A beautiful life

‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ is part of the third cycle of biopics in recent Hindi cinema

Written by Rachel Dwyer | Published: July 19, 2013 12:08 am

‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ is part of the third cycle of biopics in recent Hindi cinema

The newly released film on Milkha Singh,Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,is one of a growing number of Hindi biopics made in recent years. Bollywood’s masala films wildly mix genres. But producers and audiences have always identified genres — from mythologicals and devotionals to gangster and action — and now biopics are becoming increasingly popular.

The biopic is found in many other cinemas,and one of the most successful genres in terms of Oscars awarded. Stars are keen to play figures whose lives have enduring significance,while the role often demands an actor whose personal charisma matches that of the subject. The identification of the character with the actor can be inextricable,as in the case of Vishnupant Pagnis who spent much of his life after Sant Tukaram (1936) performing Tuka’s songs at festivals. Casting can be difficult,as actors carry with them associations with their former roles — Christopher Lee was thought to have imbued his performance as Jinnah with a hint of Dracula. Some actors’ stardom is overwhelmed by their convincing impersonations,in the way that Mrs Thatcher dominated Meryl Streep. Richard Attenborough chose the then little-known Shakespearean actor,Ben Kingsley (Krishna Pandit Bhanji),as Gandhi,precisely in order not to have any prior associations for the character. When Attenborough discussed the script with Nehru,the latter was keen that Alec Guinness should play the role. He added that Bapu would have been amused to have been played by an Englishman. The only reason why there are relatively few biopics is the reluctance of producers to invest in these projects,as the costs of stars and creating historical sets and costumes can be enormous.

Indian cinema made biopics from its earliest days. The devotional genre,whose heyday was in the 1930s,comprised biopics of the lives of the sants,including Tukaram,Eknath,Narsi Mehta,and Chandidas. After Independence,several biopics of the leaders of the nationalist struggle were made,for example,Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi ki Rani,and several films about Bhagat Singh,while parallel cinema makers continued this trend with films about Ambedkar,Sardar Patel,and several on Gandhi.

Santosh Sivan’s Asoka began the first cycle of biopics in the early 2000s as part of the revival of the historical film (Lagaan,Gadar: Ek Prem Katha). A second cycle included a number of quasi-biopics,films where the lead character was widely identified — although denials were often issued — in films such as Guru,The Dirty Picture,Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and the forthcoming D-Day. This cycle features figures who are not public servants but heroes of the new middle classes,in business,entertainment and,occupying another space of notoriety,gangsters.

We may be seeing a third cycle of biopics now,films about heroes,heroines and celebrities who are named in the film title,and some of whom are still alive. Perhaps this is a new interest in the lives of those who can embody key concerns,such as the individual’s struggle against a variety of obstacles,coupled with an increasing frankness about life stories,many of which are already in the public domain. However,few have been made and many are only at the planning stage,such as that of Kishore Kumar,while others may be shelved,such as the Guru Dutt biopic. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,seems to belong to this category. It was curious that the second biopic of a runner should appear so soon after Paan Singh Tomar.

These two biopics have generic overlaps with the sports movie,which focuses on the struggle,the setbacks and the victory. The most successful of these in recent Hindi cinema are Lagaan and Chak de! India,highly nationalistic — though not jingoistic — movies,which were critically acclaimed and reached international audiences. Yet,these two biopics are very different — Paan Singh Tomar becomes an outlaw,while Milkha did not achieve the Olympian glory expected. These recent movies also focus on the individual’s efforts rather than on working as a team,which is perhaps why India’s most successful sportsmen,the cricketers,have not been the subject of biopics,though Ranjitsinhji and Pataudi must be prime candidates for them.

The National Award-winning Paan Singh Tomar is a hard act to follow. These two films are as much about different types of biopics as they are about different life stories. Farhan Akhtar is very much part of mainstream Bollywood,as is the director,Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra,whose major hit was Rang de Basanti,while his Dilli 6,despite having serious flaws,is a fascinating film. Writer Prasoon Joshi is a major figure in contemporary cinema. Paan Singh Tomar was written and directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia,a leading though often under-acknowledged figure of the new realist Indian cinema,whose earlier Haasil is a powerful and gripping film,and who surprised us all as an actor with his superb performance in Gangs of Wasseypur. Irrfan,one of India’s most successful international actors,is an icon of this form of cinema. Perhaps these biopics present us with a different kind of race,one between mainstream and off-beat films,where the latter is tortoise to the former’s hare.

The writer is professor of Indian cultures and cinema at SOAS,University of London


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