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Reality Check

Films based on real life are all the rage but getting it right means balancing reality against entertainment. What matters more - the truth or a compelling narrative?



Real life can be stranger, and sometimes more interesting, than fiction. That’s the adage that the Hindi film industry is sticking by these days. Real-life stories are clicking with the audience like never before as filmmakers are not only showing reality very well but, in the process, also managing to entertain.

In 2018, films like Raazi, Hichki, Raid, Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran, Manto and other stories based on real life incidents or people enchanted the audience. This year began with films like URI: The Surgical Strike, The Accidental Prime Minister, Thackeray and Manikarnika – The Queen Of Jhansi.

Truth can be a bitter pill but in the hands of a skillful story teller, it can become a compelling narrative. It is very difficult to find the right emotions, whether it is fear or sadness or love or humour, in these real stories but it has been proved that Bollywood can do it, and even excel at it. Therefore, filmmakers who root their film in real-life incidents have a unique challenge – staying true to the facts of the story while also engaging and entertaining the audience.

Here are some of the key questions they face: How much reality should be presented on screen? How many fictional elements can be added? Is it okay to take creative liberties to enhance the drama? Where is the line that should not be crossed while presenting controversial elements?

Another challenge is choosing the right story to tell. With changing times, the relevance and impact of real life events and personalities change, and the way they are interpreted also change. So as a writer or a filmmaker, especially someone who wants to present reality, there is also a certain social responsibility in presenting a balanced movie.

This week, we spoke to several noted filmmakers and writers who have penned stories based on reality and asked them to share their thoughts regarding this delicate balancing act. Here’s what they have to say.

Anjum Rajabali, Writer-Actor

If you want to write a script on a real-life incident or a real person, you have to be able to make a story out of it. And that means you have to dramatise that reality so that the interesting hidden aspects of it rise to the surface. That is what I would call entertainment. There is nothing quite as ‘entertaining’ as a good story that is well scripted. When one is scripting history or a real personality, you can’t change some basic well-known facts about them. That would make the story false. However, you can create fictional situations to bring out the person’s, or the real incident’s hidden truths.

Meghna Gulzar, Director

When you take an incident from a real person or a real life, the very fact that it has lent itself to you so that you can make a film means there is inherent entertainment. Entertainment has many connotations. It can make you laugh, frightened or sad. Primarily, entertainment needs to engage the audience. That is the starting point. Once you make that decision, at least for me as a filmmaker, I like to stay true to the story, the real story that I am telling.

Throughout the journey, if I wonder whether it is entertaining or not, I would be doing the story as well as my craft a disservice. When you choose a story that is real, you have to believe it has that entertainment factor because that is why you have chosen it in the first place. You know it is engaging enough to make it into a two-hour feature film, so you don’t worry about balancing it much. I believe that true life is far more engaging enough than fiction. It requires very little in terms of bells and whistles to make it entertaining.

Madhur Bhandarkar, Director-Writer

It is absolutely essential to balance the facts and the entertainment factor, or else people will get upset. We have seen these things happening during Indu Sarkar and Padmaavat. Balancing the two things is very important. We need to make sure that a feature film does not become a documentary.

Filmmakers and writers often add things to make films a little more engaging and entertaining, which is important. Certain subjects require the additional elements, but it is up to the writers and the filmmakers as to what lengths they want to go to. The most significant thing is that a film should engage people. Be it a biopic or a film based on real events, people need to engage with the script in totality, apart from any individual factor in the film.

Raj Kumar Gupta, Writer-Director

I think maintaining a balance is most important. Often, reality can be too overwhelming and there is the danger of the perspective getting lost. So, it is very important how a filmmaker balances between reality and the fictional bits. Not getting too overwhelmed by the reality or by the fiction is most important.

In some stories, like No One Killed Jessica, I don’t think you are looking at things that would entertain people. Here, the story came from tragedy. You are just trying to tell the story while making it as engrossing and dramatic as possible. The real-life incident on which  it was based was dramatic enough. It was something that people wanted to watch and there was interest around it inherently. When you are doing something like Raid, there is scope to create something different. You feel you can take a few more liberties. It all depends on the story.

Aditya Dhar, Writer-Director

Any great film will have a great balance. Be it Sholay or Mughal-E-Azam or Mother India even Andaz Apna Apna, it will have a great balance. So, that balance is something you will feel; you cannot define it. The problem happens, and it happens a lot in our industry, when people have directed 7 to 8 films, they unfortunately start thinking that whatever they are thinking is right. They stop taking feedback. It no longer is a team effort. And great films are made by great teams. It is not just great directors or great actors. It is really important that you keep the focus right. It is a collaborative effort and you need to take feedback from everyone. You need to understand what is right and what is wrong and see it in a real, practical way. You cannot bring your ego into this. You cannot bring your attitude into this. I really hope that for the rest of my life it doesn’t happen with me, ever. I hope that the people I have worked with; be it my DoP Mitesh (Mirchandani), my production designer, my costume designer, my music director Shashwat (Sachdeva), I hope it doesn’t happen with anyone of them. I feel after URI: The Surgical Strike they are my responsibility and I need to take care of them. I hope that none of us get that feeling. It always has to be a team effort.

