Bollywood is getting real and how

From a brave air hostess to a disgraced captain of the national cricket team, filmmakers are dramatising real life subjects for their films. The common man has evolved into the new hero of India's powerful cinematic world. 

Shriram Iyengar

When Paan Singh Tomar released, not many Bollywood analysts expected it to turn into the cult hit it became. Made on a modest budget of Rs 2 crores, the film turned in a revenue of Rs 12 crore by the end of the first week. It was a spectacular run. The film was a well-made, tautly scripted venture starring the raging Irrfan Khan. But what made it spectacular was that it was based on someone who actually existed in the real world. It was the affirmation of a life that many in the rural hinterlands suffer and face to this day. It is this connection with the masses that makes biopics such a populist form of cinema.

Hollywood, or American and European cinema according to snobs, tapped into this market early. This year's Oscars saw Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs(2015), based on the legendary founder of Apple, and Alejandro Gonzalez Innarrittu's The Revenant(2015), based on an American frontiersman, hit the award circuit. In India, Ram Madhvani's Neerja was followed by Hansal Mehta's hard hitting Aligarh. While the former was the story of a brave flight purser who laid down her life to protect her passengers, the latter spoke of the struggle of a homosexual professor in one of the largest universities in India. They are neither the first nor the last of their kind. Last year, Priyanka Chopra played the boxer Mary Kom in the biopic Mary Kom, while the coming months will see a spate of biopics from MS Dhoni: The Untold Story(2016), Emraan Hashmi as Azhar(2016) (based on the former captains of the Indian cricket team) and Randeep Hooda in Sarabjit (the Indian POW who was imprisoned in Pakistan for being a spy). Even the big Khans can't seem to stay away from this phenomenon. In the first big release of 2016, Shah Rukh Khan plays a fan obsessed with a superstar in Fan(2016), while Aamir is all set to play the wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat in his next release, Dangal (2016).

A biopic, technically, is no different from any other typical Bollywood film. These films speak the story of a protagonist whose struggles against the status quo of the establishment serves as an inspiration. Most of these films also have a hidden social cause undertone to them. Bollywood has been selling the  same formula for several decades, almost a century now. Take Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar(1975) or Raj Kapoor in Shree 420(1955) for instance. There has always been the desire to build characters out of reality, to add credibility to them. Yet, a film on an air hostess who faced almost unreal times and showed bravery beyond her age deals ably with the twin factors of credibility and inspiration. The tales of these ordinary citizens making it big also offers an intimate connect with audiences, who recognise these characters as one of their own.

There is an inherent risk in making a film on a real character. It is almost impossible for any filmmaker to hope, however, heroic the deed or individual, to attract audiences with a staid telling of facts. Most filmmakers have to adapt, enhance, or embellish certain negligible facts to retain audience attention. Otherwise, they will end up making a documentary film which, let us be honest, has no audience in India. Akshay Kumar's Airlift(2016) ran into trouble when the audience discovered that its protagonist was a combination of the individuals involved in the famous evacuation of Indians from Kuwait. Some of the victims also sued the filmmakers for dramatizing some of the incidents on screen. This is an occupational hazard most commercial filmmakers work with.

For years, Indian cinema has always fostered escapism as their primary motto. From its beginnings to the giddy spiral of the 70s, Indian films, Hindi in particular, offered audiences a chance to escape their morbid, dull realities into something more spectacular. Boys on the street could watch an Amitabh film to go home feeling invincible. Back then, the common man could clearly discern the gap between aspiration and reality. Cue 2016, the Indian middle class is being wooed by politicians, financial gurus and the First World. It is apt for filmmakers in the country to turn to the aam aadmi for inspiration.