Based on a true story: More fiction, less reality in biopics

September 27, 2020 4:00 AM

The recent controversy around the biopic of retired Indian Air Force officer Gunjan Saxena has rekindled the debate over a filmmaker’s creative liberty while making a biographical film. How much is too much?

New Delhi-based film critic and festival programmer Anuj Malhotra, however, believes that a filmmaker is a creative artist and is free to do what he/she wants with the story.New Delhi-based film critic and festival programmer Anuj Malhotra, however, believes that a filmmaker is a creative artist and is free to do what he/she wants with the story.

By Shriya Roy

On August 12, the Janhvi Kapoor-starrer Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl released on Netflix. The film, which is the biopic of retired Indian Air Force (IAF) officer Gunjan Saxena, is directed by Sharan Sharma. Soon after its release, however, a volley of criticism was hurled its way. The IAF itself took umbrage at its “undue negative” portrayal and even invoked the Censor Board. Several of Saxena’s colleagues in the IAF, including retired flight lieutenant Sreevidya Rajan, who was her batchmate, also alleged that facts were ‘twisted’ to gain publicity. Rajan pointed out that Saxena was neither the first woman to be posted to the Udhampur helicopter base nor was she the first woman to fly during the 1999 Kargil War as was depicted. Others argued that the film sidestepped Saxena’s other achievements and instead chose to depict her as a ‘weak and oppressed victim of the system’. Interestingly, after the controversy, Saxena herself said that there was no gender-based discrimination in the IAF at the organisational level.

The criticism the film faced has put the spotlight on the biopic genre as a whole, leading many to question the filmmakers’ creative liberty while making a biopic. While many feel that biopics should not over-dramatise real events, there are others who feel there has to be a balance between fact and fiction, as one can’t just show facts and eliminate the creative process. Every filmmaker will have different ways of approaching the same subject, explains filmmaker Brahmanand Singh whose film Pancham Unmixed on music composer RD Burman won the National Film Award for best biographical film in 2009. “In a biopic, the filmmaker can’t take too much liberty just to make it appealing to the audience,” Singh says. Talking about the Gunjan Saxena controversy, he says, “The film has taken the creative licence quite casually. It tries to show the victories of Gunjan by putting down the IAF, which was not necessary and is factually incorrect.”

This isn’t the first time, however, that this has happened. Another recent biopic, the Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi, too, drew criticism for its over-the-top dramatisation, which many claimed overshadowed the brilliance of the mind of the legendary mathematician Shakuntala Devi on whose life it was based.

Earlier, in 2016, the film Neerja, which won actor Sonam Kapoor a lot of accolades and even grabbed a National Film Award, also came under the scanner. The film was based on the life of Neerja Bhanot, the chief flight attendant on Pan Am Flight 73, which was hijacked in Karachi in September 1986 with 376 passengers onboard. Bhanot died while covering three children from the line of fire. The Bhanot family, which had no grievances against the filmmakers as far as the story in the film was concerned, accused them of going back on their word of sharing 10% of the net profit and moved court.

Sources close to the Bhanot family said the production company tried to malign the family by spreading false rumours that the family wants to earn money “by digging up a dead body” and that they are “trying to live off late Neerja’s name”. When such maligning allegations are made against an ‘outsider’, practically the entire film industry ‘gangs up’ and indulges in character assassination, as has been seen in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, the source said. The source also pointed out that at no point did the producers try to make amends with the family. The case is still ongoing.

Even the crew members of the hijacked flight, who had run away to the terminal building once the firing started, expressed disappointment over the film and said the “film was more fiction than reality” and that they were unable to accept what the movie was “unfairly propagating”.

Similarly, when Azhar—a biopic based on India’s controversial cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin who was involved in a match-fixing scandal in 2000—released in 2016, it was embroiled in controversy from the word go. A majority of the critics called the movie a PR stunt to wipe clean the image of Azharuddin. There were even reports that his former teammate and current Indian cricket team coach Ravi Shastri was ‘extremely angry’ with the way his character was shown to be a drunk and cheating on his wife.