You take a creative liberty as long as it is not interfering into the reality. So it has to be balanced. In URI also we have taken a lot of elements from real life, the operational part of surgical strike was very close to the real thing, but there were details we couldn’t reveal due to security reasons. And the family part is also taken bit by bit from different parts. It was an amalgamation of different stories. The reality and the fiction is not jarring, it is not eating into each other and is in perfect balance.

Amit Sharma, Director

I believe that the entertainment quotient can be brought in maintaining the facts. They don’t always have to be contrasting. Some stories demand to be shared with the masses and if we take some cinematic liberty to make the story more intense that is acceptable.

We pick stories that are exciting, so we don’t need to worry about balancing facts and entertainment. The stories are entertaining by themselves. The story that I am working on is more entertaining than any work of fiction I have worked on.

Nandita Das, Director-Writer-Actor

When you are doing a biopic, you have a responsibility of depicting the facts correctly. Of course, there are creative liberties that one takes to tell the story but they have to be in line with the reality of the person, the events and the context. For me, content and form are not separate. In fact, the form is driven by the content. But the form needs to be appealing, as in the end, you are communicating and trying to connect with people. I don’t see cinema as only a means of ‘entertainment’, I see it as an engaging art that can trigger conversations and challenge prejudices.

Ritesh Shah, Writer

This is a difficult question. When it comes to historical events that have huge relevance and importance in our lives, you want to get the facts right. But if you look at the reason for making a film, it is to entertain an audience, which is primary; everything else is secondary. So there are two things you need to keep in mind: presenting events that are not factually incorrect and making sure they entertain the audience. It is a constant struggle to achieve a balance between facts and entertainment, and this is very difficult to achieve when writing real-life stories.

I suppose some creative liberties can be taken. People have taken them throughout the history of films, drama and television. Creative liberties are allowed but facts and dates that are of extreme relevance, historical importance and community-sensitive should not be tampered with. It would be difficult for me to represent Hitler as a very nice and innocent person. I cannot change the fact that he committed atrocities just because it would help my narrative.

Liberties can be taken as long as they are not huge departures and they do not defame or hurt anybody. Take, for example, the family lives of real life characters. For the sake of entertainment, we introduce their partners and end up building a relationship between the husband and the wife which probably did not exist. Small liberties like these can be taken, but when it comes to bigger and more important events, that becomes an ethical dilemma.

Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh, Writer

Cinema is a mass medium channel meant for mass consumption. ‘Entertainment’ is an overused word that is taken very lightly. Entertainment also has this very wholesome, meaningful, reassuring and heartfelt part to it. We tend to associate entertainment with comedy and action in Hindi films. All films that engage you emotionally where the stories stay with you and you come out of the theatre thinking that we should go watch this film is what encompasses entertainment.

Writing films and telling stories for cinema is our primary job. You need to tell a gripping story; whether it is a funny gripping story or a sad gripping story is an altogether different conversation. When we are looking at real-life events, the big challenge is that there are only so many liberties you can take with facts. You cannot overdo it. If there is a small fight, you cannot blow it up. If there are small differences between a husband and wife, you cannot make it look like they are going to get divorced. So you have to be sincere to the reality that someone has handed you with the faith that you will stick to it as much as possible even when you are telling that story for a film.

But, yes, sometimes you have to take emotions up a notch or play it out a little more elaborately than it actually is so that the experience becomes more engaging and you feel that the person was feeling it when it was actually happening. In fact, a few days ago, I was talking to Ram Madhvani about Neerja. We had written 28-29 scenes beside the ones that were there in the film. We took that journey of really steering away from the life of the girl by incorporating a few scenes between the couple. But then we decided not to do that. That was a big learning for us from Neerja because we did not steer away from the truth too much.

But within that, there are many elements that we wrote such as how the rishta happened and the father-daughter conversation when she was a child. That is something we have to keep doing to stay close to the real event. We are also developing a film for JA Entertainment that is based on a real person. We have the same challenge over there too because it is a very personal story. When it is a person, they worry about how they will be portrayed. If there is a grey area in their life, we cannot do away with that. And the grey areas are always more interesting to portray on screen. That becomes very challenging because you cannot compromise on the person’s faith but also tell the story at the same time.

Siddharth P Malhotra, Director

According to me, entertaining the audience is a compulsion. People are paying entertainment tax. They go to theatres, which is like an escape for them. You just have to entertain the audience. This is a no-brainer but you can do that as long as you do not change the story. I made a film about a man, Brad Cohen, who has Tourette’s Syndrome and became a teacher even though nobody wanted to give him a job. I told him that I would revolve my film around a woman and Brad was equally involved in the film. He trained Rani (Mukerji) on the syndrome.

So when you are making something on a real person, you have to give them due respect because you are making your story on their lives. We need to make sure that we do not change anything for the sake of entertainment. At the same time, the screenplay and story should be presented in a way that is entertaining for the audience. The story should stay the same but the screenplay and dialogue should be entertaining. You can take creative liberties as long as you are not changing the impact of the character.

