Indian Cinema, rather mainstream Indian Cinema, represented by commercial cinema in regional languages sold to us as various “woods” by popular media was rather averse to biopics until mid 2000s or so. Biopics were by and large, customary Doordarshan screenings on national holidays to us with Attenborough’s Gandhi being the one etched in the collective memory of the country, for eternity. One wouldn’t blame the average Indian producer for staying away from the genre while Hollywood managed to churn out biopics that found critical acclaim and won the box office too. In India biopics were considered the reserve of art house filmmakers whose subjects were historical and political figures on most occasions. Shekhar Kapur is an exception here and he graduated from movies like Masoom and Mr. India to the rather unconventional Indian biopic for mid 90s, Bandit Queen. He then went international with Elizabeth. That didn’t change much in Bollywood but. It was still few years later when Ajay Devgan and Bobby Deol clashed with their versions of the life of Bhagat Singh. Then Aamir tested the waters with Mangal Pandey. And then there was the eponymous movie on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose by Shyam Benegal, who wouldn’t identify as a Bollywood filmmaker by any stretch of imagination too. Apart from the fact that all these movies tried to monetise patriotic fervour at the box office, another common factor was A.R Rahman’s music, with the exception of Deol’s Bhagat Singh movie. Rahman has this uncanny ability to stir up emotions of the patriotic kind with his music like no other singer- composer out there. Back then in the late 90s his version of Vande Mataram was quite the rage and looking back at it now, I’m not surprised that he was part of these films in a major way too. Coming back to biopics, it was in the second decade of new millennium that Bollywood actually realised that the audience were primed for biopics and it looked as if every major actor out there was looking to bag one in their kitties.The hyper nationalism that swept the country helped too. The general perception was that playing these roles all it took to be recognised as a true citizen. Having said that, Indian biopics are the most absurd if you ask me. A movie on the life and career of the most popular Indian cricketer of the past decade actually had one of those regular Bollywood romantic songs. But in a country where posters get milk showers, the actual absurdity is in questioning the content here. This is around the time when Bollywood realised the potential of biographical sports dramas too. Every major league actor was looking for real life events that could set the cash registers ringing with some political mileage thrown in. Except for Dangal maybe, none of these films actually managed to make a mark apart from the initial buzz which they created, riding on the biographical element in the film which naturally evoked interest in the general audience. Most were poorly executed and at best was hardly anything more than what we generally associate with best intentions in Bollywood, farce.
Down south, serious filmmakers like Mani Ratnam had a safer, more pragmatic approach which allowed them to dabble in every excess of commercial cinema while telling a tale from real life that deserved to be told. It was a
win-win approach for all. And they never told you that it’s a true story, it was the media who did that. This is why movies like Guru or Iruvar had all the songs it had and you were okay with that too, as a viewer. When he first tried this in Iruvar, it was the only way Mani Ratnam could touch upon the lives of two individuals who found unparalleled success in cinema and politics in the highly volatile political atmosphere of Tamil Nadu and, live to tell other tales. He did this with Guru again, years later. Sudha Kongara, whose Soorarai Pottru garnered much attention in an year of very few releases even on streaming platforms, interestingly was an associate director in Guru. Soorarai Pottru left me disoriented to an extent and is the reason why I’m writing this in fact. It is indeed an engaging film but the sheer amount of drama, rather melodrama infused into the script for the sake of commercial appeal for a film that was marketed as a biopic let the puritan in me down I guess. To be fair to the makers, never in their wildest dreams would they have thought that this film would have an OTT release and ultimately the business of filmmaking is about profits which justifies the cinematic liberties the director has indulged in, to an extent. Yes, maybe it would have turned out a documentary if she had translated the book on which the film is based onto the screen down to the dot. If it wasn’t for the biopic tag, everything about this film is run of the mill Tamil Cinema, not too different from an Annamalai if you ask me. As in all Indian biopics what we have here too is a hero who cannot do wrong. He is present everywhere, from the tarmac to the ATC tower to the cockpit. He indulges in melodrama reminiscent of a Sivaji Ganesan at his histronic best and heroics that you normally associate with Rajnikanth. Surya, as an actor has always delivered what the director and the character demands of him and here too, he obliges. But for more than a decade now, he has been trying to compete at the box office with his contemporaries rather unsuccessfully to speak the truth, the casualty of which happened to be the quality of content which we as an audience expected from his films early on. This film too has been heavily influenced by that approach by the Surya camp, I guess. Compare this to a film like The Founder, where Michael Keaton plays the eponymous founder of the McDonald’s empire. The politics of the film starts right with the title and it doesnt take sides or project the protagonist as a hero who beats all odds, rather they present him as a man with all the failings of an asipiring businessman. There are no attempts to infuse drama into the narrative by the makers for the sake of it but the film still makes a gripping watch. But in Soorarai Pottru, even the social circumstances of the character have been changed to appeal to an electorate rather than an audience, one cant but help feel. What drives a filmmaker to arrive upon such choices when they are telling a tale ? Is it their perception of us the audience or are we truly not ready for the kind of content that The Founder or The Pursuit of Happyness present? Closer to home, Swades is the only film that compares in theme and feel to Soorarai Pottru though it was not a biopic but was indeed an odd film for Bollywood and the leading man at the time of it’s release. For a film that’s all about defying odds and breaking norms in terms of the story it says, Soorarai Pottru at the end of the day plays by the perceived rules of the marketplace and conforms to the age old norms of a “star” driven industry ulitmately and that’s when it leaves a bad aftertaste and that exactly is my only beef with the film, I realise now.