With so many biopics under production, udhav naig wonders how far the audience can trust a film’s claim to being accurate and balanced about the subject’s life

When DreamWorks decided to make a biopic, titled The Fifth Estate, on WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, the old debate about the impact big-budget bio-pictures tend to have on people and the public perception they help create on the subject was reopened. In effect, Assange’s concern was that the film would contribute to a smear campaign against him and his organisation. Apart from writing to the Sherlock star, Benedict Cumberbatch, asking him to pull out of the film, and where he warned the actor: ‘You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of truth in order to assassinate it’, WikiLeaks came out with what it called an antidote to The Fifth Estate, a tell-all documentary titled Mediastan which promised an 'accurate’ narrative of the WikiLeaks’ story.

Every now and then, Hollywood discards and renews its interest in the biopic genre. The herky-jerky interest shown by big studios is usually attributed to the genre’s inherent tendency to depend too much on mundane facts. The assumption made is that the market (film audiences) loves the interesting world of fiction as opposed to the boring world of non-fiction. Often, the audience assume that the makers of biopics have special access to unknown facts and that their films would capture the subject in all its complexities. This is however not true. “Even if a filmmaker religiously sticks to facts, he/she cannot claim to present an unbiased view of the subjects. All narratives have an authorial intent, which gives the film a particular slant,” says Jayan Cherian, an independent filmmaker who made Papilio Buddha, a film about the oppression of landless Dalits.

Another issue that filmmakers are constantly grappling with is balancing facts with entertainment value. Many biographical films have been criticised for distorting facts, adding fictional ‘sequences’ to spice them up, and for focussing too much on controversies. As journalist Gnani Sankaran points out, there are more films and documentaries on John F Kennedy’s assassination than those that put his political and personal life in context. Gnana Rajasekaran, who has made popular biopics such as Bharathi and Periyar, affirms that creative liberties can be taken (perhaps sometimes necessary) as long as the intention is to throw light on the subject's life. “I try to focus on the core of the subject and not on the distractions. Fictional sequences shouldn’t be added to distort but rather to contextualise the subject's life and work,” he says. His primary focus while making Periyar, he says, was to make sure that even the most conservative religious person is comfortable watching the film. “Periyar was much more than just a vocal atheist. He was a radical social reformer. This is what I wanted people to see,” he says.

Critical evaluation, impossible

In addition, Indian filmmakers have to wrestle with institutions of censorship (both official and unofficial), if they choose to make a film about a revered personality, say, a politician with a lot of followers. Gnani Sankaran, who has made a tele-film called Ayya on Periyar, says that a critical evaluation of a subject is impossible in India, “Especially when it comes to famous political leaders. Like how it happened with Iruvar, the filmmaker has to say his is a fictional film.”

Indian cinema too has suddenly taken a special interest in making biopics. In recent times, we have seen films such as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, The Dirty Picture and Shahid based on the lives of famous personalities. While it would still take some time for Indian cinema to come up with a critical biography of a politician, we can take heart from the fact that several leading stars are reported to have expressed interest in or are already working on biographical films on personalities such as Mary Kom (Priyanka Chopra), Kishore Kumar (Ranbir Kapoor) and M. S. Subbulakshmi (Vidya Balan).

A biopic is not only meant to inform the audience about the subject's life but also the history of the times in which the person lived. While Assange's apprehensions about Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate could be deemed valid, it is also important to get several interpretations — some competing accounts — of the subject's life so that the audience can make an informed opinion. It remains to be seen if filmmakers in India can be brave and show the way by making a strong, critical biography of a person we revere. Sometimes, we need to be told a few things that we don’t want to hear.

Keywords: biopicfilm trends