Why the audience should watch political biopics with a pinch of salt

‘The purpose of the biopic is not just to tell a story, but to tell a particular public personality’s story, reinforcing their iconicity.’

ByAhwar Sultan
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Why the audience should watch political biopics with a pinch of salt
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“This is the age of the biopics in India,” says Pramod Nayar, a professor of English and cultural studies at the University of Hyderabad. Although we have seen biopics beforeboth political and otherwisesuch as Sardar (1993), The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2003), Mangal Pandey (2005), and Gandhi (1986), what makes the 2010s the age of biopics is the sheer volume of such movies being released.

In the most recent news, Anupam Kher-starrer The Accidental Prime Minister was released. It will soon be followed by Thackeray and Vivek Oberoi-starrer biopic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With political biopics being released in quick succession, it is necessary to take a closer look at the authenticity of such movies when it comes to representation of real-life characters.

Particularly, given that people with vested interests make these films—Thackeray is written and produced by Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut, while The Accidental Prime Minister is directed by Vijay Gutte, son of Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Legislative Assembly Ratnakar Gutte. The release of political biopics right before the 2019 general elections should also raise questions. In non-Hindi cinema, biopics on NT Rama Rao and J Jayalalithaa will be released in the lead up to the polls. Assuming the timing and the subjects of these films to be a coincidence would naïve. As Shubhra Gupta, film critic at Indian Express, wrote, “Singh may well have been an ‘accidental’ PM…But it is no accident that the film is out now.”

Newslaundry reached out to filmmakers, film critics, and film scholars to talk about the implications of upcoming political biopics.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Nayar, who has written on the projection of the national identity in Indian biopics, said, biopics are an extension of the celebrity culture. “From sports biopics to political ones. It is an extension of the celebrity culture that is central to pop culture.” He adds that political biopics are merely the latest offering in the genre.

Baradwaj Rangan, an award-winning film critic and lecturer at Asian College of Journalism, refers to biopics as “a dicey prospect”. Rangan doubts the enterprise of representing “the span of an entire life in a feature-length film”.

Rangan’s disillusionment with biopics is also reflected in Nayar’s comments. Nayar said that biopics could not afford to depict imperfections of the subject in question, particularly when it comes to public figures. “Contradictions, imperfections…which are a part of all of us, are also a part of these public figures. But the film cannot affordespecially in the age of moral policing and mob censureto show these, can it?”

Tanul Thakur, another award-winning film critic, admitted to the possibility of “a well-researched portrayal of the main character” but pointed out the unlikelihood of such a venture. He cited Azhar and Sanju as simplified exonerations of their subjects, and MS Dhoni as a hagiography. This simplification, Rangan said, stems from a filmmakers want of a simple narrative. “Filmmakers want a simple good-evil, hero-villain narrative, so the audience knows who to root for.” Thus, complex lives, events, figures are reduced to give the audience a clear hero and a clear villain. “The space for nuance is now officially dead,” according to Indian Express’s Gupta.

Such binary reductions of real-life characters, particularly politicians, become nothing short of propaganda as specific party/ideology becomes the hero, while another becomes the villain. According to Gupta, these films are about us vs them, where “us” is portrayed in a good light.

Echoing Gupta’s sentiments, Rangan voiced his concerns about the upcoming Modi biopic. He said, “About PM Narendra Modi, is it a complex study of a controversial politician, and it should not be a just a rah-rah celebration for the so-called bhakts.”

Newslaundry also reached out to Omung Kumar, the director of the Modi biopic, to speak about the concerns regarding the simplifications of characters, in particular, concerns voiced by Rangan. He refused to comment.

Rangan also pointed out that biopics do not cast star celebrities. “The reason is that these films are about the subject, not the actor. The latter’s popularity will interfere with the former’s,” he said, adding, “If Shah Rukh had been cast as Modi, people would come to see Shah Rukh to the theatre, not Modi. Thackeray is not meant for Nawazuddin fans but for Thackeray fans.” Building on this idea, Nayar said that the purpose of the biopic is not just to tell a story, but to tell a particular public personality’s story, reinforcing their iconicity. “It is because there is a cult of personality that a biopic is made,” Nayar said.

Tanul Thakur agrees. He said, “A biopic revolves around a personality. Ideologies are often easy to sell through the force of personalities.” He added that “it is this intersection that makes the film happen.”

This intersection, that Thakur talks about, is also indicative of a larger political and cultural phenomena.

Since the mid-2010s we have seen a rise in “strongmen” right-wing leaders, who were voted in not entirely because of policies or ideas, but for their personalities. When voters cite Trump’s attitude and Modi’s hard-work as reasons for their support for these leaders, they become part of a political cult. Thackeray in Maharashtra, Bolsonaro in Brazil, even Indira Gandhi in the 80s can be added to the list of politicians with a cult following.

The upcoming political biopics are only going to feed into personality-based politics. These films represent the synthesis of politics and celebrity culture which Nayar had referred to.

Nevertheless, Rangan says, let’s wait and watch how these films impact the audiences, and whether they prove to be simplifications or complex explorations. Thakur is less ambivalent. He doubts if anything drastically different will happen with political biopics in comparison to how MS Dhoni or Sanju unfolded.

Gupta’s review called the Anupam Kher-starrer The Accidental Prime Minister “a shoddy propaganda film”. She argued that the film is simply a vehicle for the idea that the Gandhi family paralysed the former prime ministera narrative that “even political newbies are aware of”. On the same line, Udhav Bhatia, critic at Livemint, said, “The film  was always going to be a hit job on the Gandhis first and a film second.” This subservience of cinema to subtle slander is reflected in the film’s failure at being technically and formally rich. “Propaganda can be well done too,” Gupta said.

Regardless of what the rest of these films prove to be, they serve as an excellent springboard for discussion, as comments from critics show.        

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