PATNA: Last week, when film producer Nikhil Dwivedi announced a biopic on a 1990s’ starlet, Mamta Kulkarni, titters were resounding through the corridors of the Indian film industry, with several questioning whether Bollywood, faced with a shortage of good scripts, was taking the “easy way out” by using real-life stories as creative fodder.
The topic gave a new impetus to industry critics who said there were better topics to choose from rather than a film on Kulkarni who is “remembered more for her marriage to an alleged drug dealer than for her acting prowess.”
“Why are we making mediocre bio-pics on mediocre subjects? Why Mamta Kulkarni when we should be making a film on legendary actress Nargis Dutt, and why is there not one decent biopic on Mrs. Indira Gandhi?” said Vivek Agnihotri, who made “The Tashkent Files,” a successful film about the mysterious death of India’s second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Dwivedi’s announcement comes just weeks ahead of the release of another biopic, this time on Indian mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi, with Vidya Balan in the title role.
Balan is no stranger to biopics and played the lead role in “The Dirty Picture,” a 2011 film on the controversial life of southern Indian actor Silk Smitha.
Lined up immediately after the release of “Shakuntala Devi,” is “Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl” on the real-life story of a martyred air force pilot and featuring Janhvi Kapoor.
These are just a few examples in the long trail of bio-pics churned out by Bollywood with clockwork regularity, and they follow closely on the heels on nearly 20 other films that are based on true stories.
Earlier this year, reigning superstar Deepika Padukone relived the ordeals of an acid-attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal in a biopic named “Chhapaak.”
While “Chhapaak” bombed at the box office despite a stellar cast and a solid storyline, “Sanju” – a 2018 bio-pic featuring Ranbir Kapoor as the notoriously rebellious terror-accused actor Sanjay Dutt — was a resounding success and one of the few bio-pics to click with audiences.
Commentators say it is because notoriety sells on celluloid, even if the films are based on half-truths — “Sanju” was allegedly filled with embarrassing lies and had no mention of Dutt’s first-born daughter.
Writer-director Apurva Asrani says the formula works because biopics, especially on celebrities, are “exciting” to watch.
“This is the age of reality. The more authentic the storytelling, the more it is loved. It’s so exciting to delve into real-life research material and give it our interpretation,” said Asrani, who scripted the bio-pics “Shahid” — based on a former terrorist turned defense lawyer — and “Aligarh,” about a homosexual professor in Aligarh University.
Others believe that the audiences are seeking to be inspired and “want to know more about real-life heroes.”
“I feel we don’t have too many real-life heroes. So we feel the real-life heroes of different time had so much of conflict and drama,” said Nila Madhab Pandya, whose National Award-winning “I Am Kalam” was based on former Indian President A P J Kalam.
“Telugu” star Adivi Sesh agrees, saying that by choosing to make biopics, actors and directors were honouring the stories of real-life heroes.
“The task of telling a story inspired by real-life is even more challenging. You have less flexibility to tailor the story. Your responsibility to honour that person’s life is more significant. I find it a beautiful trend, and it enables previously forgotten or misunderstood life stories to be brought into the open,” said Sesh, who plays real-life war hero Sandeep Unnikrishnan in his forthcoming film “Major.”
Ananth Mahadevan, who has directed several bio-pics, including “Gour Hari Dastaan,” “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal” and “Doctor Rakhmabai,” feels that they have a long shelf-life but should be packaged more responsibly.
“When I made biopics like “Mee Sindhutai Sapkal” and “Gour Hari Dastaan” my biggest responsibility was to make sure that I was as authentic as possible, not merely glorifying my subject but presenting them with their frailties. Biopics call for the integrity of approach even as one dramatizes the events,” he said.
Actors agree and say it is unfair to say that “biopics are an easy route to success.”
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who played the title role in Ketan Mehta’s “Manjhi: The Mountain Man” – about a peasant from Bihar who cut a road through the mountains with his hands – and the controversial Urdu litterateur Sadat Hassan Manto in Nandita Das’s “Manto,” said: “To play a real-life character like Dashrath Manjhi or Manto is not easy. Unlike Milkha or Mary Kom whose triumphs are well documented in print and pictures, an unsung hero like Manjhi has not left any documented legacy behind. I have to use all my powers as an actor get it right. At least for me, bio-pics are not an easy route to success.”