Towards the end of Mrunmayee Lagoo and Hansal Mehta’s Scoop, the show does what is now a staple in the genre of films and shows based on real-life incidents or people. Journalist Jigna Vora, on whom Karishma Tanna’s Jagruti Pathak is based, shows up on screen. I’m not implying characters need to bear cosmetic resemblance to the real-life person in the manner of looks or diction, but this felt odd and a disservice to the world built by Lagoo and Mehta. Jagruti’s characterisation was wafer-thin in the series and when she didn't look or speak anything like Vora, it felt jarring to see the real person replace the fictional character.
Tanna’s portrayal of Vora’s life is not an issue, as much as the unimaginative characterisation in the show, which Mehta directed and co-wrote. I was troubled when I found out that Vora, after being effectively forced to quit journalism, later became a tarot card reader and astrologer. To be fair, the show is based on Vora’s memoir Behind Bars in Byculla: My Days in Prison. How she spends her life after being released doesn’t fall into the scope of the six-part series. My only contention is that a leap from journalism to tarot cards is a significant one. Wouldn’t it add more intrigue to the character of Jagruti Pathak to include a fleeting interest in this vocation, amongst other things, in the series?
A show like Scoop is deemed to be a benchmark for fact-based shows in Hindi filmdom. Its efforts to tell the story as authentically as possible are visible, but does it provide a most multi-faceted portrait of its subject? For that matter, does most of the industry strive for a truthful, nuanced portrait of their subject? What do we make of a show’s, or a film’s, claim to truth when the characterisation is this flimsy?
Writer-director Onir, who made films like My Brother Nikhil (2004) and I Am (2010) based on real-life accounts, pointed out that Bollywood isn’t a homogeneous entity, and includes independent voices like him. “There are different approaches. The mainstream approach tends to be populist. There are no shades of grey in those films,” he said.
The writer/director says he faced many problems with his directorial debut, which was based on a real-life person named Dominic D’Souza and there were quite a few things for which he couldn’t get permission. “First of all, there was a lot of denial within the family, who were in the US [United States of America] at the time. Also, Dominic’s character – a Christian, gay, Goan — was feeding into a stereotype I didn’t want to further. Also, I wanted to change a few things like have a brother-sister dynamic by casting Juhi Chawla,” said Onir, explaining why he opted to fictionalise the tale despite its roots in actual incidents.
It’s not as though biopics aren’t popular, particularly in Hindi cinema. There have been dozens of biopics of sportspersons, ranging from those on M.S. Dhoni (M.S. Dhoni: the Untold Story, 2016, also the upcoming Mr and Mrs Mahi), to MC Mary Kom (Mary Kom, 2014) and Saina Nehwal (Saina, 2021). Real-life incidents, like the 2016 “surgical strike” along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, have also been adapted for the big and small screen. Most of these have been made with the cooperation and involvement of the persons involved. One of the biggest commercial successes of the last decade was Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018), based on the life of Sanjay Dutt, which was widely criticised for presenting a point of view that felt biased towards the actor (Hirani and Dutt have a long and cordial working relationship).
No one can deny there are logistical challenges for a filmmaker when making a film based on historical incidents and people. These include obtaining rights to the story, getting people on board as resources for the retelling, and even dealing with unwarranted government intervention on occasion. However, there are too many examples of filmmakers showing little beyond cursory interest in their subjects and paying little attention to how the retelling impacts what is on public record. Too often, the emphasis is on telling a person’s story as cleanly as possible, rather than telling it thoroughly.
Writer Bhavani Iyer said Bollywood biopics can seem hagiographic because they’re targeting audiences used to watching films that spoon-feed moral lessons with the help of dramatic music. Iyer is one of Bollywood’s most prolific writers for projects on real-life figures, having begun her career with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black (2005, an adaptation of Helen Keller’s life). She went on to write Alia Bhatt starring Raazi (2018, based on real RAW spy’s account in Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat), the Zee5 series Kaafir (2019) inspired by a newspaper report, and now awaiting the December release of Meghna Gulzar’s Sam Bahadur, based on the life of the former chief of the Indian Army, Sam Manekshaw, starring Vicky Kaushal. “You can ask why our biopics or films based on true events aren’t as gritty or hard-hitting as, say, a Schindler’s List.” said Iyer, “The cinema they’ve grown up watching, I think they wouldn’t want to see a film like that (Schindler’s List). I’m talking about the mainstream audience here.” Iyer is also currently working on adaptations based on the lives of Maharani Gayatri Devi and painter Amrita Sher-Gil.
Writer Urmi Juvekar wrote the script for Dibakar Banerjee directorial Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008), which was inspired by the story of a real-life thief, monikered ‘Bunty Chor’. Juvekar asks a pointed question to her colleagues who want to pursue the genre, “What’s your entry point into it? Is your film about a famous politician or an individual who goes on to become a politician? What’s your point of inquiry into a subject? Is it about their humanity or have you already made up your mind that the subject is great?” It’s a question every screenwriter, director and producer can ask themselves before embarking on one of these ventures.
