It seems to be the year of political biopic. It opened with The Accidental Prime Minister, based on the life of Dr Manmohan Singh, closely followed by Thackeray, on the life of Shiv Sena supremo. On the anvil are movies on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to be played by Paresh Rawal and Ketan Mehta’s biopic on Vallabhbhai Patel, Sardar. Hitherto, the Hindi film industry cannot claim abundance of political biographical films, except for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi which we can’t, in all fairness, lay claim to but this year, moviemakers seem to be poised to change that.
Biopics are at the peak of their popularity. In an industry beleaguered by the lack of originality, the advantages are obvious —a readymade story is there. However, does a biography or biopic always depict the truth of a person? Or does it get coloured by the lens of time, polity and personal morality of the author? In the days when the biopic is gaining currency with Bollywood in a big way, the danger of politicisation, misrepresentation and pitching private and public agendas become magnified. The most recent case in point being the film Thackeray, which is an out and out eulogy of a leader who held Mumbai to ransom for decades. The film has Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing the titular role.
The problem with Thackeray is that it does not familiarise the viewer with the person behind the bespectacled saffron veneer, but only extols the political persona of the man who allegedly incited the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Timed just ahead of the elections, it is obvious the film was for the Shiv Sena to reach the electorate with its manifesto. The film reportedly did brisk business in Mumbai, therefore leading to ‘paisa vasool’ for the producer as well as the political party.
The other biopic that was released in January, The Accidental Prime Minister, was also accused of having a political agenda — that of reinforcing the narrative of Manmohan Singh being a weak Prime Minister who was controlled by ‘the family’. The Congress however, trumped the effort simply by not reacting to the film — neither banning it in any Congress-controlled states nor making a hue and cry about the portrayal of the former Prime Minister. The film sank without a trace after being panned by the critics and people alike for being a shoddily crafted movie.
Biopics, the stories of significant persons who existed in an environment and period, can be used powerful tool by which the past can be manipulated. In the finale of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, for example, when Milkha loses the 400 m Olympic race in Rome, the defeat is not attributed to the superior training and skill of American sprinter, Otis Davis, but to a flashback in history where he is trying to escape the demons of his past at the time of Partition, thereby shifting the blame of the loss from the sportsman to Pakistan.
In Sanju, an attempt is allegedly being made to whitewash the actor’s crimes, making these out to be mere misdemeanours. Raj Kumar Hirani, a deft director and storyteller, is a collaborator with Sanjay Dutt on the Munnabhai series and is said to be a close friend. Using his art as propaganda to absolve Dutt of his responsibility in the drug-riddled life he chose to lead and in the possession of unlicensed weapons for which he was convicted under the TADA, probably worked as a fictional narrative, but totally failed as an authentic biopic.
Unlike in a documentary, which is bound by its nature to uncover facts and rigidly stick to them, biopics take the liberty to tweak and twist the facts to make the screenplay more impactful — albeit, less truthful. For the sake of good cinema, creative liberties are acceptable. Parts of most biopics parts need to be fictionalised to support the overall narrative.
However, when agendas to whitewash or distort are on play, then the debate of ethics and authenticity must arise. After all, biopics, featuring national personalities are being played by Bollywood A-listers and driven by the weight of mighty production houses and PR companies perhaps changing perceptions and altering the truth forever. The impact that a dramatic audio-visual narrative makes is far greater than what you may read in the pages of history or in newsprint.
In the interest of good filmmaking and authenticity, viewers hope that biopics would be rooted in authenticity. Are Indian biopics mature enough to rise above the agenda of merely providing a platform for political parties or serving as expedient hagiographies? Time — and viewers — will tell.