The makers of the upcoming Patiala House have clarified the film isn’t based on Monty Panesar, but only loosely inspired by the British-Asian spin bowler’s success story. What a pity. Panesar, who is just 28 years old, is the first Sikh bowler in the history of English cricket. His achievement is proudly held up as yet another example of British multiculturalism. The British media has fondly given him the moniker “Monty Python” because Panesar is a talented spinner but a butterfingered fielder. There is enough material on Panesar’s life to merit a biopic (you need to look no further than his Wikipedia en¬try), such as his large family’s unstinted support of his career and his devotion to the Sikh faith. Panesar also told The Times in London a few years ago that all he ever wanted to do was play for England. Yet, Patiala House is not about sport, race and national identity, but about a British-Asian father who frowns upon his son’s desire to play for England.
If you’ve stopped yawning, you may also notice that the bowler in Patiala House is played by Akshay Kumar, whose most po-faced self can be seen in the film’s trailers.
It often seems as though the Hindi film industry is scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to subjects for films. However, not too many writers and directors are scrambling to put the lives of key Indian figures on screen. Historian Ramachandra Guha often complains that very few biographies ex¬ist of key figures in Indian politics whose stories deserve to be told. There’s a simi¬lar vacuum in cinema. The biopic is an established, if somewhat controversial, genre in Hollywood, but in India, we mostly get films about historical figures or animated movies about the gods.
It’s complicated: Patiala House, starring Akshay Kumar, is about a British-Asian father who frowns upon his son’s desire to play for England.
The most commonly given excuse is that few producers are willing to commit the resources needed to research a biopic. Some film-makers are trying to change that—Kiran Rao wants to make a film about Gauhar Jan, the singer and performer from the early 20th century whose voice has been preserved in several RPM (revolutions per minute) records. Vikramaditya Mot¬wane is working on a biopic of the Punjabi folk singer Chamkila. Director and actor Guru Dutt is also the subject of an upcom¬ing film by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.
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Yet, there are so many personalities who’re neither musicians nor actors but who deserve to be biopic-ized.
A biopic that covers the span of a per¬son’s life is a tricky sell at the box office—in a deeply commercialized environment, how do you get audiences to care for, say, a pioneering bureaucrat or a noteworthy painter? Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, about Raja Ravi Varma, has been sitting in the can for over two years. Irrespective of the film’s merits or demerits, surely it deserves a release so that film-goers can make up their own minds?
One of the best biopics about an Indian remains Gandhi, which was made by the very British Richard Attenborough. Until Hindi film-makers move away from freedom fighters and start investing in bringing the lives of people who matter to the screen, we’re stuck with foreign interpretations of local heroes.
Patiala House will release on 11 February.
Nandini Ramnath is a film critic with Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org