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Counter Culture

What explains the asphyxiating glut of biopics in Indian cinema?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

What explains the asphyxiating glut of biopics in Indian cinema?

R. Madhavan during a promotional event for Rocketry: The Nambi Effect in Mumbai on June 23.

R. Madhavan during a promotional event for Rocketry: The Nambi Effect in Mumbai on June 23. | Photo Credit: SUJIT JAISWAL / AFP

Film-makers attempt to stun spectators into worship as opposed to crafting a complicated portrait.

AS the glacially paced Rocketry: The Nambi Effect stumbles into its final moments, the director—and lead actor and writer and producer—R. Madhavan, decides to finally come clean in an indefensible gesture of film-making as though the movie, which was limping to its conclusion, had suddenly buckled. The sincerely plotted film, on the life of the rocket scientist S. Nambi Narayanan, who was falsely accused of espionage and then exonerated, is not a biopic as much as it is an ode. And odes, unless wrapped in John Keats’ poetic mumblings, are a wretched, flat genre of art because they are so blinded by their protagonist’s brilliance that they cannot help but be seated at the feet, looking up, waiting longingly for wisdom and wit to drop. It then becomes a question of submission as opposed to discernment. Are you uneasy when art submits itself to a person as opposed to an idea or an image?

The film’s frame is India’s superstar Shah Rukh Khan (Suriya in the Tamil version) interviewing Narayanan—played by Madhavan buried under snow-white wigs, moustaches, and peeling prosthetics—about the expansive travels and travails of his life. Towards the end, when Shah Rukh Khan, moved by what he hears, gets on his knees to apologise on behalf of the nation to Narayanan, the character, for having derailed his career, one finds instead of Madhavan, the actor, suddenly and oddly, the real Narayanan seated, listening to the apology. Cinematically, it is a clunky conceit, pulling you by the collar out of the film’s universe. It is also disorienting because Madhavan’s voice is used in the dub. When Narayanan’s mouth moves, suddenly we realise the dissonance between the voice heard and the body seen. It becomes painfully clear that Madhavan never set out to make a seamless movie whose craft buoys the message. Rather, he wanted one where the message buoys the craft.

A still from Rocketry. The film’s frame is India’s superstar Shah Rukh Khan (Suriya in the Tamil version) interviewing Narayanan, played by Madhavan, about the expansive travels and travails of his life. 
A still from Rocketry. The film’s frame is India’s superstar Shah Rukh Khan (Suriya in the Tamil version) interviewing Narayanan, played by Madhavan, about the expansive travels and travails of his life.  | Photo Credit: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Narayanan, both the person and the character, rejects the apology. He wants the guilt to stain. Who was the person responsible for the accusations flung at him? The film, being both ode and investigative journalism, points fingers at an international conspiracy to dampen India’s space mission by tackling its finest scientist into the mud. The film is so sure of its protagonist’s moral and professional pedigree that it does not even bother pursuing and then arguing against the evidence.

S. Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography ‘Ready to Fire’.
S. Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography ‘Ready to Fire’.

In November 2020, The Caravan published the article “Space Secrets: How the CBI killed India’s biggest espionage case”, in which most of the claims made by the movie—which seem to have been directly lifted from Narayanan’s autobiography without so much as a whiff of doubt—are complicated or made suspect, including his performance while working at the Indian Space Research Organisation through the 1970s and 1980s. Besides other alleged irregularities, the article also says that Narayanan had even been seeking voluntary retirement from ISRO before the scandal broke. How does one square this with the rather immodest claim Narayanan makes in interviews, parroting a belief until it becomes a fact, that his arrest set ISRO back by 15 years in the space race? The man was going to leave ISRO anyway.

There is an arrogance to films like these, one that attempts to disarm us so we are unable or unwilling to differentiate confidence from hubris. But when wedded to the noxious atmosphere around nationalism, the questions become deeper, sharper. Rocketry is not a film that is interested in India but an idea of India. There is no reference to the events happening in the country—the riots, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the liberalisation of the economy, etc.—as though Narayanan was occupying a vacuum-sealed universe beyond. Why does he love India so much? Why does he feel this burning need for India’s space programme to edge out its competitors? It is a question that no biopic that inches towards the national flag wants to ask. It assumes patriotism as a fact, as an innate calling. Maybe, like the love and desire we feel for people, it springs from nowhere and despite being bruised and humiliated, continues its assertion? But can we feel this kind of consummate longing for an abstract idea like a nation?

