Biopics continue to be all the rage in Bollywood these days. The last two weeks alone have seen two biopics release with Saina and Abhishek Bachchan-starrer The Big Bull. At a time when these films based on real figures show no signs of slowing down, we thought we’d look at some of our favourite examples of the biopic done right.
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Most biographical dramas present their subjects as people who behave like they know a film will be made about them one day. These characters display their effect on history in real time; they are already aware of how their extraordinary presence will be viewed decades later. But the triumph of director Sharan Sharma’s crafty biopic lies in how it reveals Gunjan Saxena as someone whose legacy is an incidental consequence of her individualism. She is more of a dreamer than a public metaphor. She never says things like “I want to touch the sky” or “Red Bull gives you wings”. The music says it (“Bharat ki beti”), the treatment says it (slow-claps), her progressive father says it (“shatter the cage and fly away”), but her tender age (she’s 24 in Kargil) prevents her from being a mouthpiece. More importantly, her goal is hers. When a family member salutes her with a “Jai Hind,” she responds with a hug. When she airlifts the injured, it’s less duty and more instinct. Gunjan wants to be a pilot, and flying – both literally and figuratively – is the story that history writes for her; flying is merely a by-product of her ambition.
Director Damien Chazelle explores space in his film about Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. He explores personal space, professional space, political space and headspace. Perspective, as Armstrong admits in his NASA interview, makes all the difference. It depends on where you – we – look from: the man, or the moon. First Man is a poignant, thrilling and hugely affecting exercise in fusing these two perspectives into one. There’s much to appreciate about the way Chazelle and his core team magnify the journey of a man who finds solace in telescopic emotions. They paint Armstrong as a haunted father who refuses to be grounded. At no point does he seem like a genius, even when he continues to drive the Apollo program, because his brilliance is made to look like a reaction.
Mallesham is in many ways Pad Man (a film it will no doubt be compared to for the similarities in story), done right. Raj Rachakonda’s rousing biopic is based on the true story of Padma Shri-winner Chintakindi Mallesham who invented an ‘asu’ machine which revolutionized sari production to save the women of his village from dangerous, punishing work. Mallesham is the rare biopic that puts telling a story for what it is over glorifying its subject, and in doing so, goes beyond a mere checklist of its protagonists milestones.
Most biopics celebrate the human in the artist; Manto looks for the human in the art. At one point in this film, the formidable Urdu writer, who is being tried for obscenity by a Lahore court for yet another short story, decides to argue his own case. He presses on about the importance of “context” – don’t judge a word or a line in isolation, but in context of the writer’s career, his surroundings, his worldview. This could very well have been the filmmaker directly addressing the viewers of Manto. Director Nandita Das beautifully stitches five of the famous Urdu author’s short stories into the narrative of his life’s definitive five-year period. But perhaps her film’s most distinctive trait is its contextualization of his life through his work, rather than vice versa. Here it’s Manto, the person, which is weaved around the five stories.
Milk (directed by Gus Van Sant) is the story of gay rights activist, Harvey Milk who was also the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the US—at great cost to his own life. Milk starts out as a businessman and, after a few attempts, gets elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. Though he is openly gay and his conflict with fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) is partly about his orientation, this is not a film about Harvey Milk, the gay politician; it’s about Milk, the politician who was gay and batted for everyone. Sean Penn brilliantly copies Milk’s winsome manner and ever-widening smile, and the film is as much about the dynamics of inner city politics in America as much as the personality and sexual orientation of Milk.
A Beautiful Mind
Though based on Sylvia Nasar’s book, A Beautiful Mind (directed by Ron Howard) is not a straight retelling of the nuanced life story of John Nash. Firstly, the book is written in a journalistic style. Also, how do you visually communicate a complicated ‘madness’ which is also a source of brilliance? Writer Akiva Goldsman chips away what — to his eye — is inessential and presents the narrative of Nash as a schizophrenic mathematician who wins the Nobel prize in spite of his condition. The maths, his larger family, the mistress—they are pruned away in favour of a narrative of intellectual redemption. Though the John Nash in this biopic is not the real one, Russell Crowe portrays him as a brilliant, dignified man without reducing him to a caricature and without becoming a hagiography: a tortured mind, too, can be a beautiful mind.