A biopic basically dramatizes the life of a real person and puts it on the big screen with all the glamor of a feature film. They are not films ‘based on a true story’ or ‘historical drama films’ in the sense that they try to trace a single person’s life story comprehensively, or at least the most important years of his or her life. A whole generation grew up with a view of Gandhi based almost entirely on Sir Ben Kingsley’s spellbinding 1982 portrayal.
For many young Americans, it is not the old photos of Abraham Lincoln that come to mind when they think of the 16th U.S. President but Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic. Films like Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull or The Social Network have always made a huge impact. But for every biopic that enthralls, there are countless others that fail. And critics have a field day dissecting the reasons for the failure. That doesn’t stop biopics from being produced steadily. Since 2010, there have been over 225 biopics released worldwide, and that only includes those with Wikipedia pages.
Trying to find out what makes a biopic triumph is like searching for a jewel in the deep sea. Usually, biopics eulogize their subjects, seldom taking the road less travelled to deliver a story without illusions and including lived experiences that might be ‘unflattering’.
Today’s viewers expect some semblance of authenticity rather than manufactured reality. The age of free information has made it virtually impossible to tell a life story and not be questioned about its authenticity. From a filmmaker’s point of view, stepping into biopic territory means unleashing a Pandora’s box of complications, be it poor casting, weak storytelling or conflicting views on the film’s artistic vision.
Because the biopic’s protagonists are real people, whose actions and characteristics are known to the public (or at least documented), these roles are considered the most demanding by actors. Kingsley as Gandhi, Johnny Depp as Ed Wood (Ed Wood, 1994), Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman (Man on the Moon, 1999), Irrfan Khan as Paan Singh Tomar, Ranbir Kapoor as Sanju, Deepika Padukone as Rani Padmavati (Padmaavat, 2018) and Sonam Kapoor in and as Neerja (2016) all gained respect as dramatic actors after their roles.
Scripting a biopic usually comes down to what works best for the ‘character’ and the story. Traditionally, biopics follow the ‘cradle to grave’ structure that follows the character’s life chronologically, with the most well-known accomplishments providing the drama. There’s also a framing device of sorts that gives a glimpse of what’s to come right at the beginning. Although the most common trick has been to begin with the present and then reflect back on the character’s past, it has been subverted in recent years with non-linear structures that leave out large chunks of the character’s life. As a result, the film is more a character sketch than chronological documentary. Of late, such biopics with a smaller but tighter focus have become increasingly popular. Hitchcock (2012), for instance, only tells the story of the making of the 1960’s hit Psycho.
The Oscar-winning Alex Gibney, hailed as one of America’s most prolific documentary makers, believes each biopic must have a specific approach or point of view. In Lincoln (2012), the moot point was whether or not the President could bring about the end of slavery, while The King’s Speech (2010) was about a British monarch who prevailed despite his stammer. Bandit Queen (1994) was a revenge drama and Dangal (2016) traced the fulfillment of a wrestler’s dream.
A critical issue is deciding how much to deviate from facts and take creative liberties to create drama. The idea is to tell a good story in an interesting way and not be a slave to the truth. On the other hand, meddling with facts can boomerang. The challenge is in knowing how to strike a balance. Look what happened to Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017), a biographical docudrama directed by James Erskine. The director tells the story of the cricketing legend with an unnatural amount of reverence and fails to add anything new to the already well-known narrative. Despite Tendulkar’s huge fan following, the film failed. Whereas M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) gave his fans much more to chew on.
Casting is the other big challenge. It’s generally a balance between similarity in physicality and looks and the ability to portray the role. In Paan Singh Tomar, where the protagonist’s persona was largely unknown, Khan carried the film off with his acting talent, whereas in Sanju, Kapoor’s physiognomy played an important part.
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, often called the best biopic of all time, explores age-old themes of love, loyalty and the pursuit of greatness. Released in 1980, the iconic B&W film was based on the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta and is less cinema and more documentary disguised as movie. The conventionality of the plot could have easily led to a hackneyed storyline were it not for Scorsese’s unflinching camera, De Nero’s outstanding turn as LaMotta, and a carefully written script.
Jamie Foxx’s unforgettable role as musician Ray Charles (Ray, 2004), Philip Seymour Hoffman’s visceral portrayal of Truman Capote (Capote, 2005), and Halle Berry’s mesmerising rendition of Dorothy Dandridge (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, 1999) are other performances that made the biopic stand out. Freshness of approach, something unexpected in the way the story is narrated, or a new structure — it’s these that make the biopic click. Like The Dirty Picture (2011, on South Indian actor Silk Smitha) or Ladies First (2017, on archer Deepika Kumari). Unlike the straight documentary, a biopic always has an eye on the box office with its beguiling mix of fact and fiction. And clearly Bollywood has seen the potential. Nearly 30 biopics have been announced: including Batala House, Tanaji, The Gulshan Kumar Story, Chanakya and Mithali Raj.
O.P. Srivastava is a banker-turned filmmaker who won the National Award for his 2015 feature documentary, Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli.
This article was originally published in The Hindu on Feb 10, 2019. It is reproduced here with permission.
This article was edited by Media and Culture Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.