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The ‘Biopic’ Teaser

July 16, 2016 | By

Biopic films have more often than not run into controversies and debates about the authentcity in depicting the life of a celebrated person. From the Hollywood myth-making trends to the Bollywood surge in making biopics on sports-persons, film-makers worldwide are perennially plagued with legal hurdles, insufficient data and at times difficulty in finding the proper actor for the role. However there is no doubt that biopics have an important significance in the contemporary film culture.

Ray (2004)

Jamie Fox plays Rhythm and Blues musician Ray Charles in the biopic Ray (2004)

Is it possible to capture the essence of a life? The dilemma with the biographical picture, or biopic, as a troublesome genre starts from this contention. While often high-handed in its handling of historical facts and slushed in its own sense of self-importance, the biopic commands a much critical disdain in its industrial visibility. Todd Haynes, for example, has expressed disdain for the genre, which he describes as “a formula, almost more nakedly so than other film genres because whatever the life is has to fit in this one package.” Likewise, on Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg notes: “I never saw it as a biopic. I sometimes refer to it as a Lincoln portrait, meaning that it was one painting out of many that could have been drawn over the years of the president’s life.” {1} Biopic is often perceived as a throwback to old-fashioned modes of storytelling—a sort of heavy armor that constrains filmmakers’ creative movements. So the perception of the biopic as tepid and cavalier, and sometimes also believed to be tied to the “cradle-to-grave” formula seems out of step with the incessant flow of productions about historical lives around the world and with the wide spectrum of variation found within the flexible limits of the ‘based-on-a-true-story’ principle. {2}

However, on a different note, Dennis Bingham eloquently notes, though, “nobody wants to be caught making a biopic” yet “the biopic is as maligned as it is prolific and durable”. {3} In contemporary cinema the biopic is a ubiquitous vehicle for prestige projects. In many ways it has become synonymous with award worthiness and market benefits, particularly when it comes to star-making performances. Twelve of the twenty Oscars awarded in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories in the decade of 2000 to 2009 went to actors playing real-life figures in high-profile films like Jamie Foxx in Ray playing the role of  Rhythm and Blues musician Ray Charles, Sean Penn in Milk acting as Harvey Milk, the American gay activist, Reese Witherspoon playing the role of the  country music artist Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote playing the role of Truman Garcia Capote, the American novelist who reached the height of his career by writing In Cold Blood and Marion Cotillard in  La Môme/La Vie en Rose playing the role of  the life of Edit Piaf, the French singer.

Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover noted that cinema’s transnational flows cannot be detached from the trajectories of film form. The biopic feeds fantasies of national identity to the international film scene. {4} For example, the French film, Coco Before Chanel, 2009, though not released in United States, it grossed $6 million in the United States and was nominated for four BAFTA Awards, three European Film Awards, six César Awards and the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Biopic once again calls for debate since it also blurs the contours of national cinemas through transnational encounters and appropriations and eludes traditional critical distinctions between popular and art cinema as happened in Marie Antoinette, 2006, for instance. {5} In her interviews, Sofia Coppola suggested that her highly stylized interpretation was intentionally very modern in order to humanize the historical figures involved. She admitted taking great artistic liberties with the source material, and said that the film did not focus simply on historical facts. She commented, “It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” {6}. The film received both applause and criticism during Cannes Film Festival press screenings, because some of the French journalists had been offended that the film was not sufficiently critical of the régime’s decadence. French critics were annoyed with the film’s loose portrayal of real historical events and figures. Although it was filmed at Versailles, to capture the splendor of eighteenth-century royal life, some critics took issue with Coppola intermixing period music with contemporary music, for instance, using soundtracks by artists such as ‘The Cure’ and ‘The Strokes’. Or why she intermixed modern products, such as Converse sneakers with formal period shoes.

Capote (2005)

Philip Seymour Hoffman as novelist Truman Capote in Capote (2005)

The term ‘biopic’ is used to refer to a fiction film that deals with a figure whose existence is documented in history, and whose claims to fame or notoriety warrant the uniqueness of his or her story. Like other sub genres within the historical film, the biopic is underpinned by reenactment or, as Robert Burgoyne puts it, “the act of imaginative recreation that allows the spectator to imagine they are ‘witnessing again’ the events of the past.” {7} Regardless of the audience’s depth of prior knowledge about the subject portrayed, it is the fundamental link to historical fact that seals the generic contract between producers and audiences of biographical film fictions, with the additional pleasure of recognition. Unlike in other film genres placed at the intersection of fiction and history, such as the epic, the costume film, or the docudrama—all of which may feature historical characters and biographical tropes—in the biopic an individual’s story comes to the fore. {8} Personality and points of view becomes the instrument of history in stories that often boil down complex social processes to gestures of individual agency.