 The actors Adivi Sesh (right) and Murali Sharma (centre) on the sets of the 2022 biopic  “Major”, which was about Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, an army officer who was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
The actors Adivi Sesh (right) and Murali Sharma (centre) on the sets of the 2022 biopic “Major”, which was about Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, an army officer who was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Major (2022), the soaring biopic on Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, an army officer who was killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, tried to gird the patriotism with some context—the awe, the theatrics of power that Unnikrishnan saw as a child on Navy Day along with the desire to wear an ironed and attractive uniform produced his love, a love that made him second-guess the need to survive, propelling him to spaces of certain death. But is that it, we ask? Does life become cheap in this love? Is this love, this aestheticised love, so pungent and blinding? Perhaps, these are not questions we must ask and certainly not questions film-makers can ask. In a 2020 letter to the Central Board of Film Certification, the Defence Minister said that producers must get prior permission from the Ministry and a no-objection certificate (NOC) before releasing a film or streaming a web series based on military-related matters.

When the film-maker Onir wanted to make a biopic on a gay major, he did not get an NOC because of “security issues” and because it “casts the military in poor light”. These films, thus, will pretend an allegiance to truth, a vengeance against the limited capacity of public memory, but their allegiance is entirely in service of a person or an institution.

The success of the film biopic on sprinter Milkha Singh (no. 16), Bhaag Milka Bhaag (2013), was interpreted as the success of a genre, and producers lined up pitches to tell stories of blazing, talented people who were still alive and kicking.
The success of the film biopic on sprinter Milkha Singh (no. 16), Bhaag Milka Bhaag (2013), was interpreted as the success of a genre, and producers lined up pitches to tell stories of blazing, talented people who were still alive and kicking. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

There is an asphyxiating glut of biopics in the movie mandi that began with the rousing critical and commercial applause for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). The success of the film was interpreted as the success of a genre, and producers lined up pitches to tell stories of blazing, talented people who were still alive and kicking: Mary Kom (2014), Dangal (2016), M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Sanju (2018), Soorma (2018), Super 30 (2019), Gunjan Saxena (2020), Shakuntala Devi (2020), Saina (2021), 83 (2021), and Jhund (2022). Then, arresting the raging nationalistic fervour, eulogies were thrown like confetti for real soldiers who had sacrificed their lives in the line of duty: Neerja (2016), Shershaah (2021), and Major. A subgenre was bubbling into life, and just like a lot can be said about a country by the heroes it produces in cinema and politics, a lot can be said by the stories a country seeks out.

The success of this genre seems intimately tied with, if not parallel to, the dizzying success of the self-help book for these movies are premised on inspiring their audiences to achieve more, accumulate capital, dignity, power, and fame. There is a reason every roadside bookseller has moved from the rancid spiritual potboiler The Secret, which sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, to keeping at least a few dozen copies of Atomic Habits and Ikigai and books by Ankur Warikoo and Jay Shetty. Inspiration is now a piping hot commodity in the marketplace of ideas, and there is something to be said about a generation of minds that seeks solace, guidance, and meaning from books that tell them how to be more productive, successful, inspired, and moneyed. This must be the pustuled pinnacle of capitalism, where value and worth are interchangeable. There is something comical about this, which the literary critic Alexandra Schwartz takes a poke at: “Bravo! You are now Pavlov and his dog.”

The Bollywood actor Taapsee Pannu and Mithali Raj, the former captain of India’s women’s national cricket team, at a promotional event for the sports-drama film Shabaash Mithu, based on Raj’s life, in Mumbai on July 7.
The Bollywood actor Taapsee Pannu and Mithali Raj, the former captain of India’s women’s national cricket team, at a promotional event for the sports-drama film Shabaash Mithu, based on Raj’s life, in Mumbai on July 7. | Photo Credit: SUJIT JAISWAL / AFP

Mithali Raj, on whom the recent biopic Shabaash Mithu was canned, released, and panned into box-office oblivion, hoped that “[the] movie inspires more people, especially young girls to take up sports as a career”. This is where the biopic genre twists itself into a sermon, seeing cinema as a vehicle of virtue with a moral thrust. To be entertained, to be inspired—what’s the difference? The eye of the film-maker is not on the protagonist but on the spectator, to stun us into worship, as opposed to crafting a rich, complicated, contradictory, unstable portrait. Sometimes, if the craft is persuasive, you let go of discernment. Worship comes easy when the background score pounds you to gooseflesh. But what of the voluptuous, sumptuous, cretinous, charming, hypocritical human being at the centre of the centrifugal story, the humans who are shown living their lives as though they are heroes on whom films will be made someday.

When the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud refused in the late 1920s a $5,000 advance for the rights to make a biopic on his life, he noted: “A psychologically complete and honest confession of life ... would require so much indiscretion about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless, after all, is their mendacity.” So I suppose the question then becomes, how much mendacity, how much crafted untruth, how many inches of careful heroism are you willing to swallow?