There’s been a lot of news surrounding the recent Nobel Peace Prize. Primarily that this year’s winner, Chinese writer and ‘dissident’ Liu Xiabo was not present at the ceremony. His current sentence of eleven years for subversion under Chinese law has prevented him from having his views aired; though we’re lucky enough in the rest of the world to have access to his work if we choose. Also in the news, and along a similar theme, Aung San Suu Kyi was recently released from house arrest. The media presented us with images of her being united with her son after a long period of separation. We can only imagine what was going through her mind. Though she wasn’t fully able to throw herself back into politics, the media coverage that surrounded her release was enough to generate a lot of global awareness for her cause. It’s no wonder then that a film would be one way to commemorate her momentous struggle. Actress Michele Yeoh is said to be taking on the role of Suu Kyi in a new bio-pic. Though this project is still in discussion, it’s an opportunity to see a long-awaited story about an extraordinary life.
On the subject of bio-pics, I begin to think about what offerings we’ve seen about notable characters from Indian history. There’s Richard Attenborough’s seminal Gandhi, played by the inimitable Ben Kingsley, down as one of the best offerings. The film is epic in its scale, linear in format – it presents us with more than just the story of Gandhi – but the story of modern Indian history. It’s ingrained itself in popular culture whenever audiences are asked to name the very best bio-pics.
Yet, with growth and development of modern cinema, we’ve come a long way in CGI technology, narrative depiction and make–up for films such as Gandhi to continue competing in the bio-pic genre. Our expectations of what makes a good bio-pic, have rapidly changed. Biographers and filmmakers are exploring wilder, crazier lives in interesting formats – adding an abstract element to what we see on screen. Certain examples include Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Based on the life and work of mathematician John Forbes Nash, it leaps in and out of suspected dream sequences – hinting at Nash’s neurosis and paranoia. Wouldn’t such techniques be great to tell the lives of equally troubled characters in Indian history? I can certainly think of a few interesting examples, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Meena Kumari perhaps?
There are many notable figures that could be depicted, and of course, it’s best to distinguish them in different camps. If it’s lives full of drama, then we can take Shekhar Kapur’s depiction of Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen as a great look at the extraordinary life of lesser known individuals. I recently discovered the story of Noor Inayat Khan and was mesmerised by it. She represented a solitary figure in twentieth century history who helped support a large militaristic cause, whilst dealing with her own cultural identity.
Another big group are of course politicians. Krishna Shah’s Indira Gandhi project has recently attracted a lot of press attention. Namely in terms of casting, and whether or not Madhuri Dixit will be considered for the role. There are of course a lot of contentious issues involved in playing a politician – but it’s a great opportunity to showcase the breadth of a good actor’s talents. When an actor with a strong sense of their own identity is able to embrace a predominant character in political history then it can make for excellent cinema. A prime example is Madonna as Eva Peron – they are to some extent – the same person.
What also made Evita an excellent film, however was its technical execution. Though Alan Parker’s film, like most of Bollywood, was a musical, it was seamless in quality – a trait only occasionally seen in Indian bio-pics. Take the films inspired by Shaheed Uddham Singh as bad examples. The Raj Babbar version contained more anachronisms than an episode of The Flintstones. It goes to show that research and accuracy comes first – once you’ve laid down the foundations with these – you can then begin to develop on any artistic interpretation of the character’s internal make-up.
If I were able to make my own features – I’d definitely consider the following examples, from political history: Benazir Bhutto, Sonia Gandhi (Shaheed Uddham Singh – done properly). From greater history: Maharajah Dulip Singh, Gautama Buddha, Bulleh Shah. From entertainment: Ismail Merchant, Asha Bhosle, Gurdass Maan. One could go on and on with their own preferred list. The fun truly begins at the casting stage - Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf exemplifies what can be achieved with the right ingredients and vision.
Ultimately, a bio-pic is a portrait of a personality. It’s an interpretation of loves, losses, joys and sorrows. It’s an ultimate homage, in most cases, to an extraordinary life. Not all of these people will win Nobel Peace Prizes, but they’ve made significant imprints on our minds and how we remember the world. It’s only fitting that filmmakers would chose to honour their own heroes. So, though only a moving image for two hours, a film does still have the power to become the prize of one’s life.