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Gary Oldman won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: AFP
Gary Oldman won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: AFP

The political biopic moment

It's a new Bollywood currency and an unfailing Oscar bait, but when will the political biopic really have its moment?

Gary Oldman is finally best actor at the Oscars. In his short acceptance speech the British actor thanked the Churchill family—yet another time, and profusely. 

Usually, he is a man of subdued wit, and must consider profusion a crime. Oldman’s acting intelligence is a reason why his profession can be compared to miniature sculpting—suiting the greyness and economy of a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson) much more than Joe Wright’s The Darkest Hour (2017), for which he got the Oscar. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy got him a nomination, but the lead role in Wright’s Winston Churchill biopic was Oldman’s perfect bait—flawless prosthetics fortifying his portrayal of a beady and trenchant Churchill. 

The prime minister’s oratorial mastery, which the screenplay is largely about, added to the fodder Oldman had for crafting those rousing parliament moments. Besides, the Churchill in this movie—from when he took over as prime minister of Great Britain in a tricky phase of World War II—suits our current moment in history. 

The new nationalism is narrow and divisive, but it drives opinions, affiliations and violence of all kinds targeting ordinary humans. No matter what his personal politics, Oldman immerses in the loud nationalistic rhetoric of Churchill sincerely. (How John Lithgow is a far better Churchill in the Netflix series Crown is another piece of film criticism altogether.)

Oldman’s win is important also because it is another moment for the usually anodyne political biopic.

Biopics are supposed to be character studies, but they often aren’t. Political biopics especially aren’t. They are an exaggeration of one trait that history books and biographies have already canonized. Screen writers and directors don’t get to use their own prisms while portraying a political figure; producers put their money on popular political sentiment. 

In Mumbai’s film world, notorious for pandering to what’s considered safe and popular, there are two biopics in the works on Prime Minister Narendra Modi—a new high for popular filmmaking. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui is prepping for the lead role in a biopic of the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in a film produced by the party’s well-known politician Sanjay Raut. 

The demands of mainstream film-making are at odds with the demands of a complex biography. When did we last see a screen writer or director distinguishing between subject and icon? 

Even in the most celebrated examples of the genre, that distinction isn’t clear. Lincoln never became Lincoln in Spielberg’s film; he was Lincoln. We didn’t see Abe Lincoln or Margaret Thatcher beyond what we knew before the biopics came out (Lincoln, 2012; The Iron Lady, 2011). 

But sure, Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep can do no wrong. Most political biopics are weak screen adaptations of books, with fine exceptions like Clint Eastwood’s J Edgar (2011) with Leonardo DiCaprio and David Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), which also got lead actor Ben Kingsley an Oscar.

In Indian cinema, political biographies are even more eulogical. They are a rare genre in Bollywood. Subhash Chandra Bose has been a popular subject. Among the Bose biopics is a sombre telling of the man’s adventures with the Indian National Army (INA) by Shyam Benegal in 2004 (Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero). 

The INA is a fuel for filmmakers again now—director Kabir Khan, known for Salman Khan blockbusters, is shooting one, and Ekta Kapoor’s new digital venture Alt Balaji recently released Bose: Dead or Alive for online streaming. It delves, grating TV soap opera style, into the age-old mystery of Bose’s death. 

Anupam Kher is in the lead role of Manmohan Singh in Vijay Ratnakar Gutte’s film, Hansal Mehta’s screen adaptation of Sanjay Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh. 

Director Vivek Agnihotri has begun shooting for his film on the country’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Earlier this year, Agnihotri released a video on YouTube in which he appeals to people to mail any information or research they might have on the circumstances of Shastri’s death in Tashkent after signing the Tashkent Agreement. 

News site Firstpost later quoted him saying his film was like a “citizen investigative report". 

Also earlier this year, actor Vidya Balan acquired the rights to turn the book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by journalist Sagarika Ghosh into a biopic. 

In the past two decades, a few projects have been announced on Indira Gandhi, but they all fell through. In 2016, a script by Manish Gupta got embroiled in legalities because, as the writer-director told The Indian Express then, they were “waiting for some approvals". 

Two Telegu biopics on NT Rama Rao, founder of the Telegu Desam Party, are reportedly on the works—one to be directed by Teja and produced by the politician’s son Nandamuri Balakrishna, and one to be helmed by Bollywood’s once taste-shatterer Ram Gopal Varma.


Politics in our country is poison as well as elixir; we could be a culture best inspired to write stories about political figures. We love cinema, we worship our politicians. Why wouldn’t a screenwriter think of, for example, writing the life of Mayawati? Few female politicians are as biopic-worthy as this Dalit firebrand seasoned in the grisly and patriarchal political universe of Uttar Pradesh. 

Like Manish Gupta, whose struggle with directing a film about Indira Gandhi were reported in the media, filmmakers and screenwriters are keenly aware of the monstrously retarding effects of offence and censorship. It’s a hostile country for writers, artists or directors who are interested in political subjects, who want to look deeper into political legacies. 

There are too many examples of violent censorship from governments or empowered fringe groups against movies that are even remotely political, with characters representative of communities or political parties. The last year has been one of the worst years for censorship in the movies. 

Biopic directors and writers can wield power. They can lionize or decry a public figure, and change the narrative of a legacy. Without the freedom to use this power or interest in using it, cinema is insular and boring. 

But when we produce a biopic, we either glorify or vilify—easy ways out, depending, to a large extent, on who is powerful. We can’t depend on the two Narendra Modi biopics announced, with actors Paresh Rawal and Shatrughan Sinha, both elected leaders of the BJP, for a robustly rounded portrayal of their supreme leader. 

Alternatively, can we depend on Anupam Kher, another BJP politician and an articulate representative of the party’s views, not to portray an unflattering Manmohan Singh, the Congress party’s most erudite representative? The Hindi film industry is not known to be a political place, but when it is, party affiliations motivate views and subjects rather than larger concerns about society beyond party lines.

Perhaps the last great film about politics in India, in which mythology, romance and a director’s world view perfectly merged for a visual spectacle, is Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997), about the rivalry between M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi. It doesn't quite count as a biopic—the characters have different names from the real-life personalities they represent—but it is as resonant about Tamil Nadu politics as it was when it released. 

Ratnam doesn’t snub mass sentiments about the two leaders, but he is interested in their flaws and how those flaws alchemized the great rivalry—grippingly entertaining and sophisticated cinema. 

As screen gods Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth enter politics, it’s a good time to rewatch Iruvar. It released 20 years ago, so it shouldn’t offend anyone, and we will remember why we need more such films. 

Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic.

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