Hindi Biopics: A Flourishing Trend

Taking off from the previous post on Telugu Biopics, this one is on the flourishing trend of biopics on persons of significance in Hindi. Unlike the Telugu Film Industry many more biopics are made in Hindi on people from different backgrounds. The same cannot be said about mythological and maybe historical biopics. But I will come to that later.

On Women

Let us start with women biopics for a change. Bandit Queen (1994) and Godmother (1999) are two films that come to mind immediately. Surprisingly both are based on women who lived on the wrong side of law and later became politicians. While Phoolan Devi is the Bandit Queen played by Seema Biswas, Godmother is based on the life of Santokben Jadeja who is a mafia leader from Gujarat played by Shabana Azmi. The first one directed by Shekhar kapoor was internationally acclaimed. There is also an old film called Bhumika (1997) directed by Shyam Benegal starring late Smitha Patil. Bhumilka was based on a well known Marathi stage and screen actress Hansa Wadkar.

New millennium saw many more movies made on women like Vidya Balan’s Dirty Picture (2011), Sonam Kapoor’s Neerja (2016), Kangana Ranaut’s Thalaivi (2021) etc.

Dirty Picture was inspired by the life of Silk Smitha, a south Indian actress who was popular for her erotic roles. The film was a huge game changer for both Vidya Balan who played the lead role and also to Milan Luthria who directed the film. Neerja was about an air hostess who saved the lives of the passengers by giving up her life. It is Sonam Kapoor’s best performance to date. Kangana’s Thalaivi was a biopic on late actress/politician Jayalalitha. The film’s subject was powerful but the execution needed to be better.

Hindi cinema has also seen women biopics inspired by books. For example Meghana Gulzar made a film out of the book ‘Calling Sehmat’. It is Raazi (2018). This book was written by a former army man Harinder Sikha. Similarly Sanjay Leela Bhansali took a chapter from a book written by S Hussain Zaidi and made a strong film. It is Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). Both the films have Alia Bhatt playing the lead role and both have become huge success at the box office.

On Sports

On the sports front there seems to be a galore of biopics. Chak De India (2007), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), Mary Kom (2014), M.S Dhoni (2016), Dangal (2016), ‘83 (2021) etc.

 

The lesser known ones include Azhar (2016), Saina (2021) and Kaun Pravin Tambe (2022). While all these are success stories there is one film directed by Tighmanshu Dhulia about a soldier who wins a gold medal at the Indian National Games but is eventually forced to become a notorious bandit. It is Paan Singh Tomar (2010) played by Irrfan Khan.

On Commoners

Biopics on commoners include Sarbjit, Manjhi, Shahid and Padman. Sarbjit was about an innocent villager who ends up in a Pakistan jail. Manjhi was about a laborer called Dashrath Manjhi. He is famous for carving out a road through a mountain. Shahid was about a rebel turned human rights activist lawyer. Padman is about a social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham. Arunachalam is famous for making sanitary pads available at lesser cost.

Hrithik Roshan’s Super 30 (2019) is based on a real life mathematics teacher called Anand Kumar. He became famous for starting an educational program for students aspiring for IIT study called Super 30. In this genre you have also got Madhavan’s labour of love Rocketry. It is about a scientist called Nambi Narayan. He was accused of selling his country which is not true. This film brings back the glory he deserves.

On Freedom Fighters

Hindi cinema has had its share of biopics on freedom fighters as well. For example three films on Bhagat Singh came in just one year 2002. Out of the three Rajkumar Santhoshi’s film was the best. Ajay Devgan won a national award for his portrayal of the patriot. Before that Sardar based on Sardar vallabhai Patel came in 1994 played by Paresh Rawal.

In 2004 a film on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose directed by Shyam Benegal was made with the same name. In 2005 a film based on Mangal Pandey, the man who ignited the Sepoy mutiny was released. The film starred Aamir Khan in the lead role and was made by the acclaimed director Ketan Mehta. In 2021 Shoojit Sarcar made a film on Sardar Uddam Singh. Uddam Singh was a contemporary of Bhagat Singh. Late Irrfan Khan was supposed to play the lead role, but due to his sudden death Vicky Kaushal stepped in.

There are also political and army based biopics. In the political category you have ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, ‘PM Narendra Modi’ (2019) etc. Both the above mentioned fims came with a political agenda. While ‘PM Narendra Modi’ was an unabashed glorification of Modi, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ was intentionally caricaturing the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The army biopics include Shershah and Gunjan Saxena.

Now I will expand a little on some of the more popular biopics.

1. Dirty Picture (2011) – Milan Luthria’s Dirty Picture is a landmark film in the mainstream women centric films. Silk Smitha was a south Indian actress known for her exposing roles. She was mostly playing what was then called vamp roles. The biggest triumph of Dirty Picture lies in how the director humanises the actress. The word dirty here is about the film industry and not Smitha.

