By Yogesh Pawar
There is a growing trend of lives of interesting people being translated on to the big screen and winning critical acclaim.
What’s common between Tom Hanks’ titular portrayal of Captain Phillip Richards, of the Maersk Alabama hijacked by Somali pirates, Julia Roberts in and as Eric Brokovich, Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Sandra Bullock’s as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side, Ben Kingsley’s as Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi or Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist, Shabana Azmi as Godmother stepping into the shoes of the only Indian woman to rule the underworld Santokben Jadeja, Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar, Konkona Sen Sharma as her own mother Aparna in Iti Mirnalini or the recent Bollywood release Shahid where Raj Kumar Yadav plays lawyer & human rights’ activist, Shahid Azmi?
They all bring into sharp focus how big stars in both Hollywood and Bollywood portray real life characters on-screen and end up winning critical acclaim and numerous awards. Is it then a criteria for top actors to take up such roles?
“Yes,” says Hanks, “I’m fascinated constantly by non-fiction entertainment.
I read newspapers, magazines, see a story that really happened and say, ‘This is better than most movies could possibly be.’ It is in many ways a story almost written in screenplay form.” The two-time academy award winner for best actor, who many feel, has his best shot at a third Oscar with his latest, adds, “We’ve seen quite a few fictionalized versions of what happens when bad guys take over a ship/plane, but because this is a real event, it presents a big challenge as a filmmaker, which is: what really happened and how do we make that so gripping that it warrants a place in commercial entertainment?”
Konkona Sen Sharma echoes Hanks in saying that she finds the biographical characters more real. “I’m tired of being penciled into the goody-goody, you-can’t-question-my-morality kind of characters. Like most actors, I too want to look at wider spectrum of portrayals,” says one of the most talented actors in contemporary cinema who has just finished shooting for Kadambari where she plays the Kadambari Devi, wife of Jyotirindranath Tagore and muse to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. “It has all kinds of shades and challenges me as an actor to do a role where the character commits suicide.”
But sometimes the shadow of the person whose biography is playing on-screen can cast a really tall shadow over an entire career defining it. “I never have regrets and would do it all over again.
But despite all these years and other roles I still keep getting asked about it. Now when someone asks me I just say they’re mistaken and I’m not Seema Biswas.”
Yet compared to European cinema and Hollywood, India which makes the most movies in the world has surprisingly fewer biopics since Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) by V. Shantaram in which the film maker himself essayed the title role. “This genre hasn’t developed as much due to extraneous factors like societal and political censorship,” says film critic Anupama Chopra.
“Whether Bandit Queen, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Godmother or Paan Singh Tomar, they have faced protests. From the extended family of the person being portrayed, community, religious sects or political parties, everybody wants to have a say in censoring the film over and above the government appointed censor board. With so much riding on the project, no one wants to take a risk seal its fate.” She laments, “This often happens even when film makers call their work inspired or fictionalized.”
Some film-makers are trying to change that by working with the real characters they are basing their projects on. This worked wonders at the box office recently for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag with the Flying Sikh Milkha Singh even roped into the film’s promotion. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s bio picture on Mary Kom too is taking this path where Priyanka Chopra plays as Mary Kom.
One of the most celebrated film-makers in the world Costa Gavras feels big studios are too caught with creating block-busters even in their bio-pics.
“The attempt to gloss over facts and create larger than life heroes may earn you dividends at the box office but I wouldn’t call it honest cinema.”
The point being made by Gavras’ becomes more than obvious with Captain Phillips. Since the film released to a blitzkrieg of publicity, his crew on the Maersk Alabama have gone on record to speak about their captain’s bad reputation for at least 12 years prior, calling him “sullen and self-righteous.” Captain Phillips refusal to follow a detailed anti-piracy plan as per the International Maritime Organization does not form a part of the movie’s narrative. Despite his denials, the crew’s allegations are now on record in a US $50 million suit filed by 11 crew members.
So reel life does get inspired by real life. But when it comes to movies, what are they without some masala?
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By Yogesh Pawar