The Kangana Ranaut starrer Thalaivi is the latest in the male-centric film industry’s fascination with making films based on the lives of female actresses, and calling them ‘fiction’.

Is there unseen synergy between biopics and actresses? Not just in India, it seems the world is interested in going behind the screen to find the woman, the secrets of her life, and the journey to stardom. Ironically, the male-centric industry here and around the world is more fascinated by the image it creates of the heroine, and makes more films about actresses than actors. This is an empirical observation, not the result of research of all the cinemas of the world. At least, it is true in India.

Thalaivi

In a culture where hagiography is the norm — except for Khushwant Singh, who relished writing frankly about the great departed — it is blasphemous to speak ill of the dead. That is why there are so few biopics at all, and when it is on men, it is about great leaders and, of late, real-life heroes and sportspeople (and a few women, like Mary Kom and Neerja, the air hostess who risked her life to save passengers of a hijacked plane).

It is as if our film industry, in all languages, is chary of making films about their heroes. They are, anyway, larger than life. The actresses offer scope for probing behind the scenes, excavating lives and the social forces that impelled this uncertain journey, their vulnerability to exploitation, and the price they often pay for being women who broke norms — both written and implied. There is a whiff of voyeurism in telling these stories, even when they valorise the woman. There is also the tendency to brush some harsh truths under the carpet. And most importantly, there is the inevitable caveat that comes before the titles roll. This film does not refer to an actual person or persons/sometimes acknowledge a source, like Hansa Wadkar’s memoir Sangte Aika in the case of Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika.

Film-makers or producers most often opt for the safety of fictionalised truth. It was the case with Bhumika, arguably the best biopic made on an actress and the next best, Mahanati (Telugu, on the life of Savitri, the iconic Southern star). The Dirty Picture and the earlier Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (Malayalam) throw hints all over the narrative of the real person, and yet claim it is fiction. A fig leaf that doesn’t cover the essentials or leave much to the imagination. Multi-lingual Shakeela doesn’t hide behind such disclaimers. The adult film actress was very much involved in the making of the film by Indrajit Lankesh (better known as Gauri Lankesh’s brother). The most recent of this genre is the stereotypical Thalaivi (Tamil) playing on Netflix currently. Starring Kangana Ranaut and directed by A.L.Vijay, the film is termed as fiction.

Bhumika

We can absolve Shyam Benegal and Nag Ashwath (director of Mahanati) of voyeurism (even the unconscious kind). Both films have more in common than you expected. Bhumika is, of course, one of Benegal’s best, and Smita Patil created an iconic woman of an actor searching for her role in life. Nag Aswath, in his second film, diligently traces the life of an actress who ruled Telugu and Tamil cinema, was paid on par with Shivaji Ganesan, A.Nageshwar Rao, and NTR — a first for Indian cinema. Also noteworthy was the way the film captured the celluloid style of that period.

You can’t accuse Thalaivi of such broader ambitions; it is content to jump from Jayalalithaa’s film career and deep emotional bond with MGR to her first stint as chief minister. It is neither fish nor fowl, neither satisfying as a film on a female star nor an ace politician who ruled with an iron fist. The Dirty Picture and Lekhayude Maranam (1983) show the glamour industry’s sleazy side, how a woman has to learn survival skills, and yet pay the emotional price for her choices.

Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback(Malayalam)

Serendipity led Benegal to make the first disguised biopic based on the rebellious Maharashtrian actress Hansa Wadkar to complete his trilogy of films with Smita Patil. Bhumika (1977) is a complex narrative, where the shooting of Urvashi (Smita Patil) performing a lavani for a Marathi film is a significant punctuation point for the next episode of her turbulent life. An actress in search of her role in life is a metaphor, and uncannily anticipates Patil’s own search for love in a series of relationships. It is a role of a lifetime and delves into the complexities of her relationships — with her mother to begin with, and then Keshav Damle (a chillingly malevolent Amol Palekar), the Svengali who creates the actress out of child Usha.

Critics who have read Wadkar’s memoir accuse Benegal of leaving out the horror of Usha being raped in the police station (where she had gone to register a complaint against her husband) with her husband waiting outside. Perhaps Benegal thought he had adequately portrayed Keshav Damle’s cold, calculating cruelty.

Benegal’s subtle use of mirrors in his mise en scene and the absence of a background score make Bhumika unique and a trendsetter for those searching for role models for film–within–film scenes, evoking mood through tonal and colour variations. It is a high watermark in Patil’s career, fetching a national award. She was all of 22 when she plunged heart and soul into this challenging role.

