Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Sahir Ludhianvi biopic project had been in the news before the pandemic struck. Reports were rife that the film would star Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the lead roles. A lot was said and written about the potential casting of the film with Deepika Padukone, Taapsee Pannu, Priyanka Chopra being contenders for the coveted role of Sahir’s muse and great poet and author in her own right, Amrita Pritam. While I wonder what happened to this potent prospect given the new normal we are in now, I also feel Pritam deserves a biopic of her own.
Pritam’s was an intriguing life for her day and age. A progressive female poet in pre-Independence India who indulged an unrequited love for another great poet, regardless of already being in a lacklustre marriage with two children, would surely make for engaging content in any format. She is also role-model material, being the first female recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award and a recipient of both the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan, two of India’s highest civilian awards, and honorary doctorates from several universities – both Indian and foreign. She spent her last forty years with her partner Imroz, who designed most of her book covers and made her the subject of several of his paintings. She had a prolific career as a writer and died at age 86, survived by her partner, son, daughter and four grandchildren. If that was not a singular life, then what is?
There have been several movies that celebrate the lives of such trail-scorching women authors who defied the convention of their times and leave us awestruck today on the odds they surmounted. Their works are counted among the greatest books ever written and have been revered by generations of readers. Each backstory is inspiring and intriguing in its own way. Here are some of those movies.
Saving Mr Banks (2013)
Australian-English author Pamela Lyndon Travers is best known for the series of children’s books featuring the magical nanny Mary Poppins. Revolving around the behind-the-scenes of the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins, the film stars Emma Thompson as Travers, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her chauffeur.
Travers is a name the author adopted from her father’s given name. She has had a troubled childhood on account of her alcoholic banker father, whom she adores, and stressed mother. Driven up the wall by her financial difficulties, she reluctantly consents to her agent setting up a meeting with Walt Disney to render her story into the now landmark film.
Travers gets a culture shock on reaching Los Angeles and is particularly alarmed by the jovial Mr. Disney. On their end, Disney and his team find her difficult to work with, to say the least. Disney is amazed by Travers’s contempt for fantasy, given the content of her books and her own rich imagination. Travers particularly objects to the portrayal of the character George Banks, the children’s estranged father in the story, insisting that he is neither cold nor cruel. Seeking to break the ice, Disney takes her to Disneyland. Over time, he unravels how deeply personal the Mary Poppins stories are to Travers and how many of the characters were inspired from her past. His creative team do incorporate much of her constructive criticism and revise the ‘Mr. Banks’ character, thus ‘saving’ him.
At the outset, the eccentric Travers had insisted that all her conversations with the Disney team be recorded on tape and thank god she did! These audio recordings from the Disney archives form the basis for the film and for both Thompson’s and Hanks’s preparation for their roles. Travers eventually warms up the Disney team, partly aided by her blossoming friendship with Ralph. The whole exercise helps Travers overcome her own writer’s block. On returning home, she begins her next Mary Poppins story.
Eat Pray Love (2010) and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
Eat Pray Love is inspired by a memoir of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert and thus, strictly speaking, is not a biopic of the author. Nevertheless, it tells of a part of the author’s life and chronicles her year-long trip around the world. Honestly, I much preferred the bestselling book to the film, which, despite having mixed reviews, was a commercial success. The book struck me as something novel in between chick-lit and rom-com. But all I can remember from the movie is a jaded Julia Roberts in the author’s role. The film also stars Javier Bardem as the Brazilian businessman, Felipe, whom Gilbert falls in love with.
The story of Elizabeth Gilbert resonates with the modern woman. At 34, Gilbert has had an education one can be envious of, a husband, a home and a successful career as a writer – yet she finds herself lost and searching for what she really wants in life. Following a difficult divorce, she finds herself in a rebound relationship that does not work out, leaving her even more devastated. And that is when she embarks on this journey of self-discovery.
She spends four months in Italy, learning the real pleasure of nourishment (“Eat”). She spends three months in India, finding her spirituality and the power of prayer (“Pray”). She ends the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for a ‘balance’ of her earlier two findings and unexpectedly finding true love (“Love”). (Fun fact – all countries begin with an ‘I’, if you had not already noticed)
Somehow, I kept remembering a very similar earlier movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, which was so much better for reasons I cannot seem to put my finger on. This one is based on American poet and novelist, Frances Mayes’s 1996 memoir of buying, renovating and living in an abandoned villa. The film stars Diane Lane (in a Golden Globe-nominated role) as the recently divorced writer who buys the villa in Tuscany (in Italy) while on an unplanned holiday there, hoping it will lead to a change in her life. The film also stars Sandra Oh (of Gray’s Anatomy and Killing Eve fame) as the author’s friend. The movie invariably ends with Frances meeting an American writer, who in real life became her husband.
