Biopic’s Baby Steps

In Paan Singh Tomar, the human drama is about Paan Singh, athlete or outlaw, so the narrative seems real and rooted. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the filter of reel and reality is overstretched and ends up adrift, diluting the story; even the real starts to look fictionalized 

Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata 

At a glance, we always love other people’s lives. It’s human nature. And nothing succeeds in piquing our curiosity more than a peek into the lives of the rich and the famous. That is why biographies make good subject matter for a screenplay. They translate newspaper headlines and archival material into a dramatic narrative and give a more layered look at the motivations of real-life heroes. More often than not, it is not the success of these famous protagonists that appeals to the audience, it is their problems, their failures, that drive the voyeur in us to the movie theatres.

A biopic is not necessarily how things happened in real life, but how things have been interpreted about that life. Words like ‘inspired by’ or ‘based on’ give the director the creative licence to reinterpret real life in reel life. So a biopic can take the form of an epic rumination or a more intimate look at its real-life protagonist.

When it is the biography of a sporting hero, it is even more difficult to decode the persona from the myth in popular culture, because the audience already has a preconceived notion of what the hero is like well beyond the sporting arena.

So it’s interesting that there have been not one but two Hindi movies in the last year-and a-half based on the lives of famous athletes, both of whom faced trial and tribulation, joined the army, and participated in the same sporting events. That, is however, where the similarity ends between Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar and Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

Paan Singh Tomar is seen through the lens of an athlete vs circumstances while Bhaag Milkha Bhaag takes the well-trodden path of athlete vs his inner demons. Dhulia, undeniably, has the easier task of bringing an unusual story premise to the audience —an outstanding athlete who became an outlaw. This one-line premise has enough drama in it to cross genres. It could be a thriller, a tragedy, but Dhulia retains it as it should be, a well -nuanced biography.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has at its core Milkha Singh — the ‘Flying Sikh’, who almost got India a bronze medal at the 1960 summer Olympic games in Rome. Mehra takes the bold step of moving away from this story to make it the beginning of his biopic and not the climax of the film.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is about how Milkha’s childhood trauma of the Partition of India in 1947, affects his life, career and his ability to win. A fair enough premise to peg your story on, but, by making India’s Partition the lynchpin of the biopic’s symbolical universe, the narrative starts to veer away from the personal and, instead, begins to reflect the political, the social and the identity uncertainties of communities and nations. It gives the story a context that is bigger than even the real-life legend on whom it
is based.

In Paan Singh Tomar, the human drama is consistently about Paan Singh, athlete or outlaw, so the narrative seems real and rooted. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the filter of reel and reality tries to encompass much more than that and ends up adrift, diluting the main story to the extent that even the real starts to look fictionalized. 

Both movies are far beyond the formulae- ridden mainstream movies that are released Friday after Friday. In a country where cricket is king, it’s heartening to see that both films focus on sporting legends who are not demi-gods of cricket

The success of a good biopic is that it tells the audience something new on the grid of something known and familiar. Paan Singh Tomar does that. It gives us the motivation, the circumstances that can change a destiny, so even when it wavers on the details, the audience remains invested in the story. The ensemble cast supports the story and carries it through to its logical conclusion. Paan Singh Tomar gives us the results of a good biopic. We go back, curiosity whetted, to find out more about the man we just watched for three hours onscreen.

In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the premise is engaging, earns the audience’s empathy because it can relate to it, but because it is overreaching in its ambition, the narrative meanders mid-way, its bloated sub-plots seem irrelevant to Milkha and to the audience. The filmmaker tries to marry mainstream moviemaking sensibilities to a very personal saga and this weighs the movie down.

There are wonderful, heartfelt moments in the movie, but they remain just that, moments, and don’t necessarily add to the plot of the movie. Even the cry of “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag!”, so haunting in the beginning because of what it means to the protagonist, just becomes a staccato slogan of melodrama by the end of the film.

This is a pity, because Farhan Akhtar, who plays Milkha in the movie, lives the role of a lifetime. He is part naive, part charming and wholly believable as Milkha, the brother, the armyman, the lover, the athlete fighting his inner demons. His physical transformation comes across beautifully in a montage halfway through the movie. He brilliantly handles the emotional graph of the character all through the movie, giving the character a gentle vulnerability and honesty.

In Paan Singh Tomar, Irfan Khan, who plays the eponymous role, understands his part in the movie, while Dhulia understands Paan Singh Tomar’s part in the script. The movie is kept fuss-free and frill-free in technique, to allow the story to evolve.  In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the tone is a little more ambitious, more epic in its scale and theme, but eventually fails to deliver for the real-life athlete on whom this film is based.

Both movies are still far beyond the usual formulae-ridden mainstream movies that are released Friday after Friday in movie halls. The biopic as a genre is something new for Indian audiences, and both films handle their subjects with sensitivity and maturity. In a country where cricket is king, it’s heartening to see that both films focus on sporting legends who are not cricket demi-gods. Surely, these are just baby steps of the biopic in Hindi cinema, and here’s hoping that the trend continues in the future.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2013