History vs Bollywood

When will the Hindi film industry give us a sports biopic that shows the truth, warts and all?

Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi

In a pivotal scene in Martin Scorcese’s inexorably searing biopic Raging Bull, Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta beats to pulp an opponent who his wife had fawningly called good-looking.  The scene is difficult to watch. Despite the fact that the scene was shot in a monochromatic black and white, the audience gets to viscerally feel the blood, gore and seething jealousy spilling out on the screen.  The film is so excruciatingly good in depicting the dysfunctional, self-destructive and wildly insecure nature of the protagonist that when the real life Jake La Motta watched it, he cringed and remarked, “When I saw the film I was upset. I kind of look bad in it. Then I realized it was true. That’s the way it was. I was a no-good bastard. I realize it now. It’s not the way I am now, but the way I was then.”

Contrast the relentless realism of Raging Bull with last year’s Dangal. While Dangal does eschew some of the trappings of Bollywood but it stills falls prey to some really obvious tropes and historical distortion. If the film is to be believed then Geeta Phogat’s gold medal winning match at the Commonwealth Games was a nail-biting battle of wills which went down to the wire. The actual score of the match: a 1-0,7-0 victory over Australia’s Emily Bensted. This underhanded manipulation of facts would have been digestible if the film had not introduced the unnecessary contrivance of the Commonwealth Games being a do or die situation for Geeta. In the film it is shown that Geeta had struggled to win any international medals until 2010. In actual reality, she had already won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships held in Jalandhar in 2009. That the film was compelled to portray her final match in the games as a cathartic event is an understandable narrative choice, even if it meant portraying Geeta as far less successful than she actually was prior to the Commonwealth Games.

The need to invent a villain where none existed is perhaps the films biggest failing. Loosely based on PR Sondhi, Girish Kulkarni’s PR Kadam is a disinterested taskmaster who is not really invested in the success of his protégés. This needless vilification is even more jarring considering that PR Sondhi was instrumental in the success that Geeta garnered at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. By setting up a villain who will eventually be vanquished the film subtly tells us that Aamir Khan’s Mahavir is the hero. This is cerebral deification at its best. PR Kadam is portrayed as an inept and incompetent authoritarian who will try any Machiavellian tactic to claim credit for any success that inadvertently comes his way. Geeta is shown to succeed because she ignores her coach’s instructions and follows that of Mahavir. Girish Kulkarni’s character exists solely to establish the tactical nous of Mahavir. Rather than establishing a schism between two important authority figures could the film have shown the two collaborating? That would have been a far difficult creative choice to make because it would have robbed the film of the manipulative tear-jerking ending. As an aside, the scene where Aamir Khan is locked in a store room is highly reminiscent of a similar scene from Chariots of Fire. On some level these cinematic flaws don’t matter. Widely lauded as a milestone in Indian cinematic history, Dangal has gone on to become the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time. It is quite clear that the inventive fiction of the second-half has not come in the way of the film’s success.

When it comes to historical inaccuracies, Dangal is far less culpable than any other sports biopic that preceded it. That culpability must lie squarely on the shoulders of MS Dhoni: the untold story and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni biopic was undermined by its hagiographical overtones and relentless hero-worship. As with any hagiography it conveniently sidestepped any uncomfortable truths and blemishes. There was no mention of the IPL spot-fixing scandal and the muck-raking which followed. To leave out such a controversial chapter from a movie which purports to tell the untold story is ironic to say the least. That the film is a glossy public relations exercise becomes evidently clear when it chooses to skirt another awkward reality of MS Dhoni’s life. Dhoni has an estranged brother, Narendra Singh Dhoni, who lives apart from the family. The movie would have us believe that Dhoni had only one sibling instead of two. Even though a fidelity to the truth was clearly not director Neeraj Pandey’s priority, one wonders why he chose to portray the relationship between Dhoni and his wife as a coincidental romance. In the movie, Dhoni’s wife Sakshi was correctly shown as the Taj Bengal intern who met MS on her last day at the hotel before she moved to Aurangabad. What remained ‘untold’, however, was that Sakshi and Dhoni had known each other much earlier. The two went to the same school and MS Dhoni’s father Paan Singh Dhoni and Sakshi's father worked together in Ranchi. However, the two lost touch when Sakshi moved with her family to Dehradun.

The award for the most egregious subversion of recorded history however has to go to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. To claim that Milkha Singh lost out on an Olympic medal because he looked back for an extra second is laughable. Videos from the time show that Milkha was running in fifth place for most of the race and after a lot of huffing and puffing managed to secure the fourth position. The list of goof-ups of the movie is a long one but the highlight reel includes: When Milkha is released from jail in the 1950s, the year written on the form is 2013. The film shows electronic railway signals when none existed in that era. The climax race (1960s) is at “Qadafi Stadium”, in words of the announcer. The Lahore Stadium wasn’t renamed as Qadafi Stadium until 1974. Perhaps the most amusing blooper has to be Milkha riding a 2012 Royal Enfield in what was purportedly 1962.

There will come a day when Bollywood gives us a biopic which tells the whole truth, warts and all. We, the discerning audience look forward to that day. Until then watching re-runs of Raging Bull and Ron Howard’s Rush will have to suffice.