 

Mahanati

That is why it was so encouraging to see Nag Ashwath (he also wrote the screenplay, dialogues by another writer) make a densely packed Mahanati (2018) without dragging down the narrative pace. In Keerthy Suresh, he found an actor with an uncanny resemblance to Savitri (especially the ability to emote with her eyes) and enviable ease before the camera. Critics found a similarity with Citizen Kane in the device of a journalist reconstructing the tycoon’s life and loves. You can’t find better inspiration than a classic, even though the Rosebud replacement with a mysterious Shankarayya doesn’t work. To give the director his due, the investigating journalist’s life is changed by the story she takes up desultorily as a change from interviewing papad-making women. In cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez, the director found a kindred spirit who recreated the tonality of old films for the narrative by using evocative lighting. It was a virtual parade of legendary directors, producers, and actors of Telugu-Tamil cinema and iconic studios. The film needs to be seen for its film history lessons. Nag Aswath is accused of putting Savitri on a pedestal — even when she is drunk, angry, and short-tempered with her children — and portraying Ganeshan as a feckless, unfaithful husband, jealous of her success post-marriage and his failure. That seems to go with the territory — the real-life Ganesh was called Kaadhal Mannan (king of love), and he lived up to the title. I urge non-South Indian audiences to watch Mahanati, which won Keerthy Suresh the national award for best actress and a couple of other awards.

But the director of Thalaivi seems to think that unless he imports a Bollywood fair-skinned star, his film will not have that elusive all-India appeal. If you want to see Kangana Ranaut watching herself enact Jaya to reach the kind of narcissism not seen before, Thalaivi is your chosen poison. It follows the tradition of North Indian women playing lip-synching heroines in Tamil (Telugu and Kannada films, Malayalam being the honourable exception) movies. As an aside, Bollywood’s cultural appropriation with dollops of patronising is even more blatant in Meenakshi Sundareshwar, a post-marriage rom-com currently also on Netflix where the Madurai-based couple speak Hindi with a smattering of Tamil to leaven the dough that refuses to rise, making the film an indigestible, offensive lump.

Thalaivi

With Thalaivi, the problem with A.L. Vijay’s vision is that what he wants to emphasise more is not clear. Is it the retro look of Jaya prancing and pouting in a Mumtazesque fashion, or the leader lurking under the bouffant hair and glossy make-up surfacing over a few hurried scenes — the midday meal scheme for schools gone wrong? The adoration of MGR (yes, substituting a phonetically similar alphabet does the trick, as do the acronyms of Dravidian parties) is shrouded in evasions. Arvind Swamy is all dignified restraint in person contrary to the swashbuckling star image people worship. Is Jaya’s adoration purely platonic, or just screen romancing is enough? I guess the sanitisation of this relationship has gone on for so long that no one dare question it. In the film, a zealous guardian of MGR’s reputation is implacably hostile to his master’s soft spot for Jaya and showing it in public. He humiliates Jaya when she clambers aboard the funeral procession.

When Jaya, the politically adroit opportunist, seizes the moment and resurrects the party, he becomes her ardent supporter. The problem with the film is its uneven pace, undecided on which points to highlight with judicious dramatic flair, and not gloss over as something everyone knows. Jayalalithaa is a complex character hidden under the sphinx-like demeanour and beyond the grasp of the writing, direction, and Ranaut’s histrionic capacity. She wears a determined look like a mask. The transition from a glamour puss who doesn’t like politics to a ruthless autocrat is just told, not shown — a cardinal sin in cinema.

The Dirty Picture

So much has already been written about The Dirty Picture that there is hardly anything new to add. Vidya Balan’s Tambram looks and lilting mezzo voice did not come in the way of accepting — and admiring her guts and gusto — like the dusky, husky-voiced siren Silk Smitha, the poster girl of male fantasies. Balan is on record that Milan Luthria strictly told her not to see any Silk Smitha films, or read up on her. This was to be Reshma, the screen seductress confident of her sexuality, and using it to get ahead in an industry where double standards are the norm. The fact that she commits suicide dressed like a suhagan — her innate longing for social acceptance — is a tragic betrayal of Silk Smitha’s guts in taking on the maledominated industry that exploited and then discarded her.

Another notable film of this genre from the past is Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983), K.G. George’s oblique retelling of the talented yet tormented actress Shobha’s rise to fame, winning the National Award for Best Actress for Pasi, and her troubled relationship with the married director Balu Mahendra ending in suicide. George fictionalised reality, but maintained the Malayali roots of his heroine Shanthamma/rechristened Lekha in this unsugarcoated narrative of the Tamil industry’s rapacious treatment of vulnerable young women. It caused an uproar in Madras for vilifying the Tamil film industry, but it was successful on the festival circuit.

Shakeela

Indrajit Lankesh’s Shakeela (2020) made more news for the adult film star’s life on which it is based and her active co-operation in making it than for the merits of the final film that has hardly been seen. Going purely by trailers and interviews, Richa Chadha and Pankaj Tripathi are wasted in this gaudily dressed up version of a soft porn star’s swagger. Shakeela plans to release the film on her own OTT platform.

Biopics are crying out to be made on Suraiya, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan, to mention the most obvious names whose life had more drama than a screenwriter can conceive. Add Rekha to the list, and we have a guaranteed salivating audience. Does any director have the courage to commission a script?