In the last five years, Bollywood has produced an overwhelming number of biopics. We have seen films based on the lives of sportspersons (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Azhar, Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Dangal, Soorma), actors (Sanju), gangsters (Haseena Parker, Omerta, Daddy), social workers (PadMan), historical figures (Padmaavat) and extraordinary citizens (Neerja, Sarabjit, Rustom, Shahid, Manjhi).
However, despite inundating audiences with celebrity stories, Bollywood is in no mood to slow down. In fact, if anything at all, it’s upping the ante. The heroes it is choosing to celebrate are getting bigger and their stories more dramatic.
Currently, there are at least eight biopics in the making. Shraddha Kapoor is undergoing training for the yet-untitled film on ace shuttler Saina Nehwal and veteran cricketer Kapil Dev has booked a week in November to coach Ranveer Singh — who will be playing him in 83, a film depicting India’s historic cricket world cup win in 1983. Meanwhile, Anupam Kher will soon be seen as former PM Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister, the movie adaptation of Sanjaya Baru’s book of the same name.
Then there’s Super 30 which has Hrithik Roshan playing academician Anand Kumar, Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Thackeray, and a T-Series film on Gulshan Kumar. To add to it, Sharmila Tagore has said she’d like Alia Bhatt to play her if a film on her life was ever to be made. Recently, even Aishwarya Rai Bachchan hinted at the possibility of a biopic on her extraordinary journey.
With Manto — Nandita Das’s take on the life and times of popular Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto — releasing on September 21, we look at what it is that has made biopics so irresistible to Indian filmmakers.
It all arguably started with The Dirty Picture’s stupendous success at the box office seven years ago. The applause that the racy on-screen portrayal of Silk Smitha’s controversial life received from all quarters, gave Indian filmmakers a novel formula to churn out blockbusters.
Not that Bollywood wasn’t making biopics earlier. There have been occasional Bandit Queens, Jodhaa Akbars and a spate of Bhagat Singh films, but the trend peaked in 2016 with the release of 12 biopics, including some major money-spinners such as Dangal and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story.
Roaring box office collections
Though not all biopics mint money, but the ones that did, have given the genre a major boost, motivating producers to exploit all its potential. Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal has raked in more than Rs. 2,500 crore worldwide.
In fact, according to IMDb, the top two grossers of 2018 are both real people’s stories. At the top is Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju, which has made a whopping Rs. 585 crore worldwide. Next is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial Padmaavat with worldwide earnings of Rs. 560.8 crore.
Vanity projects for actors?
From Hollywood to Bollywood, biopics are invincible during the awards season. Vidya Balan, Akshay Kumar and Rajkummar Rao bagged the National Award for their performances in The Dirty Picture, Rustom and Shahid, respectively.
Moreover, doing them bolsters an artiste’s filmography. It took Neerja for Sonam Kapoor to prove her acting prowess and Sanju for Ranbir Kapoor to break his series of box office duds.
In fact, Rajkummar counts Shahid as one of the most important films of his prolific career. He told News18, “I had been acting before, but Shahid got me recognised. It gave me the widespread recognition I needed to move forward.”
More for less
Not just for producers or actors, biopics are a win-win for writers and directors too. They provide ready source material that can be closely researched and emulated. When out of fresh stories, filmmakers can always fall back on an achiever’s life, without having to worry about originality or narrative.
How much is too much?
Biopics are an enviable formula, sure, but some questions still remain. How real are these real stories? Why do most feel like hagiographies? Is nothing lost in translating someone’s life on celluloid? Where does one draw the line?
Despite Sanju being a blockbuster, Hirani has been trolled for whitewashing and oversimplifying Sanjay Dutt’s dark, controversial life. Tendulkar’s biopic, Sachin: A Billion Dreams, neatly avoided all the controversies in the legendary cricketer’s two decade career. Though Bhansali based his magnum opus on historical figures, references and incidents, he had to call Padmaavat a work of fiction to get it released.
Directors often take ‘creative liberties’ for better dramatic representation of a story. What about authenticity then? Moreover, portraying a sportsperson on screen takes a lot more than acting. How viable is it to expect an actor to play like a champion within a few weeks of training?
Talking about it, Sharaddha, who will soon be seen as Nehwal on screen, said, “You can’t expect me to play like her in a few days. She has been a champion all her life. The training has been gruelling and it will take time for me to learn to play convincingly.”
Here to stay
So, in spite of the challenges and the controversies, biopics are growing from strength to strength. If their box-office collections are anything to go by, they are a solid proof of a swift change in the audience’s preferences.
Moviegoers are increasingly choosing to watch aspirational stories of real people over fantastical and over-the-top dramas. Biopics are primarily working because in godless, uncertain times they are feeding us heroes and hope. And hope never goes out of style.
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