By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, January 7: The Indian film industry has a long history of making biographical films on famous figures in the political, social and religious fields. According to one count, by no means exhaustive or final, almost 300 biopics have been made in various languages in the industry’s 105-year history.
In fact, the very first Indian motion picture, Raja Harishchandra made by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1913, was a biopic on the legendary King Harishchandra.
Indian biopics were by no means critical evaluations of the personalities portrayed. They were mostly panegyric in content. But for a large part, they were not overtly political, meant to advance a particular political party or leader or degrade another.
But politicization has begun to creep in now, as the May 2019 parliamentary elections draw near. Political groups are frenetically engaged in making films with famous stars to promote their leaders or icons and denigrate their opponents.
This could be the beginning of the politicization of the historically politico-neutral Indian film industry.
Once dragged into the vortex of the no-holds-barred arena of partisan politics, the industry might lose its independence which is vital for the survival of cinema as a medium of free expression.
As stated earlier, for much of their history, Indian biopics have been on acclaimed national leaders in various walks of life. There were films on iconic leaders of the independence struggle such as Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhai Patel; religious reformers like Swami Vivekananda; selfless social workers like Dr.Dwarkanath Kotnis; sportspersons like Olympic sprinter Mikha Singh, Test cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni; female boxer Mary Kom and even a female bandit like Phoolan Devi, who became a gangster after being gang raped by upper caste policemen.
In 1946 a landmark biopic Dr.Kotins Ki Amar Kahani was released. It was on the work of an Indian doctor Dr.Dwarkanath Kotnis who went to China during World War II to render medical aid to the Chinese masses who were under harsh Japanese rule and were fighting a plague epidemic at the same time. The heroic Dr. Kotnis himself died in the epidemic.
The film was based on a story entitled: And One Did Not Come Back, by the famous Urdu and English writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.
The next biopic which made a mark was the 1982 production Hollywood production Gandhi directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and with an Indian and foreign cast. The British film maker was faced with the challenge as western audiences and audiences outside of India had only a cursory knowledge of Gandhi and the politics of the time. Attenborough had to construct a script to condense 50 years of history and yet make a watchable film. He took 20 years to do it.
1993 saw Sardar on freedom fighter Sardar Vallabhai Patel, directed by Ketan Mehta with veteran actor Paresh Rawal in the lead. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero came out in 2004. The film was written and directed by Shyam Benegal.
Shekhar Kapur’s “Bandit Queen” made in 1994 on a woman outlaw who took to banditry because she had been gang raped by upper caste policemen, was not only a popular film but was also the beginning of an era of biopics on non-political personalities.
In 2011 came Dirty Picture on South Indian filmdom’s sex bomb Silk Smitha. It had top stars like Vidya Balan, Imraan Hashmi and Naseeruddin Shah. The very next year, there was an intriguing film – Paan Singh Tomar on an Indian army soldier cum National Games gold medalist, Paan Singh Tomar, who eventually became a dacoit. The famous actor Irfaan Khan acted as Tomar.
2016 was a year of biopics. It saw the release of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag on the famous Indian Olympic 400 meters champion Milkh Singh nicknamed the “Flying Sikh”. Farhan Akhtar was Milkha Singh in the film. A film on cricketer M. S.Dhoni entitled Mahendra Singh Dhoni: The Untold Story; Neerja on an Indian air hostess Neerja Bhanot, who saved 359 out of 279 lives on a disaster-struck Pan Am flight over Karachi ; and Mary Kom on a prize-winning Indian woman boxer, were some of the highlights of the releases in 2016. They had featured top stars like Priyanka Chopra (May Kom) and Sonam Kapur (Neerja).
But come 2018, politicization had crept in biopic making. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in a no-holds-barred electioneering against the Congress party and the Gandhi family which is leading it, his supporters have done a feature film trashing the conduct of his predecessor Dr.Manmohan Singh and the Congress Supremo Sonia Gandhi.
Dr. Singh is portrayed as a doormat and a rubber stamp of an imperious Sonia Gandhi.
The BJP’s hand in the film was revealed in a tweet from it which said: “Riveting tale of how a family held the country to ransom for 10 long years. Was Dr Singh just a regent who was holding on to the PM’s chair till the time heir was ready? Watch the official trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister, based on an insider’s account, releasing on 11 Jan!”
Enthused by the response to The Accidental Prime Minister, project, pro-BJP elements have announced a biopic on Prime Minister Modi himself, entitled: PM Narendra Modi. Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi will play Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Shiv Sena, which is a militant Hindutva party in Maharashtra and a rival of both the BJP and the Congress, has announced the release of a biopic on its founder Balasaheb Thackeray.
The famous Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Thackeray in the film which is to be released on January 25. The Sena has warned that it will not allow any other film to be released on that day, leaving theater owners no option but to postpone other releases.
That was a grim warning of the tough days that lie ahead for the Indian film industry.
(The featured image at the top shows Sonia and Rahul Gandhi with Manmohan Singh)