URI: The Surgical Strike is about an attack on our own jawaans and the surgical strike by the Indian Army. They did not change the back story; they added other elements such as the Garud to make it more interesting. There were many such scenes that gave rise to nail-biting moments. Besides that, they did not deviate from the actual mission.

Similarly, I did not deviate from what Brad went through and his idealism. According to me, that is what it boils down to when it comes to a story based on someone’s life. There is no formula to strike a balance between facts and entertainment as it is very subjective. Speaking for my films, they should be entertaining without tampering with the intent or the reason I chose to tell the story of a particular person.

Omung Kumar, Director

While presenting a story based on true events, it is always important to present the facts correctly and at the same time present the story in an entertaining manner. So both are equally important while making a film. If the entertainment quotient is absent, a film will fail to connect with the audience. Facts can’t be distorted in a film that claims to be a true story or inspired by one. Some creative liberties can be taken but not with the facts. There needs to be the right kind of balance in order to keep the audience engrossed. Every aspect in the making of a film plays an important role in shaping the final product, be it the story, screenplay, direction, performances, music and production values, among other elements.

Sanjay Chauhan, Writer

We have to strike a balance between entertainment and presentation of facts. If you are writing a book, you can use all the material that is available from real life. I don’t think anyone of us would go to watch a documentary and pay 200 bucks for it. The basic purpose of cinema is entertainment. If there is something more than entertainment, so much the better. But there are some films that are solely meant to entertain. Total Dhamaal, for instance, is packed with humour and fun. We cannot expect anything serious from it. But when we decide to make a film on real life, we have to identify the interesting aspects. Sometimes, we need to omit some major chunks if they are dry and boring. We have to pick out instances and events that revolve around the core essence of the real life event or the person around whom the film is based.

Sometimes, we end up incorporating comic scenes but we need to make sure they do not look forced. In Paan Singh Tomar, there was no ice cream initially. It became a character while telling the story. It is became an entire device eventually. Even Paan Singh Tomar’s interview was real. He had done an interview in Gwalior. We used it as a major device to show how the story goes back and forth. We had removed some chunks of his life. We had to do it and make sure that the audience did not lose interest.

We have to be honest while dealing with such stories. When we talk in real life, there is a certain fun element in our conversations. That is exactly how we wrote the script. When you are writing a biopic or a story based on real life, presenting the facts correctly is of utmost importance. In these cases, entertainment becomes secondary, according to me. There is a big responsibility when you are making a biopic; their family and close ones should not feel like the facts have been distorted and too many liberties have been taken.

For instance, the commanders who were a part of the Uri attack said in an interview that people should watch URI: The Surgical Strike to be entertained and the information is not presented in the way in which the event happened. They had taken liberties that were in line with the main narrative. But, for me, an honest presentation of facts is very important.

I am working on a biopic which is being produced by Fox Star. I cannot take any names because of the NDA that I have signed. I have written the screenplay. Now they are looking for a director. There is another film that is based on real life which is a more fictionalised version. It is a fictional biopic.

Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, Director

When making a film on personalities who are well-known, you need to be very true. In my case, I knew that the subject was talking about the tenure of Mr Manmohan Singh. But some things are not connected. There are incidents from 2004, incidents from 2007 and some from 2006. Whenever there is a narrative in which something that is real is being told, there is no freedom. Forget about getting the characterisation right or the acting right. I was restricted by a book, which was not connected throughout, and I could not add fiction to it. That’s the biggest hurdle.

As writers, Mayank Tewari and I faced this issue for a few months. How do we jump from 2006 to 2008? How do we connect the screenplay? That is very difficult when you are making a film on real people. You are restricted by either a book or something else. Making a biography into a film is easier because you have the liberty of using the narrative as it is. For me, it was a little difficult. I couldn’t use a single thing that was fictional. So I tried to connect it through real-life footage. That is how I got the screenplay right.

Also, you have to forget that the film is based on real people or real incidents. You have to concentrate only on entertaining. After I figured out the screenplay, I decided on the characterisation, how I wanted Manmohan Singh to be portrayed or how I wanted Sanjaya Baru to be portrayed and made it into an entertaining film.

Jagan Shakti, Director

I think the most important thing to do while making a film based on something that has actually happened or a real person’s story is to keep the entertainment quotient primary and strike the right balance while presenting the facts as closely possible to the truth. If you have a fantastic screenplay that carries the story forward in an entertaining fashion, it will keep the audience engrossed.

Mayank Tewari, Writer

The most important thing is to stay true to the material. The goal is for the script to come together in a meaningful and entertaining way. When you are using real people, you have to be very careful. The instances and the dramatic points should be within the material. For example, the dialogue and punch lines that we have in The Accidental Prime Minister are all taken from the book; we have not used anything from outside that material. I don’t really know about the thin line between factual information and taking liberties. But, yes, one cannot write absolute fiction. One can only take liberties with what is implied, not otherwise.

- Bhakti Mehta, Bhavi Gathani, Titas Chowdhury



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