While there’s no written rule on how much is too much when it comes to creative liberty, a filmmaker can enjoy some leeway as long as it does not tamper with the original story, feel experts. Botching up events or situations to suit their purpose, however, is a strict no-no. “A filmmaker has to be authentic, as well as be creative and make the film beautiful and powerful. It is okay to be creative about the small details, but when that detail constitutes the larger picture of the character, it becomes important to be factually correct,” says Singh.

New Delhi-based film critic and festival programmer Anuj Malhotra, however, believes that a filmmaker is a creative artist and is free to do what he/she wants with the story. “Regardless of whether their source material is a novel, a historical incident, the memory of an event or someone’s life, it is their work. It’s their creative expression that they choose to imply,” he says.

Delhi-based film and theatre practitioner Tasha Jaiswal says the disclaimer, ‘This film is based on a true story’, is so rarely found in the genre of biopics that it becomes almost invisible and inconsequential. “A biopic should not tamper with the historical representation or facts. If the intention of the film is clear on what it wants to depict and convey, and if that intention is coming through without too much distraction, then small tweaks here and there seem harmless,” he says.

When the much awaited Sanju by Rajkumar Hirani came out in 2018, there was a lot of excitement to watch Ranbir Kapoor portray the character of actor Sanjay Dutt. Like Azhar, though, the movie was criticised for whitewashing Dutt’s image. “If you take away Sanjay Dutt from the movie, it is still a valid story of a rebel kid who went through ups and downs. But the moment you call it a biopic of Dutt and name it Sanju, the responsibility increases and facts need to be adhered to,” says Singh.

Malhotra feels that such films defeat the whole purpose of expression. “The movie starts to speak from a position of complete knowledge, which, in turn, means there exists no possibility of a further seeking or a greater exploration,” he says.

Even Shekhar Kapur’s 1996 film Bandit Queen, which was based on the life of bandit-turned-MP Phoolan Devi, created an uproar, with not just Devi but the Censor Board, too, taking offence to its content. The movie was released after many cuts, but Devi continued to dispute its accuracy and fought to get it banned in India. She even threatened to immolate herself outside a theatre if the film was not withdrawn. Eventually, however, Devi withdrew her objections after the producer paid her an amount of over Rs 37 lakh.

Some biopics in the past have even gone on to reduce a real-life character just for comic relief. Take, for instance, Netflix’s Delhi Crime, which was based on the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape. The crime-drama met with controversy when inspector Anil Sharma, station house officer of Lodhi Colony Police Station, took offence with his ‘derogatory’ portrayal as “dumb and slow”. Sharma said his portrayal as someone who is not trusted and shrugs off responsibility was wrong and fabricated for profit.

Not just Bollywood, even Hollywood has seen its biopics come under fire. The 2010 movie The Social Network, which is based on the life of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, met with resistance when Zuckerberg himself pointed out that the movie “made up stuff that was hurtful”. The film suggested that Zuckerberg only created Facebook to attract women following a breakup. The tech mogul, however, said that contrary to what was shown, he was not single at the time. Even with all the controversy, however, the movie was a massive hit and was nominated for eight Academy awards, going on to win three.

Another Hollywood biopic, The Theory of Everything, which was based on the life of world-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, was accused of misrepresenting several elements of the relationship between him and his wife Jane Hawking. The film Diana, based on the Princess of Wales, was also criticised for a contentious storyline, provoking public row about the historical accuracy of the film.

It’s clear that making a biopic is a thorny road where one has to tread extremely cautiously. Distorted and manipulated information for the purpose of eyeballs or profit puts a question mark on the filmmaker’s research on the subject. “Even if we know what it took for a person to be who they are, we do not know the details of it. Most mainstream biopic filmmakers are dissociating these facts according to their own will and contributing to the distortion of facts, which affects the social and political status of society in a larger spectrum,” says Anant Pundir, a postgraduate in filmmaking from Delhi’s Ambedkar University.

Bollywood, however, is undeterred, with as many as eight biopics currently under production. And why not? It’s been proven time and again that biopics are great money-spinners and potential blockbusters. Biopics also provide a readymade source material that can be intimately researched and easily emulated. But filmmakers should keep in mind that the audience is now increasingly opting to watch real content rather than over-the-top dramas. “Biopics should serve as an opportunity for a filmmaker to contemplate a figure and attempt to arrive at the essential truth, and not just a cosmetic mimicry of their life,” says Malhotra.

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