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Biopics, it seems are here to stay for sometime

Shoma A. Chatterji, Bollywood Trade News Network
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View Guru Movie StillsBiopics are quite popular in Hollywood and scoop up Oscars by the dozen. Now Bollywood too is getting enamoured by this genre of films. What makes them tick???

In the library or bookshelves at home, the books in the 'biography' category are mostly relegated to a corner, desperately waiting for readers or scholars to explore the mysteries of what is behind the greatness of these immortal human beings. But cinema is different. It has the capacity of converting what might otherwise seem dull and boring to fun and entertainment, spilling over with sound and fury, dance and music. Mani Ratnam's latest, GURU, reinforces the popularity of the biopic genre among filmmakers in Indian mainstream cinema. Recent trends reveal the rise of this genre with films like BLACK, SARKAR and THE RISING among others that define the desire among sterling filmmakers to use life as entertainment. Biopic is a term derived from the combination of the words 'biography' and 'pictures.' These films depict and dramatise the life of an important historical personage (or group) from the past or present era. Sometimes, historical biopics stretch the truth and tell a life story with varying degrees of accuracy.

Big-screen biopics cross many genre types. An outlaw finds great favour with the Indian audience, the best example being Yash Chopra's DEEWAR loosely adapted from the life of notorious smuggler Haji Mastaan. DAYAVAN, based on yet another mafia leader, with Vinod Khanna in the title role, was not that popular. Ramgopal Varma's SARKAR, on the other hand, is said to have taken generous helpings from the life of the controversial political leader Balasaheb Thackeray.

The Indian biopic where life stories are metamorphosed and presented as fiction goes back probably to Guru Dutt's KAAGAZ KE PHOOL (1959). The film has strong autobiographical elements structured into it. It is almost like a celluloid elegy Dutt wrote for himself with his screenplay and his images, his music and his lyrical pacing of the film. He is said to have had an intense relationship with one of his leading ladies, as shown in the film. He was the one who introduced the lady to the world of cinema. This brought about phases of estrangement with wife Geeta Dutt and the children from time to time. He began to indulge in drinking during periods when he was not working and suffered from long periods of depression. It is said that his premature death by suicide was foreshadowed in the film.

Shyam Benegal's BHOOMIKA (1976) was adapted from the autobiography of Hansa Wadkar, a famous Marathi actress of the 1930s. Smita Patil played the actress whose early childhood memories are filled with an alcoholic father, a grumpy mother and her conniving lover. The mother's lover marries Usha when she grows up and then lives off her earnings as a star. But when she finds this suffocating and constricting her personal freedom, she breaks free, only to try and find solace in the arms of different men. Her dilemma is ironic because she is an actress doomed to play a variety of roles but confused about her own role in real life.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's BLACK (2005) is till date the most powerful and positive film of all biopics made in recent history. Based on the life of Helen Keller and her famous teacher, Bhansali brings about a magical twist by changing the gender of the teacher from female to male and casting Amitabh Bachchan in the role. Bhansali Indianised the story and relocated it to much later period. But his actors and his brilliant technical crew triumphed in making BLACK a film to remember him by.

The same, however, is not true of Ketan Mehta's MANGAL PANDEY – The Rising (2005.) Though Mehta claimed it was historically authentic and kept the names of the characters unchanged, the film failed to convince those who were looking for history in the film and those who aspired to seek entertainment through a period film filled with colourful costumes and loud drama. In fact, two descendants of the martyr sought a ban on the film's screening. They filed a suit seeking an unconditional apology from those involved in the making of the film for allegedly showing Pandey as a drunkard involved in a relationship with a prostitute. All said and done, however, the film managed to rekindle some interest in Mandal Pandey, the first hero of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.

We have yet to produce something that even remotely resembles A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), with Russell Crowe as the troubled mathematician John Nash Jr, controversies notwithstanding. CITIZEN KANE (1941) was reportedly patterned after the life story of William Randolph Hearst. It still is a landmark in the history of film studies. Billy Wilder's THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957) dramatised the historical figure of 27-year old Charles Lindbergh. Dustin Hoffman starred as tormented comedian Lenny Bruce in LENNY (1974), and Rod Steiger played the title role of Chicago's famous mobster in AL CAPONE (1959). AMADEUS (1984), directed by Milos Forman, viewed the antics of young musical prodigy Mozart. Woody Allen's SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999) is a mock-biography of a fictional 1930s jazz guitarist named Emmett Ray. Sidney Pollack's OUT OF AFRICA (1985) depicts the life of Karen Blixen who wrote under the name of Isak Dinesen.

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND the Academy Award nominated 2006 British film also falls in biopic category as it revolves around how a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, becomes, by chance, the personal physician to the new Ugandan President Idi Amin and descends ever deeper into the moral corruption of Amin's Uganda.

Mani Ratnam keeps denying that GURU is inspired by the life story of the father of Reliance, namely, the late Dhirubhai Ambani. But there are too many parallels between Ambani and the Guru, brilliantly performed by a mature Abhishek Bachchan to concede. The self-made tycoon who made polyester a household word has echoes in the film too. What stops all denials by Ratnam is the meeting called by GURU in a stadium full of shareholders in the last episode. This real-life event from late Ambani’s life is too well-known to be fictitious. What Ratnam achieves is to turn this life-story into an entertaining film instead of reducing it to a dull documentary.

The biopic, it appears, has come to stay. And now we await JODHA-AKBAR, the love story of Akbar and Jodhabai of Rajasthan. Biopics, it seems are here to stay for sometime.


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