Reality Check

Separating truth from fiction in films about real people

Updated: March 10, 2014 12:01:26 am

By Leher  Kala

It’s a little odd that producer Anubhav Sinha would go through the torturous struggle of making a film without ensuring that the living character it is based on, is all right with it. In the best of situations, filmmaking is full of agonising uncertainties — more so in India when it concerns a former child bride who fought domestic abuse and violence. The subject of the film, Sampat Pal, got a stay from the Delhi High Court on Sinha’s film Gulaab Gang, allegedly based on her, claiming it “portrayed her in bad light”. Sinha, somehow, managed a timely reprieve; the film released but with a disclaimer saying “the movie has nothing to do with Sampat Pal and her organisation Gulaabi Gang”. Not lost on the producers, I’m sure, is the unexpected stroke of good fortune of hitting the headlines 24 hours before release. Buzz (for free) is crucial to create the momentum for the first weekend.

Irrespective of the truth or fiction in Sinha’s portrayal of Pal — by all accounts a very average one — we all have a tendency to see ourselves differently from how the world sees us. It must be infuriating to see a film about yourself that you believe bears no resemblance to you whatsoever, but which the world will, henceforth, forever see as the gospel truth. When The Social Network, based on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, was released, he watched it en masse with his staff.

Though he dodged giving it a review, he scorned the idea that he was motivated by social climbing or girls and said, not a little sarcastically, that the only element the producers got entirely right was his wardrobe. Similarly, the ambitious Aamir Khan film Mangal Pandey-The Rising was gorgeous, but the story of India’s first freedom fighter was heavily embellished and glamourised. Besides, it was made entirely from a 20th century perspective. Sketchy details of his alleged liaison with a prostitute irked Pandey’s descendents. Which brings us to the question — when a film is about a real person or a historical figure, does it have to be true? How much distortion is permitted under creative licence, that rather lofty term for conveniently messing with facts while working in the arts.

Considering the thought that there are no new stories in the world, just rehashed versions of old stuff we’re familiar with, it’s no wonder that filmmakers are exploring remote but authentic human lives to come up with something new. But if you’re using somebody’s life as story, what is the line between imagination and irresponsible untruths? The rules for journalism are clearly chalked out. You only write the facts. Somehow, the same rule doesn’t seem to apply for a film on a real person.

It can be argued that facts are open to interpretation and it is a filmmaker’s right to explore and concentrate on the whimsical. Like how it is done in the magical Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, where a disenchanted Hollywood screenwriter travels back in time to the sizzling Paris of the ‘20s. He hangs out with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at an elegant party. He falls for Picasso’s mistress and gets writing advice from Ernest Hemingway. Part-parody and part-real, its dreamlike feel merges fact with fiction cleverly, but it’s never pretending to be anything other than fantastical. Audiences are used to reading ‘Based on a true story’ at the end of a film. Filmmakers should also consider adding: “This is our version of it”.

hutkayfilms@gmail.com

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