Whose life is it anyway?

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 31, 2012 19:20 hrs

As the search continues to find an actress to play the role of Olympian Mary Kom for the upcoming biopic on her life produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and as pictures of Ashton Kutcher strolling through Delhi while reprising the role of Steve Jobs for the biopic on the late technocrat go viral, the focus is on the biopic. And, on the particular fascination that audiences all over the world have for this genre of filming.

The history of the biopic has been a rich and varied one: who can forget George C Scott as the irascible WWII General Patton in Patton or Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal or Ben Kingsley’s excellent performance as Gandhi? Through their portrayals these characters were made accessible and human.

But the biopic is a difficult animal: not quite “a true story” and a shade away from “a historical dramatization”, the accepted definition of the biopic is ‘a film that depicts and dramatizes the life of an important historical personage from the past or present era.’

Given this definition, the two controversial films based on the lives of famous Indian women that Bollywood has attempted do not quite make the cut: when Shekhar Kapur presented Bandit Queen in the early nineties to great critical acclaim, he must not have contended that he would face the wrath of no less a writer and film maker than Arundhati Roy who took grave objection to the liberties the film maker had taken with Phoolan Devi’s story.

No such censure was afforded to Ekta Kapoor when she presented Vidya Balan in a much-hyped version of the tragic life and times of the late Southern sex symbol, Silk Smitha. The film went on to win great acclaim and many awards. But there were many who were uncomfortable by the questions it raised. Namely, the moral, legal and ethical issue of who has the right to tell another’s story and what’s more, profit hugely from it.

Most people have trouble enough figuring out their own lives — how on earth do the makers of a film address the tricky business of dealing with another person’s altogether?

In this regard, the makers of Alexander attracted censure from scholars for implying that the general was bisexual. Boxing fans took up cudgels for Max Baer in Cinderella Man. And the biopic based on another boxer, Rubin Carter, The Hurricane was the subject of a raging debate on its legal accuracy. Popular movie critic Roger Ebert defended The Hurricane saying, “Those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother...”

Controversies also surround the casting of biopic: should actors be chosen on the basis of their acting talent or their resemblance to the character they’re playing? My money would be on the former.

Who would have imagined that the American Meryl Streep could have reprised the role of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady so brilliantly? Or that Anthony Hopkins, though he hardly resembled Richard Nixon, would bring home a performance that brought us closer to understanding the enigmatic leader?

Which brings us to the two films that appear to have been made in casting heaven: Kutcher as Steve Jobs (an uncanny resemblance) and Sasha Baron Cohen, the zeitgeist comedian and social commentator, who’s been signed up to play the late Parsi-British rocker Freddy Mercury!

As for someone playing Mary Kom, my money is on Katrina Kaif!

Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer

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