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Common men, uncommon heroes

Film screenplay writers earlier dived into history textbooks for inspiration. Today, they seem to be scanning the newspapers. A still from Paan Singh Tomar, the tale of a soldier-athlete turned bandit.  

It all began in 1959, when a landless Bihari from the Musahar community, a Scheduled Caste that traditionally made a living as rat catchers, decided to make a road through the Gahlor Ghati hills, to ease passage between the surrounding localities. His name was Dashrath Manjhi, and with a chisel, a hammer and a shovel, he began to chip away singlehandedly at the hill. Twenty-two years later, he had cleared a pathway 360 feet long, 30 feet wide. Manjhi’s story was the basis of a subplot in the 2011 Kannada movie Olave Mandara . But he gets his own, full-length feature film next Friday, when Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi - The Mountain Man releases nationwide.

Yet another biopic, you might shrug, and you’d be right in a way. We have a tradition of ‘based-on-the-life-of’ movies that goes back to the 1936 Marathi drama Sant Tukaram, perhaps even earlier, to our first full-length feature, Raja Harischandra, if you believe the truth-telling monarch did walk this earth. The success of these films gave rise to a blueprint on which most of the biopics that followed were built: big emotions, big sets, big dialogues, big people. As sociologist Shiv Visvanathan says, “In the Nehruvian era, everything was epic. Everyone was a hoarding.” And for a long time, the Indian biopic was synonymous with people of a certain stature, people who would be found on hoardings. Jhansi Ki Rani. Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Alluri Seetarama Raju. Adi Shankaracharya. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Making of the Mahatma. Bose: The Forgotten Hero. Periyar. Sardar. The Legend of Bhagat Singh. In other words, screenplay writers dived into history textbooks for inspiration.

Today, though, they seem to be scanning the newspapers – for uncommon stories about common men. “Things began to change around the Emergency,” Mr. Visvanathan says, “but it’s really after globalisation that we’re seeing a real change. It’s a paradox. The scale of life became so planetary that to understand it we had to go to the level of a village. And for the first time, we are not focusing on heroes but ordinary men. The focus is on the micro-event, a simple man against the odds.” Like Dashrath Manjhi.


Manjhi isn’t our first common man on screen. Almost 70 years earlier, there was Dr. Dwarakanath Kotnis, whose life was immortalised in V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani. The film, set during World War II, was based on screenwriter and journalist K.A. Abbas’s book And One Did Not Come Back about an idealistic physician from Maharashtra who forsook a flourishing career at home to go to China as part of a medical mission. Then, in 1967, we had the eponymous protagonist of Sunil Banerjee’s Bengali drama Anthony Firingee. He was a Portuguese-Indian poet in the early 19th century who sang songs that went (at least as shown in the film) ‘I am the night, you are the moon...’ He married an Indian courtesan named Shakila, became interested in Hindu/ Bengali culture, and composed a number of songs in praise of Kali and Durga.

Dr. Kotnis and Anthony Firingee weren’t famous or celebrated, like the heroic subjects of earlier biopics; like, say, the legendary Veerapandiya Kattabomman, the bicentennial of whose hanging by the British was commemorated in 1999 with a postage stamp bearing his image. His name was in the papers as recently as this June, when a memorial costing Rs. 1.2 crore was inaugurated in Tuticorin. In comparison, Dr. Kotnis and Anthony Firingee were largely unknown to average people, and they live on mainly through the movies. Yet, there’s still an element of the hoarding in them. Dr. Kotnis’s story plays out on the national, even international stage. On his deathbed in China, he’s possessed by thoughts of his nation. He mutters to his Chinese wife, Hum Hindustan jayenge. (“We will return to India.”) He describes to her the tall mountains of his home, the sparkling rivers, the green fields, the small villages — by the end, he’s become an ambassador for India, his face superimposed on documentary footage from a political rally presided over by Nehru. As for Anthony Firingee, his story could be read as a kind of valorisation of our culture, seen as capable of attracting “foreigners” to its fold. Appropriately enough, the film opens with an image of a church, which dissolves into that of a temple.

With Dashrath Manjhi, there’s not a speck of anything larger than life. It’s just a great story, a great Indian story. As is Shahid, the story of a college kid who is thrown into jail after the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, studies to become a lawyer, and sets up a small practice to help people who were plucked off the streets and locked up simply because – as he puts it – their names happened to be Zahir or Faheem. Manjunath is the story of an incorruptible oil corporation employee, a 27-year-old Tamilian from Karnataka who ended up with six bullets in his chest in a nondescript village in Uttar Pradesh. Paan Singh Tomar tells of a soldier who becomes a sportsman en route to becoming a dacoit. Rang Rasiya and Makaramanju are Hindi and Malayalam versions of Raja Ravi Varma’s life and were released barely three years apart.

Manjunath: The film celebrates the incorruptible oil corporation employee who ended up with six bullets in his chest for his expose.

This year saw the release of Hawaizaada, the story of Shivkar Bapuji Talpade who invented a “flying machine” in 1895, eight years before the Wright brothers wrote themselves into history at Kitty Hawk. Hawaizaada crash-landed at the box office, but what’s important is that it got made in the first place. Even a decade ago, these stories might never have made it to the big screen.


