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Melodrama of the Bollywood biopics

By Sachin Chatte
In the last couple of years Bollywood has attempted a few biopics of personalities whose stories have that X factor which can be adapted to the big screen. Though The Dirty Picture, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom have struck gold at the box office, the fact is that these films can only be loosely termed as biopics; at best they are Bollywood adaptations inspired by the lives of these personalities.
Melodrama, theatrics, song and dance have been an integral part of Bollywood films hence even biopics have a tough time doing away with this staple diet. If Bollywood were to remake Gandhi today you can expect a song or, god forbid, may be even an item number before the dandi march and a couple of romantic songs showing Baa as a pillar of strength to the Mahatma.
If you think that is exaggeration then rewind to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag where there is Hawan kund maston ka jhund that Milkha sings when he is in the army, song depicting his romance with the character played by Sonam Kapoor, another melodramatising a scene that traces one of Milkha’s earlier races where it is shown that the bandages on his feet come off as he reaches the finish line. That one kind of reminded me of Baiju Bawra (1952) where Swami Haridas, a bedridden invalid, gets on his feet again after listening to Baiju sing Man tarpat hari darshan ko aaj. That worked fine in a folklore story half-a-century back, but to say that it is a bit over the top today is putting it mildly.
When it comes to retelling stories of real life personalities there is a thin line between dramatising it for good effect and over doing it. In the process, many a times the core essence is left out. Take the episode of Milkha Singh at the 1960 Rome Olympics, which also happens to be one of the greatest sporting tragedies of all times. After all how many individuals have broken the Olympic record at an Olympic event and yet haven’t got any medal for it? Apart from Milkha Singh I know of none other and yet even after watching the film not many will be aware of this fact. Instead, what we know from the Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra film is that Milkha Singh had a romp with an Australian damsel during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics on the eve of his race and as a result lost. That incident may or may not be true. Primarily it appears that it has been added to spice up the story.
As far as convincing dramatisation in concerned, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar did a much better job. We don’t know how accurate each scene in the film was, but at least it appeared to be probable and if it looked a bit dramatised (the finale for example) at least it wasn’t highly exaggerated.
That brings us to the climax of Mary Kom (spoiler ahead). The film tries to tell us that while Mary was fighting in the finals of the World Amateur boxing championship in China, a heart surgery was being performed on her son at the same time. Then it show that when Mary is down and almost out, the baby’s heart beat stops, but as she dramatically gets up his heart starts beating again. We all love Manmohan Desai’s films but I doubt if even he would have taken such liberties in a biopic.
And mind you, we are not even getting into the intricacies of accents and background settings (it has been pointed out on the net that in Mary Kom they show wheat fields when in fact, in Manipur, they grow only rice). But expecting accuracy of a greater degree in a Bollywood film is a fallacy. First they need to get the basics of the story right, details will follow.
It is not gloom and doom all the way for we all know what a powerful film Bandit Queen (1994) was. Hansal Mehta also pulled it off remarkably well in Shahid last year. But as far as box office and audiences are concerned the former did well because of the controversy while the latter was a washout, perhaps primarily because there was no A-grade star portraying the role, never mind if rookie Rajkumar Yadav delivered one of the most memorable performances you’ll see on the silver screen. On the other hand, The Dirty Picture made money not so much because it was a good film but because of Vidya Balan, and of course the title.
Ketan Mehta did a fine job with Sardar (he faltered with Mangal Pandey but made more money on it thanks to Aamir Khan). Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero and Jabbar Patel’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar are eminently watchable and these have all been serious efforts.
While English films have by and large been successful at biopics right from the Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull days, they have also had their share of failure in recent times with Iron Lady, Jobs and The Fifth Estate. However, films that failed did not do so because they were excessively dramatised, but because they were poorly dramatised.
Films based on real life incidents have also been very few and remain one area that is hugely underexplored in India cinema. When it comes to crime capers like Special 26 or Oye Lucky Lucky Oye a certain degree of dramatisation does happen for cinematic purposes, which is acceptable.
One film that really stands out on all such counts is Black Friday, which was a well researched and gripping account of the Bombay blasts. The film also had songs but they were used to great effect in the narrative.
The influence of playing up everything for effect has been so gigantic in Hindi films that it’s hard for them to do away with it even if it is a real life story. While Bollywood is toying with biopics with quite a few on the anvil, will they bite the bullet and tell a story as it happened or will they sugar coat everything? It might take some time but hopefully someday soon the former will happen.

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