Enid Blyton was my favourite childhood author. Sad to be using the past tense. Like millions of children, I have adored her books. I was introduced to her with The Enchanted Wood series. The endearing characters she created include arch-rivals Fatty and Mr. Goon, the bumbling village policeman in the Mystery series, mischievous Amelia Jane of the Naughtiest Girl series, the schoolgirl Darrell Rivers from the Malory Towers series, and of course the Famous Five, among scores of others.
However, I was quite ‘disenchanted’ on watching the biopic Enid (2009) and afterwards ended up revisiting dozens of her books to look for problematic signs. I must concede – I found many.
Enid is a departure from this list in that it is a biographical TV film, featuring Helena Bonham Carter in the titular role. It explores the cosy worlds created by Enid Blyton as a stark contrast with her not-so-perfect life. Her first husband and father of her two daughters is Hugh Pollock. Pollock was also her publisher. Their relationship is put to the test after Pollock returns from the First World War with PTSD. The marriage does not survive; this is partly attributed to Enid’s aggressive ambition.
The actor who plays her, Helena Bonham Carter, described Blyton as “a complete workaholic, an achievement junkie and an extremely canny businesswoman”, who “knew how to brand herself, right down to the famous signature”. The portrayal won her an Emmy that year.
Blyton churned out book after book at an incredible speed. So much so that it was rumoured that she did not write all her books herself. She could produce up to 10,000 words a day. Jean E. Sutcliffe of the BBC schools department wrote about the mediocrity of the material she created and noted “her capacity to do so amounts to genius … anyone else would have died of boredom.” And indeed, her plotlines were repetitive, frequently recycled, overly simplistic and predictable. And, of course, the stereotypes of racism and sexism she created would certainly stand out like a sore thumb today (for example the villainous black servant Jo-Jo from The Island of Adventure). Most of the editions we see around today are heavily revised. Her writing has polarised generations of teachers, librarians, educators and literary critics alike. And yet her books have sold more than 600 million copies since the 1930s and have been translated into 90 languages and you will find her well stocked in most bookshops around the world even today.
The most fascinating aspect of her personality was her relationship with children, including her own. Psychologist Michael Woods believed that Blyton was different from many other ‘older’ authors writing for children in that she seemed untroubled by presenting them with a world that differed from reality. Woods sums up: “(Blyton) was a child, thought as a child, and wrote as a child … the basic feeling is essentially pre-adolescent … Enid Blyton has no moral dilemmas … Inevitably Enid Blyton was labelled by rumour a child-hater. If true, such a fact should come as no surprise to us, for as a child herself all other children can be nothing but rivals for her.” Her own estranged daughter Imogen has stated that she “loved a relationship with children through her books”, but real children were an intrusion, and there was no room for intruders in the world that Blyton inhabited through her writing.
Becoming Jane (2007)
This list could not be complete without a movie based on my all-time favourite author – Jane Austen. What can I write that has not already been written about this stalwart! Not many women, let alone women authors, feature on the currency notes of their country.
In this film, the screenwriters piece together known facts from Austen’s early life (from her books and letters) into this unrequited love story that is largely unknown to the public, giving the film a much-needed intrigue factor. The film brings to life the partly fictionalised account of Austen’s relationship with Thomas ‘Tom’ Lefroy (who, fun fact, went on to become the Chief Justice of Ireland in the mid-19th century). Austen is played by Anne Hathaway and Lefroy by Scottish actor James McAvoy.
However, it can be said that Austen was, in fact, genuinely attracted to Lefroy and subsequently none of her other suitors ever quite measured up to him. In the movie, we are led to believe that this lesser-known pivotal relationship shaped Austen’s life and was the inspiration for First Impressions – a manuscript that would become her most celebrated work, Pride and Prejudice. There are many parallels that can be drawn from this book to Austen’s early life as depicted in the movie. The landscape is complete with Austen’s own disapproving mother, proud father, sympathetic sister, awkward suitor (akin to Mr. Collins) and his condescending benefactor (a delightful Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham, flashing a glimpse of what was to follow in Downton Abbey) – all setting the scene for snobbery and social-climbing that provide context for Austen’s iconic novels.
There are also elements which appear to be contrived to appeal to modern audiences – case in point, a game of cricket. Jane Austen’s greatest novelty is believed to be the idea of marrying for love as opposed to marrying for money – a premise that scandalised Georgian-Regency-era England. From the movie, it does not appear so.
