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Hollywood's biopic culture

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The Rising

There is a profusion of bio-pics in Hollywood delving into the remarkable lives and extraordinary stories of Kings, Queens and uncommon commoners. But why doesn't Hindi cinema, the world's most prolific movie business, feature more bio-pics ?

As Oscar season comes upon us with its silken rustle of fabulous gowns and rubyred carpet, viewers are struck by a continuing similarity between frontrunners at the starry night. As in preceding years, 2011 also sees the bio-pictorial or 'bio-pic' movie making its presence felt. This time, it dominates in the form of The King's Speech and The Social Network. The first explores the British King George's confounding stutter while the second depicts Mark Zuckerberg going from anti-social undergraduate to the youngest billionaire in history via Facebook.

A recent profusion of bio-pics deals with a variety of characters and a palette of subjects. Where Julie and Julia entered prettily-tiled kitchens to dwell on the eccentric abilities of cuisine maestro Julia Childs, The Last King of Scotland had Forest Whitaker play Ugandan despot Idi Amin with chilling zest. Frost-Nixon freezeframed the wily politician's one unsure moment while The Queen lovingly wove its way into the growth of a character's regality requiring perennial self-possession. Going back in history, Orson Welles' 1941 Citizen Kane, widely considered the finest Hollywood movie ever made, revolved around the temptations and torments of publishing magnate Randolph Hearst.

The democracy of Hollywood bio-pics is evident;everyone who's ever been anyone, musicians, scientists, writers, robbers, politicos to playboys, has been featured while every challenge, sex addiction, schizophrenia, environmental degradation, drugs, greed and deprivation, has been depicted in detail. In contrast, Hindi cinema, now completing one century and overtaking Hollywood as the world's most prolific movie industry, shows a striking lack of bio-pics. The few that exist feature freedom fighters about whom spinning hagiographies is no difficult task.

Writer and poet Javed Akhtar, who has created iconic genres like 'the angry young man' and characters like 'Gabbar Singh', has never written a bio-pic. "Let's be realistic, " says Akhtar. "Nobody here has done so. Some historicals have been made;Sohrab Modi made Mirza Ghalib. Gulzar made Meerabai. But these were 500-year-old characters, not contemporary figures. Some films have been made on nationalists. But these only look at a certain chapter in their lives, not their history, not their biography.

These can't be called bio-pics. " Filmmaker Shyam Benegal has directed bio-pics, both on nationalists and on romantic characters, like 1940s Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. Benegal says, "A defining feature of Hollywood bio-pics is their myth-busting;they want to see public figures, warts and all. In India, we don't like to look at our legends as less than that. We idolise them. We like to see them blemish-free. " Recounting the difficulties experienced making Bose: The Forgotten Hero, Benegal remarks, "Fact and legend often get muddled. In Bengal, for instance, somehow they've mixed up Bose with Vivekananda and therefore made Bose a brahmachari. A whole section believes thereby that he never married, so how can you show he had a daughter? An extremist wing insists everyone has to accept this belief. In my film, I had to be diplomatic. Despite Bose being known to enjoy the good things of life, when a bottle of champagne was opened, I didn't show him physically sipping that drink. "

With strong feelings at stake, reactions to Hindi bio-pics are often stormy. In 1994, director Shekhar Kapoor had to withstand criticism both from the Censor Board and writer Arundhati Roy over his depiction of dacoit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi. In 2005, descendants of the sepoy Mangal Pandey launched a court case against makers of The Rising, peeved at their ancestor shown not just telling the British where to get off but also cavorting with dancing girls and enjoying a little tipple. In 2008, Ashutosh Gowarikar's grand romance Jodhaa-Akbar was greeted with protests over whether Jodhaa was the Mughal emperor's wife or not. "The problem is largely legal, " says film critic and writer Raja Sen. "There's a perennial tussle between rights versus versions. Considering the trouble possible, filmmakers try not to antagonise subjects. When we make thinly-veiled bio-pics, like Guru, we make them extremely flattering. We even allowed Richard Attenborough's wonderfully fanciful film only because it turned Gandhi into Jesus. "

In the reluctance to let filmmakers show famous characters as human, a certain post-colonial anxiety at versions of history that might upset a hard-fought world-view can be sensed. This displays itself in the double censorship an Indian bio-pic maker undergoes, both officially and unofficially, at the hands of government bodies and public groups. "If you make films showing such characters' vulnerabilities, people see them as not something wrong with the figure but something wrong with you, " says Benegal. "Naturally, that constrains filmmakers. "

In this situation, it is logical that the few biopics made are on well-documented historical figures, not popular characters whose lives are recounted as much through colourful gossip as solid fact. "It's remarkable that when our cinema is pushing the envelope, we're still stuck with bio-pics on nationalists. There are extremely interesting characters in our recent past, even our midst. I keep hearing about people wanting to make films on Kishore Kumar. But I'm not sure what'll actually happen with that, " remarks Sen.

There is also the matter of local tastes;Akhtar says, "Our ideas of entertainment are very different. We like the navrasas, a variety of emotions, colours and stories. The serious biopic will have limitations;you may not be able to put in an item song or a love scene. These are things we like seeing. You need elbow room in our cinema. We don't want restrictions and any proper bio-pic will have a few of those. " It is not the case that Hollywood always depicts figures in fully critical reality. Sen says, "Hollywood bio-pics are popular also because they're fantastic acting vehicles and good Oscar bait. There is the tendency to deify America's 'everyman' heroes, its rags-to-riches stories, its crusader types. " It is worth noting that extremely controversial figures, ranging from Adolf Hitler to Princess Diana, have not yet been picked up for bio-pic depiction. In fact, in times of economic depression and bewildering geo-politics, American bio-pics appear to be celebrating obvious heroes while pillorying unambiguous villains.

This may change. Benegal remarks, "I anticipate many fascinating Hollywood bio-pics since the twentieth century's history is incredibly rich. " Yet, it doesn't seem likely there will be a profusion of such films in India anytime soon. The lack doesn't lie simply with peace-loving filmmakers. "Look at any Western audience, even America which occupies the lowest rungs of public intelligence, " says Akhtar. "You'll find a large pyramid of education, an evolved taste for cinema not just as entertainment but something that is thoughtprovoking. Such an audience is a minority here. The low numbers of such movies here is as much because of our audience as our filmmakers. It's a two-way street. " Until this street broadens, we can only wait and watch Hollywood's bio-pics on-screen and rewarded at the Oscars.

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