Juvekar said biopics in Hindi cinema have now become the “lawyer’s domain”. “In India, anything that doesn’t fall into the space of praise, becomes difficult to write into a script,” said Juvekar. “I don’t know how writers are able to navigate the space.”
Juvekar says the same set of incidents or a person’s life could give different insights, pointing to two films based on the Noida double murder case from 2008. “There were two films on the case: Rahasya (2015) and Talvar (2016). While Rahasya focuses on what happened before the murder, Talvar focuses on after. Talvar asks about the society-at-large and dives into how the parents got embroiled,” she said. Interestingly, Talvar steered clear of using the real names, but did not deviate from showing the rigorous investigation and having a foundation of research. To its credit, the film didn’t face any legal hurdles despite the real-life accused still being undertrials at the time. The possibility of being slapped with a legal complaint is a massive deterrent, especially for independent filmmakers. (One could argue the risks are less when those involved, like Drs. Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, have comparatively fewer resources and are too embroiled in their existing struggles to slap a defamation case on a filmmaker.)
The legal rights for a subject can also be a tricky space for filmmakers. You could manage to obtain the rights for the subject, but face difficulties while depicting the minor or supporting characters. There are writerly tactics to overcome such obstacles, ranging from renaming characters to pointing to an unofficial biography as the source material (and thus pinning the responsibility of authenticity upon the author and publisher, instead of a film producer). Iyer said such methods are “common practice” in Hindi cinema, but she personally does not endorse them. “I only come on board when I know that the rights are in place. I wouldn’t want to make money off of someone else’s life. It doesn’t sit well with me,” she said.
Courts can be a difficult space to navigate for independent filmmakers. For example, the release of Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2007), based on Hussain Zaidi’s book of the same name, was delayed by three years because some of the cases related to the bomb blasts of 1993 were still being heard at the time of the film’s intended release. Kashyap’s film is arguably one of the bravest forays into the genre because it uses real names and is rooted in realism. Recently, a case was also filed against Netflix’s Trial By Fire for naming the Ansal family – the proprietors of Uphaar Cinema, the site of one of the worst fire tragedies in modern India where 59 people were killed and more than 100 people were seriously injured. Filed only a few days before the show was released on Netflix, it was dismissed after a couple of hearings.
A film, after spending money and man-hours, may seem invulnerable but leading up to its release, it can become a target, especially when it’s a commercial, mainstream title. A stay on a release or bad publicity can impact a film’s prospects dramatically for the worse, which is why most producers would rather contort scripts to avoid any possible legal ramifications. “When you’re starting the process of writing, legal teams do send word of advice of what possibly could happen – and what you have to safeguard yourself against,” said Iyer.
The reverence grows tenfold when the subject of the biopic has anything to do with Indian armed forces. Case in point: Sharan Sharma’s Gunjan Saxena (2020), which faced much resistance despite telling a story of triumph. The movie was criticised for implying the armed forces are patriarchal and those attacking the film refused to acknowledge that the film offers a considered and balanced perspective.
Similarly when Onir, who sent over his script for an upcoming project, based on the real life of a gay army officer to the Ministry of Defence, he simply received a response saying “not cleared” over email. When Onir tried to inquire why the film was being rejected, he got no further. “Then I heard that Varun Gandhi brought it up in Parliament and he got a response from the Secretary of Defence saying my script was ‘derogatory’ to the Indian army and a threat to National Security,” Onir said with a wry laugh. The National Award-winning filmmaker rued that few in the film industry feel confident enough to challenge those who seek to intimidate filmmakers and producers with backlash and legal suits. Instead, for his film, Onir said he had heard many iterations of “you need to forget about this and move on!” There’s been no movement on the project and he is thinking of approaching the courts.
Iyer agreed that the armed forces are among the holy cows of Indian culture, but said she understood the reverence that is expected when depicting the Indian Army, Air Force and Navy. “I think they’re doing something truly difficult. So I wouldn’t hold them to the same standards as, say, a banker or a scamster. It’s such an incredible service to the nation,” said Iyer. “And if all we have to be mindful of is not to show them in a negative light, then why not?”
Onir argued that a respectful representation doesn’t necessarily have to be one that is dictated by the government. “If anything, you’re degrading their service to the nation, and humiliating any closeted gays in the armed forces. Making sure they’re forever ashamed of their identity. How is someone’s sexuality a national security threat?” said Onir.
Admiration and respect for a subject shouldn’t require a general disdain towards facts and neither should the escapism of mainstream cinema be held up as an excuse for lazy representations of historical incidents and people. “Some are interested in catering to the tastes of the masses,” said Onir, “but I’d rather be a part of the group that wants to change the taste.” The writer/director is currently in the process of finishing a script around the investigation into the Pulwama attack. “Once the script is done, we’ll have to find a way to mention the people responsible,” he said, “without getting into any legal crosshairs.”