Actually, it would have been difficult to make these movies in the pre-multiplex era, where large-capacity single screens demanded films which large numbers of audiences would watch. In that era, even if the rare “common man” biopic was released, it wouldn’t play for very long. Small movies about small people had to wait for the smaller multiplex screens. In 1977, Bhumika, Shyam Benegal’s biopic based on the life of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, was seen as an art-house release. Today, The Dirty Picture (based on ‘Silk’ Smitha) is a mainstream blockbuster.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, the director of Paan Singh Tomar, has announced a biopic about Begum Samru, an 18th century nautch girl who went on to become the ruler of Sardhana province near Meerut. Satish Pradhan’s Abhinetri, a Kannada drama based on the life of the actress Kalpana, was released early this year. Then there’s Ram Madhvani’s Neerja Bhanot, based on the story of the senior flight purser for Pan Am who was shot dead by terrorists who hijacked the Mumbai-New York flight at Karachi on September 5, 1986.

It’s not just the multiplex factor, says filmmaker Rajiv Menon. “I think it’s also the impact of television. Earlier, in the newspaper era, only an educated few read the news. So a hero, to most people, meant a mythical hero who would fight an even more larger-than-life villain. Now, with television, the news continuously projects the common man. It’s a visual medium, and it shows things in a dramatic way, like a thrilling story. So there’s a more democratic view, now, of who a ‘hero’ is. He’s not just someone who topples empires. There’s a hero in every human being.”

Hawaizaada: The movie about Shivkar Bapuji Talpade who invented a “flying machine” in 1895, eight years before the Wright brothers.

Sometimes, a villain too. The most famous “anti-hero” biopic is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, based on the life of the dacoit Phoolan Devi. In the soon-to-be-released Main Aur Charles, Randeep Hooda plays a character inspired by the serial killer Charles Sobhraj. And Vana Yuddham, a 2013 Tamil thriller, was based on the life of the bandit Veerappan. The events surrounding the release of Vana Yuddham illustrate some new problems that can come up when making biopics. Veerappan’s widow appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that the film misrepresented her husband. She also argued that her permission should have been obtained before shooting began. The film could be released only after she was awarded a settlement of Rs. 25 lakh.

It is also the reason many biopics are satisfied to make veiled references to the characters they are based on, notably Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (based on the MGR-Karunanidhi relationship) and Guru (based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani). Guru, riding on the optimism of the “India Shining” slogan coined three years before its release in 2007, was a big success. As Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, SOAS, University of London, says, “Biopics have changed over the last decade or so from portraying religious figures and freedom fighters. Today, they are about the heroes of the new middle classes, men like Dhirubhai Ambani.”


Guru, a classic rags-to-riches story, is the most popular kind of biopic because it makes viewers feel good about themselves; it’s a classic ‘feel-good’ film. Recent instances include Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), which chronicled the struggles of Dadasaheb Phalke, “the father of Indian cinema,” as he worked to make the country’s first feature film. Malayalam drama Celluloid (2013) depicts the life of J.C. Daniel, who made the first Malayalam feature film, Vigathakumaran.

These are the genuine common-man stories that fit squarely into the “proud to be Indian” narrative that makes us claim Sundar Pichai, whose accomplishments are all outside the country, as one of our own.

Manjhi is just such a narrative. Ketan Mehta told The Hindu, “One man against a mountain for 22 years... such an incredible story.... When I went and saw the location — the rocky mountain and the path that he had carved out, I couldn’t believe that somebody could even think of doing such a thing. I was awestruck. And I realised he didn’t seek anything in return. The path was being made so that nobody else would suffer his pain... It was such an inspiring story that it had to be made into a film. Because film is the most powerful medium. And what does India need at this point of time? The Indian youth is looking for positive icons. Positive energy. It is looking for inspiration. It is looking for an attitude that says ‘never say die’.”

Manjhi: The story of a landless Bihari from the Musahar community who single-handedly built a road through the Gahlor Gahti hills.

A sub-genre in the biopic category is the real-life sports drama, which was practically non-existent, save for rare instances like the 1991 Telugu film Ashwini, based on (and starring) athlete Ashwini Nachappa. But in the last decade, we have had Chak De! India, based on the women’s field hockey team that won Gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games (and on hockey player Mir Ranjan Negi). We’ve also had Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, and now under production is M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. You may have heard about the man.

Rachel Dwyer says, “The rise of the sports hero and the hitherto unknown person is part of the more realistic, middlebrow cinema that is evolving at the moment – with films like Lootera, Bombay Talkies, and others. The biopic is popular within this cinema as it is the classic middlebrow genre – aspirational, often educational, but not too challenging. The kind of cinema that wins Oscars.”

Or at the very least, box-office battles. Anurag Basu is reportedly developing a biopic based on Kishore Kumar, starring Ranbir Kapoor. There’s one evolving on Dara Singh. Son of the soil. Wrestler. Questionable actor. Rajya Sabha member. The biopic practically writes itself.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 12:07:08 AM |

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