McAvoy’s Lefroy is less (outwardly) arrogant than Mr. Darcy. In fact, he is mischievous in his teasing. Hathaway’s Jane is as feisty as Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet. The difference being that in this story, Jane agrees to elope with Lefroy – something, I doubt Elizabeth would have condoned. The character is redeemed by her aborting the elopement plan at the last minute, with reason ruling over heart on her part, as neither had any money to make the marriage last. When a devastated Lefroy asks her if she loves him, she replies, “Yes, but if our love destroys your family, then it will destroy itself, in a long, slow degradation of guilt and regret and blame.”
The movie’s ending deviates vastly from both the book and Austen’s actual life. In the book, there is a serendipitous ending for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and, in real life, Austen never met Lefroy again. The movie’s ending is heart-warming though: twenty years later, Jane, now a successful author and by choice unmarried, meets Lefroy at a gathering. Lefroy introduces his eldest daughter, who adores Jane’s novels, to her. Lefroy’s daughter asks Jane to read from her book. Knowing that Jane rarely does so, Lefroy admonishes his daughter, calling her by her name – which is also Jane. Astonished that he has named his eldest after her, Jane agrees to the request. The last scene shows Lefroy’s daughter sitting by Jane as she reads from Pride and Prejudice, while Lefroy watches Jane admiringly. As she concludes, their eyes meet, and Lefroy joins the rest of the company in honouring Jane and her work with applause.
Miss Potter (2006)
If you (or more likely your kids) are familiar with the adventures of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Jemima Paddle-Duck, Mr. Tod (the fox), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (the hedgehog) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (the frog), among others, chances are you have been charmed by the quaint tales and marvelled at the lovely illustrations. And yet when these characters were created by children’s writer, Beatrix Potter in the late nineteenth century, personification of animals was not a widely accepted concept. A spinster in her thirties with a social-climbing and domineering mother, she had great difficulty in selling her writings and illustrations to snooty London publishers. That is, until the Warne brothers decide to patronise her, if only to give their novice younger brother Norman a publishing project. Thus, two people who have hitherto not been taken seriously come together to prove a point or two. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is published in 1902 and the rest is history.
Beatrix Potter’s parents did not exactly discourage higher education. But as was common in the Victorian era, women of her class were privately educated and rarely went to university. Potter was interested in almost every branch of the natural sciences and was a gifted illustrator. She brought the animals from the woods and farms to life with her engaging and enduring stories.
In the process of becoming a published and popular children’s author, she and Norman Warne grow close to each other. The sweet love story, however, ends sadly with Warne’s untimely and unexpected death following a short illness, even before they could be married.
Potter then throws herself into procurement of farms around Windermere (a place her family visited every summer) with the fortune she has earned as a writer, towards conservation of grazing lands and preservation of the outstanding natural beauty of the region. In this effort, she is assisted by her childhood companion and farm-hand-turned-solicitor William Heelis, whom she later marries. Potter and Heelis enjoyed a happy marriage of thirty years, continuing their farming and preservation efforts throughout the hard days of World War II.
Potter’s legacy thus includes not just all the original illustrations for her books that she left to the National Trust, but also the land she purchased that eventually formed part of the Lake District National Park in North West England. I have visited this picturesque region and thus know first-hand what the world owes to Potter. The rich visual imagery created in the film with crafty animation is noteworthy. The film stars the brilliant Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne. If you could watch just one movie from this list, I would recommend this one.
Iris (2002): a biographical drama film about novelist Iris Murdoch. The film is based on her husband John Bayley’s 1999 memoir, Elegy for Iris. The film contrasts the start of their relationship, when Murdoch was an outgoing, spirited individual as compared to the timid and scholarly Bayley, and their later life, when Murdoch was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and tended to by a frustrated and yet devoted Bayley in their Oxford home. The film stars Dame Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch (old and young), Jim Broadbent, who won the Academy Award for his supporting role as the older Bayley, and Hugh Bonneville as the young Bayley, whom you will know from his later role in Downton Abbey.
Sylvia (2003): a British drama film based on the real-life romance between noted poets Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Ted Hughes (a pre-Bond Daniel Craig). The film begins with their meeting in Cambridge in 1956 and ends with Plath’s suicide in 1963.
Out of Africa (1985): a multi-Academy Award-winning romantic drama film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The film is based loosely on the 1937 autobiographical book Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (pseudonym of Danish author Karen Blixen), with additional material from Dinesen’s 1960 book Shadows on the Grass.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.