its ban and threatened to immolate herself outside theatres playing it.
However, hopefully we are witnessing the green shoots of the biopic genre finally emerging in our industry.
Last year, it was Paan Singh Tomar that awoke the audience and our fraternity to the narrative richness of true stories and their ability to translate into powerful, commercially successful cinema. And now we have biopics on such diverse personalities as Milkha Singh, Kishore Kumar, MS Subbulakshmi, Verghese Kurien, Indira Gandhi, Mary Kom, Dashrath Manjhi, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Dhyaan Chand, and Rajiv Gandhi at various stages of production or contemplation.
One hopes that this genre takes shape, not least because there are so many captivating real-life stories out there that deserve to be told and there is money to be made in their telling.
The truth is not only stranger than fiction, it can also be more lucrative too.