Common men, uncommon stories

Posted on August 15, 2015


On the eve of the release of ‘Manjhi – The Mountain Man’, Baradwaj Rangan traces the journey of our biopics, which are no longer just about larger-than-life achievers.

It all began in 1959, when a landless Bihari from the Musahar community, a scheduled caste that traditionally made a living as rat catchers, decided to make a road through the Gahlaur Ghati hills, to ease passage between the surrounding localities. His name was Dashrath Manjhi – and with a chisel, a hammer and a shovel, he began to chip away singlehandedly at the hill. Twenty-two years later, he had cleared a pathway 360 feet long, 30 feet wide. Manjhi’s story was the basis of a subplot in the 2011 Kannada movie Olave Mandara. But he gets his own, full-length feature film next Friday, when Ketan Mehta’s Manjhi – The Mountain Man releases nationwide.

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Yet another biopic, you might shrug – and you’d be right in a way. We have a tradition of based-on-the-life-of movies that goes back to the 1936 Marathi drama Sant Tukaram – perhaps even earlier, to our first full-length feature, Raja Harischandra, if you believe the truth-telling monarch did walk this earth. The success of these films gave rise to a blueprint on which most of the biopics that followed were built: big emotions, big sets, big dialogues, big people. As sociologist Shiv Visvanathan says, “In the Nehruvian era, everything was epic. Everyone was a hoarding.” And for a long time, the Indian biopic was synonymous with people of a certain stature, people who would be found on hoardings. Jhansi Ki Rani. Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Alluri Seetarama Raju. Adi Shankaracharya. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Making of the Mahatma. Bose: The Forgotten Hero. Periyar. Sardar. The Legend of Bhagat Singh. In other words, screenplay writers dived into history textbooks for inspiration.

Today, though, they seem to be scanning the newspapers – for uncommon stories about common men. “Things began to change around the Emergency,” Visvanathan says, “but it’s really after globalisation that we’re seeing a real change. It’s a paradox. The scale of life became so planetary that, to understand it, we had to go to the level of a village. And for the first time, we are not focusing on heroes but ordinary men. The focus is on the micro-event, a simple man against the odds.” Like Dashrath Manjhi.

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Manjhi isn’t our first common man on screen. Almost seventy years earlier, there was Dr. Dwarakanath Kotnis, whose life was immortalised in V Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani. The film, set during World War II, was based on screenwriter and journalist KA Abbas’s book (And One Did Not Come Back) about an idealistic physician from Maharashtra who forsook a flourishing future at home and went to China as part of a medical mission. Then, in 1967, we had the eponymous protagonist of Sunil Banerjee’s Bengali drama Anthony Firingee. He was a Portuguese-Indian poet in the early 19th century who sang songs that went (at least as shown in the film) I am the night, you are the moon… He married an Indian courtesan named Shakila, became interested in Hindu/Bengali culture, and composed a number of songs in praise of Kali and Durga.

Dr. Kotnis and Anthony Firingee weren’t as celebrated as the subjects of earlier biopics – like, say, the legendary Veerapandiya Kattabomman, the bicentennial of whose hanging by the British was commemorated in 1999 with a postage stamp bearing his image. His name was in the papers as recently as this June, when a memorial costing Rs. 1.2 crore was inaugurated. In comparison, Dr. Kotnis and Anthony Firingee live on mainly in their movies. And yet, there’s still an element of the hoarding in them. Dr. Kotnis’s story plays out on the national, even international stage. On his deathbed in China, he’s possessed by thoughts of his nation. He mutters to his Chinese wife, “Hum Hindustan jayenge.” (We will return to India.) He describes to her the tall mountains of his home, the sparkling rivers, the green fields, the small villages – by the end, he’s become an ambassador for India, his face superimposed on documentary footage from a political rally presided over by Nehru. As for Anthony Firingee, his story could be read as a kind of valourisation of our culture, capable of pulling “foreigners” into its fold. Appropriately enough, the film opens with an image of a church, which dissolves into that of a temple.

But with Dashrath Manjhi, there’s not a speck of anything larger-than-life. It’s just a great story, a great Indian story. As is Shahid, the story of a college kid who is thrown into jail after the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, studies to become a lawyer, and sets up a small practice to help people who were plucked off the streets and locked up simply because – as he puts it – their names happened to be Zahir or Faheem. As is Manjunath, the story of an incorruptible oil-corporation employee, a 27-year-old Tamilian from Karnataka who ended up with six bullets in his chest in a nondescript village in Uttar Pradesh. As is Paan Singh Tomar, the story of a solider who becomes a sportsman en route to becoming a dacoit. As are Rang Rasiya and Makaramanju, Hindi and Malayalam versions of Raja Ravi Varma’s life released barely three years apart. These films might never have been made even a decade ago.

