Biopics: Treading the fine line

How biopics especially about controversial figures can act as a double edged sword to both filmmakers and the viewers

January 28, 2022 12:12 pm | Updated 02:02 pm IST

A still from Kurup starring Dulquer Salmaan

A still from Kurup starring Dulquer Salmaan

“Even the most interesting person – if you are telling their life from beginning to end, it’s going to be a f***ing boring movie.” …is what Quentin Tarantino says of biopics, one of the two genres he dislikes.

Srinath Rajendran’s Kurup , which is based on Kerala’s most popular fugitive, Sukumara Kurup, did not suffer from boredom. It is a stylishly-made crime drama with its lead, Dulquer Salmaan, playing the eponymous protagonist with dazzling charisma and swagger. And, therein lies the issue with Kurup . Is it okay to glorify a real-life criminal on screen for the sake of entertainment?

For those of you unaware of the Sukumara Kurup story, he murdered a man to pull off an insurance fraud and got away. This happened in 1984. His continued evasion from the police slowly seared his name into Kerala’s pop culture.

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Kurup , in fact, is not the first film based on the notorious criminal. Baby’s NH47 was released the same year of Kurup’s crime. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, then, revisited it in his 2016 film, Pinneyum , starring Dileep.

All three films fictionalise the Kurup story in varying degrees. For instance, the names of people and places are altered, But where Kurup stands out from the other two films is in the treatment of its protagonist. In NH47 , the Kurup character (named Sudhakara Pilla) gets stoned to death by the public. The on-screen mob justice perhaps partially alleviated people’s still-fresh anger of him getting away. Pinneyum , which came three decades later, punishes its protagonist (named Purusothaman Nair) with a tortured soul, and the film ends with his suicide note.

Whereas in Kurup , the titular character (named Sudhakara Kurup) gets away. Of course, this is what happened in real life but the escape is romanticised. A song, earlier in the film, calls him an ‘ antharvaahini (a submarine) – something that can move around without being spotted. The film ends with him throwing a menacing look at the camera (also with the hint of a sequel). Instead of saying, ‘Kurup managed to run away,’ the film tells us ‘Kurup can never be caught’.

Fact and fiction

Biopics, especially about controversial figures, can be a walk across a minefield. On one hand, the makers cannot go for a chronological retelling of events lest it would make for ‘a f***ing boring movie.’ But, on the other hand, they cannot tamper too much with the facts. Because, regardless of the cursory disclaimers about the fictionalisation of events, the film can mislead many into believing that such and such is what exactly happened.

“Whether or not it is the Truth is no longer relevant. The point is that it will become the Truth,” writes Arundhati Roy in her incensed criticism of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen , which is based on the life of Phoolan Devi. If Kurup drew the complaints of glamorising an infamous criminal, Roy lambasts Kapur for tarnishing the complex life story of a low-caste rural woman, who became an outlaw and, later, a Member of Parliament.

Shoojit Sircar, who made Sardar Udham a tenebrous retelling of Udham Singh’s story — told The Hindu, how he handled the problem of getting the fact-fiction balance right. “For example, what he [Udham Singh] wore on a particular day can vary. But his sensibilities, his morals and values, and his philosophy must not be wrong.”

Some filmmakers distance the film from the real-life subject by calling it an “inspired story” rather than a biopic. Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan , Iruvar , and Guru , for instance, were loosely based on real-life personalities. But they did not claim to be biopics. “[The distancing] gives you the liberty to look at the theme, and not just focus on so-and-so did this to so-and-so,” he says in the book, Conversations With Mani Ratnam , “You get away from the minor details of factual things and go only into the titbits that are thematically necessary. It liberates you from ‘oh, he was never like this, he was like that.’”

Though Kurup tweaks the names of people and a few places, it does not adequately distance itself from the actual story of Sukumara Kurup. Hence, it cannot be absolved of obfuscating the truth.

The rewards are greater than the risks

Biopics are a risky business. Because there is a measuring stick available to the audience. Are the important events of the person’s life adequately covered? Are the costumes and environment authentic? Does the actor look like the real-life subject? AL Vijay’s biopic of J. Jayalalithaa, Thalaivi , was criticised for casting Kangana Ranaut in the lead role.

Since a biopic has to be familiar and novel, there are so many ways it could backfire. Regardless of these risks, however, filmmakers and actors in India and Hollywood readily jump onto the biopic bandwagon. What explains this fatal attraction?’

For the actors, especially in Hollywood, it is a tried-and-tested route to glory. Since 2000, 11 of the Oscars for best actor and 10 for best actress have been awarded for real-life portrayals. This year too, the front-runners include Will Smith for playing Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis legends Venus and Serena, in King Richard and Kirsten Stewart for playing the late Princess Diana in Spencer .

For the makers, a biopic is easily marketable. It —unlike other genres — has a true story, a historical setting, and an aura of grandeur. With a biopic, you are not merely watching a film, you are revisiting history. It also has a famous person playing another famous person. In the cases of controversial biopics, this can be problematic.

The star conundrum

Even if we discount the aggrandising background score and the snappy lines the Kurup character gets in the film, Dulquer Salmaan’s mere presence makes it difficult to dislike the character.

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster , starring Denzel Washington, has the same problem. The film narrates the story of Frank Lucas, a black man who, at one point, was one of Harlem’s most notorious drug lords. Even if Washington, who plays Lucas, did not want to glorify him, his charisma makes the character likeable.

Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street , a biopic of former stockbroker and convicted felon Jordan Belfort, is another film that suffers from this star syndrome. When Leonardo Di Caprio plays the cocky, cash-swindling, and cocaine-snorting Belfort, the character’s actions, albeit unscrupulous, appear attractive.

When a star plays a reprehensible real-life person, either their likeability reduces the reprehensibility of that person or the makers of the film intentionally reduce it so that it does not affect the star’s likeability. Hence, casting a well-known star for such biopics can be a double-edged sword.

When a criminal gets a heroic portrayal on screen, one essential question that arises is: “How would his victim and/or his family feel?”. In Kurup ’s case, Jithin, the son of Chacko (the man who Kurup murdered in real life), vindicated the film. “Once I watched it, I understood that there was more to the story than I had heard all this while and it was important that it reached the people. There was no glorification of the man who killed my father,” he told The News Minute.

Despite Jithin’s statement and the filmmaker’s denial of glorifying the titular character, there are several instances in Kurup , where you are inevitably drawn towards him. The first time we see him, for example, the camera shows his legs, his back, and only then, his face — with peppy percussion and synth guitar sounds in the background. Throughout the film, he is shown as smart, suave, and charming. He gets punchlines like ‘From now on, the police aren’t after Kurup; Kurup is after the police’.

In other words, Kurup is more attractive than aversive.

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