Dirty Picture (2011)

Vidya Balan in a scene from Dirty Picture (2011) which was based on southern siren Silk Smitha

Bollywood does not venture much in the territory of biopic but the success of movies like Chak De India and The Dirty Picture is inspiring filmmakers to bring interesting life-stories on the big screen. The success of The Dirty Picture, based on eighties southern siren Silk Smitha, and Paan Singh Tomar, the athlete who became a bandit, had spurred industry moneybags to shell out big bucks for projects that narrate real stories with a dash of masala. So Bollywood has a new hard sell mantra. Filmmakers are scrambling for rights of the life stories of the famous from all walks of life. The biopic has never been so big before. Bollywood filmmakers largely stayed away from the biopic because they were scared of attracting legal hassles from the families of the person concerned. “That seems to be changing now,” says trade analyst Taran Adarsh. Seeing reason behind the sudden scramble for biopic, he says, “Hindi films need to be high on drama. Real-life tales often give sufficient meat for drama.”  {9} The formula becomes even headier if the personality in question has gray shades. Vidya Balan’s portrayal of Silk, primarily aroused interest in the way Vidya sensuously portrayed the carefree siren who broke all norms. Irrfan’s essaying of Paan Singh Tomar’s transformation from a rustic army man who shone for India at international sports meets to a Chambal dacoit was another gripping instance.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)

A scene from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), a biopic on Indian sprinter Milkha Singh.

Apart from the legal hurdles, the question of getting facts right has also deterred Bollywood from attempting biopic so far. “Making a biopic involves time and a lot of research. One cannot proceed without collecting interesting facts about the person in question. This is followed by choosing the apt actor for the role,” said Rakeysh Mehra at the launch of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. {10} Bollywood is getting sportier as well, as India’s famous athletes and their lives are the latest flavour in the film industry these days. Shah Rukh Khan might be donning the avatar of hockey legend Dhyan Chand as Karan Johar has bought the rights to make a biopic on the hockey legend. Azhar, starring Emraan Hashmi, is based on the life of the controversial former Indian cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin. The film is ripe with the glorious on-field and scandalous off-field life of the cricketer who was banned from cricket after reported involvement in a match-fixing episode. In Dhoni: The Untold Story, Sushant Singh Rajput will be seen as the most celebrated Indian cricket captain, MS Dhoni. Cricket is a religion in our country and a biopic, wheeled by Neeraj Pandey, on one of the most loved cricketers of the country will surely smash all records. With Sachin Tendulkar’s upcoming biopic named Sachin Tendulkar: A Billion Dreams, it’s time for the film buffs to get set for an adrenaline rush as athletes take over the tinsel town.

Directors have tried making biopic of historical figures. Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey about the man who sparked off the revolt of 1857 and his yet to release Rang Rasiya, about the life and times of artist Raja Ravi Varma, are fitting examples. Freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi are the two figures, who have been the subject of biopic a number of times. Shyam Benegal also told the tale of Netaji Subhash Bose’s life Bose: The Forgotten Hero in an epic manner. Feroz Abbas Khan adapted his successful play ‘Mahatma versus Gandhi’ into Gandhi My Father, which explored Mahatma’s troubled relationship with his eldest son, Harilal. The young crop of directors, however, seem more interested in depicting contemporary people be it gangsters in Zilla Ghaziabad, a murder victim in No One Killed Jessica or a Delhi thief in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye!

The time is ripe for a reconsideration of the biopic’s significance in contemporary film culture. Can the Indian film industry’s surge for biopic films aim at taking the study of the genre beyond its associations with studio filmmaking and Hollywood myth-making, to look at the international life of the biopic through its hybrid forms, narratives, and politics?

Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005) directed by Shyam Benegal based on the story of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose


  1. Fleming Mike Jr, “Q and A with Steven Spielberg: Why it Took 12 Years to Find ‘Lincoln’, Deadline Hollywood, December 6, 2012,
  2. Brown Tom and Vidal Belen (Ed.), The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, 2014, Routledge, 2
  3. Bingham Dennis, ‘The Lives and Times of Biopic’, in A Companion to The Historical Film, (Ed.) Robert Rosenstone and Constantin Parvulescu, Oxford: Willy-Blackwell, 2013, 237
  4. Galt Rosalind and Schoonover Karl, “Introduction: The Impurity of Art Cinema”, in Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, 3
  5. Brown Tom and Vidal Belen (Ed.), The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, 2014, Routledge, 3
  6. Marie Antoinette, (2006 Film)
  7. Burgoyne Robert, The Hollywood Historical Film, Oxford: Blackwell, 2008, 7
  8. Brown Tom and Vidal Belen (Ed.), The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, 2014, Routledge, 3
  9. Srivastava Priyanka, ‘Life Stories Continue to Inspire Bollywood Film-makers’, India Today, 14 April 2012
  10. Ibid, 2012

More to read

Hindi Films 1950s – 2000 and the Emerging Trends – A Sociological Perspective

The Certain and Uncertain Tendencies in Today’s Bollywood Cinema 

The Idea of Apu

Performativity and Politics: Ray and Ghatak




Creative Writing

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Debamitra Mitra is the Principal and Assistant Director-Research of ILEAD. With an M Phil and PhD in International Relations and History from Jadavpur University and Calcutta University respectively, Dr. Mitra has 23 years of experience in academics in teaching, research and administration. She is also an active contributor in both print and audio-visual media.
All Posts of Debamitra Mitra

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