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Or maybe the correct way to put it is that it would have been difficult to make these movies in the pre-multiplex era, where large-capacity single screens demanded films that large numbers of audiences would watch. And even if the rare “common man” biopic was released, it wouldn’t play for very long. For these small movies about small-sized men and women, we had to wait for smaller multiplex screens. In 1977, Bhumika, Shyam Benegal’s biopic based on the life of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, was seen as an art-house release. Today, The Dirty Picture (based on ‘Silk’ Smitha) is a mainstream blockbuster. And now, apparently, we cannot stop making common-man movies. Tigmanshu Dhulia, the director of Paan Singh Tomar, has announced a biopic about Begum Samru, an 18th century nautch girl who went on to become the ruler of the Sardhana province near Meerut. Satish Pradhan will soon release Abhinetri – The Tragedy of a Legend, a Kannada drama based on the life of the actress Kalpana. Then there’s Ram Madhvani’s Neerja Bhanot, based on the story of the senior flight purser for Pan Am who was shot dead by terrorists who hijacked the Mumbai-New York flight at Karachi on September 5, 1986.

It’s not just the multiplex factor, says filmmaker Rajiv Menon. “I think it’s also the impact of television. Earlier, in the newspaper era, only an educated few read the news. So a hero, to most people, meant a mythical hero who would fight an even more larger-than-life villain. Now, with TV, the news continuously projects the common man. It’s a visual medium, and it shows things in a dramatic way, like a thrilling story. So there’s a more democratic view, now, of who a ‘hero’ is. He’s not just someone who topples empires. There’s a hero in every human being.”

Sometimes, a villain too. The most famous “anti-hero” biopic is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, based on the life of the dacoit Phoolan Devi. In the soon-to-be-released Main Aur Charles, Randeep Hooda plays a character inspired by the serial killer Charles Sobhraj. And Vana Yuddham, a 2013 Tamil thriller, was based on the life of the bandit Veerappan. The events surrounding the release of the latter film illustrate the problems of making biopics in India. Veerappan’s widow appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that the film misrepresented her husband. She also argued that her permission should have been obtained before shooting began. The film could be released only after she was awarded a settlement of Rs. 25 lakh.

This explains the many biopics made with veiled references to famous characters – most notably Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (based on the MGR-Karunanidhi relationship) and Guru (based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani). The latter, riding on the optimism of the “India Shining” slogan coined three years before its release in 2007, was a big success. Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, SOAS, University of London, says, “Biopics have changed over the last decade or so from portraying religious figures and freedom fighters. Today, they are being made about the heroes of the new middle classes, men like Dhirubhai Ambani.”

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Guru is a classic rags-to-riches story. This kind of biopic is the most popular because it makes viewers feel good about themselves – hence the tag “feel-good” film. Recent instances include the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory (2009), which made us feel good about the birth of Indian cinema – the film chronicled the struggles of Dadasaheb Phalke, “the father of Indian cinema,” as he went about making country’s first feature film. The Malayalam drama Celluloid (2013) is similar – it depicts the life of JC Daniel, who made the first Malayalam feature film, Vigathakumaran. (The film features a scene where the father of Malayalam cinema meets the father of Indian cinema.) And Hawaizaada (2015) is the story of a Maharashtrian named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade who invented a “flying machine” in 1895, eight years before the Wright brothers wrote themselves into history at Kitty Hawk.

Hawaizaada crash-landed at the box office, but that’s a different story. What’s important is that it got made in the first place – it’s a genuine common-man story, and it fits squarely into the “proud to be Indian” narrative that makes us claim Sundar Pichai, whose accomplishments are all outside the country, as one of our own. Even Dashrath Manjhi fits into this narrative. Ketan Mehta told The Hindu, “One man against a mountain for 22 years… Such an incredible story… When I went and saw the location — the rocky mountain and the path that he had carved out, I couldn’t believe that somebody could even think of doing such a thing. I was awestruck. And I realised he didn’t seek anything in return. The path was being made so that nobody else would suffer his pain… It was such an inspiring story that it had to be made into a film. Because film is the most powerful medium. And what does India need at this point of time? The Indian youth is looking for positive icons. Positive energy. It is looking for inspiration. It is looking for an attitude that says ‘never say die’.”

A sub-genre of the rah-rah biopic is the real-life sports drama, which was practically non-existent – save for rare instances like the 1991 Telugu film Ashwini, based on (and starring) the athlete Ashwini Nachappa. But in the last decade, we’ve had Chak De! India, based on the women’s field hockey team that won the Gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games (and the hockey player Mir Ranjan Negi). We’ve had Mary Kom and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And now there’s the under-production M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story. You may have heard about the man.

Rachel Dwyer says, “The rise of the sports hero and the hitherto unknown person is part of the more realistic, middlebrow cinema that is evolving at the moment – with films like Lootera, Bombay Talkies, and others.  The biopic is popular within this cinema as it is the classic middlebrow genre – aspirational, often educational, but not too challenging. The kind of cinema that wins Oscars.” Or at least, box-office battles. Anurag Basu is reportedly developing a biopic based on Kishore Kumar, starring Ranbir Kapoor. There’s even one on Dara Singh. Son of the soil. Wrestler. Questionable actor. Rajya Sabha member. The biopic practically writes itself.

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