As Silk Smitha Vidya completely let go of her inhibitions and came out with a towering performance, it was not just about her physical appearance, it went way beyond that. Naseeruddin Shah was also a hoot as the ageing superstar. Director Milan Luthria took several potshots at different aspects of the then southern film industry.

2.Paan Singh Tomar (2012) – Tighmanshu Dulia brilliantly captured the life of an athlete who turns into a feared dacoit. The film uses the technique of Paan Singh narrating his story in a flashback. The director did a fabulous job in capturing the rustic terrain and the significant events in the life of Paan Singh Tomar. The transition never feels Jerky.
Late Irrfan Khan delivered a rousing performance which aided beautifully to the narrative. The anguish of Paan Singh was effortlessly captured by the actor.

3. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) – Bhaag Milkha Bhaag directed by Rakesh Omprakash Mehra was a competent biopic on the flying Sikh Milkha Singh. Milkha Singh is a sprinter who needs no particular introduction.

Bhaag Milkha had its share of melodrama but still it is a very watchable film. Apart from Rakesh Mehra’s direction

Farhan Akhtar also did a splendid job in bringing alive the real life icon. The partition portions gave the film its strong emotional core. Farhan not only scored with his physical transformation, he also delivered a knockout punch in the emotional scenes.

4. Mary Kom (2014) – Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom had its share of criticism for Priyanka Chopra playing the lead character. There were people who questioned on why a north east person wasn’t cast. However Priyanka proved her skeptics wrong with an emotionally moving act.

Mary Kom remains the best film that Omung Kumar has directed till date. Post Mary Kom the director has delivered some embarrassing films like Sarbjit and PM Narendra Modi. The boxing scenes were a major highlight of this film. You could see the effort that Priyanka Chopra had put in. It didn’t appear fake in any way.

5. Sanju (2018) – This Rajkumar Hirani directorial was both popular and controversial. The director was accused of trying to whitewash Sanjay Dutt’s image. It was seen by a section of people as the director’s defense of the many transgressions of the actor.

Keeping aside the controversies there is no denying that Sanju was an emotional-roller coaster. Rajkumar Hirani used his trademark approach of making it both moving and humorous. Fortunately this balance worked in favour of the film.

As Sanjay Dutt Ranbir disappeared into the character completely, he nailed the different shades of the real life man. Ranbir was also aided by the terrific costume department. And of course Vicky Kaushal and Paresh Rawal made their presence amply felt.

6. 83 (2021) – The film 83 isn’t strictly a biopic as the movie is not about Kapil Dev alone but still 83 does fall in this category as Kapil Dev was the captain of the world cup winning team. Kapil had a significant role in making the team believe that they could win the world cup.

Kabir Khan made a rousing drama with ample moments to cherish. The film presses all the right buttons. You know what is going to happen at the end but that doesn’t stop you from clapping when the moment arrives. The footage of real life scenes added more heft to this heartwarming film.

As Kapil Dev Ranveer delivered an award winning performance, the best thing about Ranveer’s performance was how he captured the spirit of Kapil Dev. The film wasn’t a box office success but it is one of those films which has immense repeat value.

7. Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) – Sanjay Leela Bhansali went into a different terrain with his latest Gangubai Kathiawadi. He based his film on a chapter from the book Mafia Queens of Mumbai. Gangubai film has the typical Bhansali aesthetics in how he stages the red light area of Kamatipura. There is a heartfelt soul to the film. This comes from the director’s real life observations of that area.

Gangubai was a powerful feminist tale with lot of moments to savor, case in point being the Azad Maidan speech in the second half. There were some noteworthy masala moments too in terms of how the character of Gangubai is introduced. The lighter bits also made you chuckle.

Alia Bhatt reinvented herself as an actress with this one. It is a performance which is going to be remembered for a very long time. She proved her skeptics wrong with a towering performance.

On mythological and historic persons

There aren’t many mythological biopics in Hindi. But movies on kings and queens are of course there. Some of the earlier examples of this type are the 1960 historical Mughal-e-Azam and 1983’s Razia Sultan. Out of the modern directors Ashutosh Gowarikar and Sanjay Leela Bhansali have had their share of films on kings and queens.

Ashutosh Gowarikar has made Jodha Akbar and Panipat.

Panipat was based on the war between the Maratha warrior Sadhashiv Bauv and Ahmad Shah Abdali. Sanjay Leela Bhansali made Bajirao Mastani and Padmavat. Both the directors have certainly taken ‘creative liberties’ with their films. The story of Padmavat is actually based on a poem. No historic proof exists about Padmini’s life. In the case of Jodha Akbar the romance between the two was exaggerated. In fact the Alex Rutherford book on Akbar contains zero romance.

The latest is Samrat Prithviraj starring Akshay Kumar, the film has been panned by both critics and audiences.

Just like Telugu biopics this list is not complete in anyway. I have just picked up those biopics which I am familiar with.

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