There is hardly any poet or author – from the era of the classics to the present – whose life or work has not been portrayed on the big screen in the West. Films on literary clubs, writer's block, writers' road trips, the editor-writer bonding and so on are made every season. There is a substantial chunk of drama films based on authors and their small world. Attempts to make biopic movies on littérateurs has been a recent phenomenon in Indian films, but the proclivity to venerate them is often the reason that their human side, their vices and follies, is left out of the frame – to perpetuate the façade of overwhelming goodness forever.
Released this year, To Olivia examines the impact of the tragic loss of a young child on the marital relationship of author Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. Expecting something similar in Bollywood would herald a new beginning. Although a brave attempt has already been made by Nandita Das in 2018, with her film on Saadat Hasan Manto, the lukewarm response, despite a stellar performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, perhaps dampened the enthusiasm of other filmmakers who might have been keen to explore similar subjects.
Manto happened because of the relevance of his work even today. His stories are brutally honest in their portrayal of what happened during Partition. His marital blues further complicated his personal life and pushed him into a morass of intoxication. The juxtaposition of creative life and personal tragedies was an attempt to achieve audience engagement. Unfortunately, it did not work out the way it was envisioned, but it did emerge a worthwhile film that enriched Hindi cinema.
Making biopic films has caught the fancy of Indian filmmakers, but they prefer sports legends, warriors and politicians because it is easier to make the characters lively, find challenges for them and make the story gripping for viewers. On the other hand, writing is an isolated job with limited scope to introduce action in the drama. Adding events from the writer's personal life and using crises is the only way to enliven the film even though critics call such attempts diversionary tactics, to mould the drama for viewer interest.
Another reason Indian directors have shied away from making films on poets and writers is that they carry immense respect. We cannot think of making critical films on the lives of Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, or Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. However, the making of hagiographical films is not going to better the situation. We need sharp, intelligent films that portray their strengths and weaknesses, but the unwillingness to deal with the dark side for fear of offending sentiments is a major setback. With very little archival material available about writers and poets, there is a possibility that the families of the literary personalities will take umbrage and file a legal suit. To avoid such complications, many filmmakers stay away from exploring such topics.
I have a glimmer of hope that the young, mature audiences will reach out for different kinds of films in the new decade.