Bollywood and biopics: The love affair continues in 2020

Over the last decade biopics have become a mainstay in Bollywood cinema.

This year started off with the release of Deepika Padukone’s much-awaited film, Chhapaak, directed by Meghna Gulzar, which had Padukone take on the rather challenging role of acid victim Malti. Though the film, based on the life story of acid victim Laxmi Aggarwal, failed to make a mark on the box office, it was praised by critics for its sensitive and powerful storytelling.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of biopics in Bollywood, as filmmakers make a dash to capture the lives of famous personalities on screen. This trend is set to continue in 2020 as well, with a number of biopics lined up. The year will see a mix of films on freedom fighters, sportspeople, those in the armed forces and others whose lives make for inspiring and interesting watch.

While Shakuntala Devi will have Vidya Balan essay the role of the math genius, Jahnvi Kapoor will next be seen in Gunjan Saxena, The Kargil Girl - a biopic on one of the first female pilots to fly into a combat zone. SherShaah will see Siddharth Malhotra play a double role - that of young Captain Vikram Batra, who was killed in combat in the Dras sector of Kargil, and his twin brother, Vishal Batra, and as per reports, Aishwarya Rai will be seen next in Pradeep Sarkar’s film based on the life of the courtesan turned actor, Binodini Dasi.

In the line up are also biopics on sports stars - Ranvir Singh has been practising his shots to play cricket maestro Kapil Dev in Kabir Khan’s 83, while legendary football coach Syed Abdul Rahim’s life will be brought to screen by Ajay Devgn in the film. An image of Anushka Sharma with former captain of the Indian national women’s cricket team, Jhulan Goswami has been doing the rounds, sparking reports that a biopic on the cricketer is on the cards. Others include a biopic on badminton champion Saina Nehwal with Parineeti Chopra and one on Abhinav Bindra, which has been getting postponed since 2017.

The biopic boom

The 1913 silent film Raja Harishchandra, directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, is often considered as the first biopic made in the country. The 20th century also saw acclaimed biopics such as the 1997 Bandit Queen which traces the life of the famous Indian bandit Phoolan Devi, directed by Shekhar Kapoor. The film stood out at a time when sexual abuse and discrimination were not spoken about openly. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, or the Iron man of India, was also immortalised on the silver screen in the 1993 biopic Sardar, by Ketan Mehta, which saw Paresh Rawal take on the role of Patel.

However, it was not until the 2000s, when filmmakers opened up to the potential of biopics, and the inspirational or interest factor associated with watching the lives of celebrities and others unfold on screen. Stories of sports personalities, freedom fighters, politicians, ordinary people who had achieved great things or fought against injustice, and on film actors, soon became a rage.

The 2007 film Chak De was inspired by Mir Ranjan Negi, the former hockey goalkeeper who faced humiliation after conceding seven goals to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games final, and returned 16 years later to coach the national women’s team to win a Gold at the 1998 Asian Games. Director Anurag Basu turned to the late south Indian actress Silk Smitha for the Vidya Balan starrer- The Dirty Picture (2011). Bhaag Milka Bhaag (2013), Neerja (2016), Dangal (2016), MS Dhoni (2016) were other biopics that cemented the genre in the industry.

Biopics also helped actors further their career. After a slump post a few flops, Sanju (2018) gave Ranbir Kapoor’s career a much-needed boost. While his resemblance to Sanjay Dutt and his acting skills were praised in Sanju (2018), the movie was criticised for glorifying the actor, who has had quite a troubled background and many run-ins with the law.

Other biopics which were critically acclaimed, though did not get the same mileage were the 2015 biopic, Manjhi: the Mountain man, about a man who sets out on a quest to build a road through a mountain after his wife dies, and Manto, on famous Urdu author Saadat Hasan Manto, written and directed by Nandita Das. Both the films had Nawazuddin Siddiqui don the protagonist’s role.

More masala, less meat

Not all biopics make for a great watch. The year 2019, which was an election year for the country, saw filmmakers capitalising on the sentiments of the nation and churning out biopics, some of which were outrageously bad. The start of the year itself saw two biopics on political leaders - Siddiqui played Bal Thackeray in the film Thackeray, which received mixed reviews, while The Accidental Prime Minister saw Anupam Kher, a vocal supporter of BJP and Narendra Modi, star in a movie which turned out to be more about Congress bashing than narrating the story of the former Prime Minister.

But the biggest endorsement of the ruling party and current Prime Minister came from Vivek Oberoi in PM Narendra Modi, the widely panned biopic directed by Omung Kumar. The film, which was mired in controversy from the time it was announced, was criticised for its poor storytelling, over the top theatrics and awful acting. The film was also the third of Kumar’s biopics - Mary Kom, a retelling of the life story of celebrated boxer Mary Kom featuring Priyanka Chopra and Sarabjit, which had Randeep Hooda undergo drastic weight loss in order to portray Sarabjit Singh, the Indian national who was imprisoned in Pakistan for 23 years, after reportedly straying into Pakistan.

The last few years have proven that biopics are here to stay, pulling in crowds and making commercial sense. However, for the genre to remain successful, filmmakers need to ensure that they remain sincere and true to the subject they decide to portray, focusing on their craft and content rather than relying on theatrics and jingoism to win the audience.