RUNNING to packed cinema halls across India, and in many world capitals, Dangal (Wrestling Match) is about a sonless father pitting his two daughters to wrestle, in an all-male arena. It’s a real-to-reel story on how they won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
A 2014 movie on much-medalled woman boxer, Mary Kom, focused on India’s isolated and neglected northeastern region, won renewed accolades for her and a presidential nomination to the Indian Parliament.
Cinema and sports combine to promote these woman-oriented themes with a social message to counter prejudices in a largely patriarchal society. The subjects are “live”. A movie on cricket legend M. S. Dhoni, who is still in the game, has won awards and made money. So was Azahar, on another cricket skipper, Mohammed Azaharuddin, a former lawmaker.
Indians have for long searched their heroes in scriptures, epics, history, folklore and in literature. Their quest is getting contemporary. Cinema is in the throes of “biopics” — biographical pictures. Fearing controversy, Bollywood hesitated to risk making films on the dead. It is now banking on the living. Present day heroes are mushrooming. And, it is good business, too.
The cinema has proved to be a convenient — and fairly lucrative — vehicle to promote individuals and causes. It’s not merely sports, glamour and entertainment. A film on social activist and anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare, 79, also adorned the screen last year.
The world’s first recorded biopic was in 1900, expectedly from the French and, predictably, on Joan of Arc. She was repeated almost a century later in 1999. That speaks of the enduring interest in her.
The world’s most filmed individuals are Jesus Christ, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, the Kennedys —particularly John — and Mongol warrior Genghis Khan. Che Guevara was another repeated hero.
Although they have been making films for over a century, Indians made their first biopic, Chanakya and Chandragupta, only in 1977. The two characters were played by Telugu cinema stalwarts Akineni Nageswara Rao and N.T. Rama Rao.
In a unique feat, Bengali actor Sarvadaman Banerjee portrayed two persons who lived a millennium apart — the eighth century Adi Shankaracharya (1983) and 19th century Swami Vivekananda (1994).
Arguably, the first authentic, internationally mounted biopic on an Indian was Gandhi (1982). Made by Richard Attenborough, it won multiple Oscars, including one for British-Indian actor Ben Kingsley, who played Mahatma Gandhi, and another for Bhanu Athaiya, who dressed up the characters.
Since the success of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) on legendary sprinter Milkha Singh, the “Flying Sikh” (still around and inspiring at 80-plus), biopics seem to have become a favourite Bollywood genre. Many are being announced with top actors and actresses in the lead.
Akshay Kumar will play the late Dara Singh, who began his wrestling career in Singapore and was India’s most popular professional wrestler and later turned an actor.
In Chak De India (2007) blockbuster, Datuk Shahrukh Khan played the coach of the Indian girls’ hockey team. He may now play hockey wizard Dhyan Chand who helped India win three Olympic gold medals (1928, 1932 and 1936).
Not all sports biopics are about celebrities. Paan Singh Tomar (2013) was about an Indian athlete who served in the Indian Army, winning a gold medal at the Indian National Games. On premature retirement from Army, however, a property dispute in which he got no justice forced him to become an outlaw. He was gunned down by the police.
Bandit Queen (1994) was on another “anti-hero” (or heroine), on the tumultuous life of woman outlaw Phoolan Devi. A rebel from the oppressed class, married at 11, she suffered abuse from a much older husband. Kidnapped by bandits, she turned an outlaw. On surrender, she became a victim of police brutality and served long years in jail. The movie is incomplete in that her triumph and tragedy continued. She joined politics and became a member of parliament in 1999. She spoke rarely, but spoke sense. Two years into her new career, old rivals from her banditry days shot her dead outside her official home.
A film made in India has rarely been critical of Gandhi. But, Gandhi, My Father (2007) is about his eldest son Harilal. He turned an alcoholic and changed his faith to spite his famous father. They disowned each other and yet, the relationship could neither be ignored nor repaired. In a country where politics and politicians dominate, unless they fought the British rule in the last century, politicians are missing from the growing list of biopics. But, this year-end may see on the silver screen former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Interestingly, the film is being based on a book that portrays him as per its title, an “Accidental Prime Minister” with no prior experience or acumen of a politician. Singh’s Making and Unmaking is written by Sanjaya Baru, his media adviser and, thus, an “insider” spilling beans. It seriously added to Manmohan’s discomfiture in the last months before his government lost the 2014 parliamentary elections.
This list of biopics is incomplete, but is growing. Even as Narendra Modi captured the imagination of millions to become the prime minister, India remains a nation of people in search of a hero, a messiah who can deliver, a savior who can rescue them from the mess.