Manikarnika, Thackeray, and the Troubled History of Bollywood Biopics


Manikarnika, Thackeray, and the Troubled History of Bollywood Biopics

Illustration: Arati Gujar


The New Year isn’t even a month old yet, and the Bollywood machine has already cranked out three biopics. The Accidental Prime Minister, where Anupam Kher plays an emperor penguin masquerading as Manmohan Singh, was the year’s first, and now we can look forward to the release of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, based on Rani Laxmibai, and Thackeray, which will attempt to tell the story of the Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then making a biopic about someone comes a close second. Because Bollywood biopics have, at best, a testy relationship with reality. Fact might be stranger than fiction, but filmmakers can’t seem to resist embellishing the truth.

Both Manikarnika and Thackeray will release tomorrow, and both bring to the fore why Indian biopics so rarely do justice to their subjects. Either by playing fast and loose with historical accuracy, emotional manipulation, or glossing over problematic facets of their stories, biographies morph into hagiographies. Even before Manikarnika and Thackeray hit theatres, their trailers and the accompanying publicity provides clues about what we can expect.

With Thackeray, the trailer depicted Bal Thackeray’s polarising views, including some offensive statements about South Indians, in a benevolent light. This isn’t surprising, given that the film has been written by Sanjay Raut, a Shiv Sena member and current executive editor of the party mouthpiece Saamana – hardly the person you’d expect to pen an unbiased account about their ideological object of worship. The trailer tried to pass off words that could arguably qualify as hate speech, as the impassioned rhetoric of a firebrand leader. A biopic that refuses to engage with the human shortcomings and failings of its subject like Thackeray seems to be doing, will never truly rise above the status of glorified public relations.

Fact might be stranger than fiction, but filmmakers can’t seem to resist embellishing the truth.

Thackeray isn’t even the first Marathi manoos to get the rose-tinted treatment – Sachin Tendulkar’s non-fiction documentary Sachin: A Billion Dreams was similarly hobbled by a narrative that refused to touch the more sombre moments in Tendulkar’s career, and Sanju was also panned for whitewashing Sanjay Dutt’s troubled past.

And then there’s Manikarnika, where Kangana Ranaut seems to have mixed up Rani Laxmibai and Xena the Warrior Princess, judging by its trailer. This “historical account” falls into the same trap the other period films that preceded it do. Historical accuracy is sacrificed at the altar of blockbuster cinema, as filmmakers paint their canvas with broad, generalising strokes to create the most box-office friendly film, but not necessarily the most informative.

We saw it in last year’s Padmaavat, where the cultured Sultan of Delhi was depicted as a rabid warlord to better suit the antagonist’s role. To reach further back, in the SRK-starrer Asoka, the great emperor displayed a weird tendency to break into choreographed song-and-dance routines in between expanding his borders and promoting the spread of Buddhism through the subcontinent. Unfortunately, history is not a novel that can be loosely adapted for the screen like Sacred Games, but an established record of proven facts. Taking Manikarnika as a serious chronicle of the life and times of Rani Laxmibai would be like saying that watching 300 is equal to a Master’s degree in ancient Greek history.

None of these “historical epics” that Bollywood produces are either epic, or historical.

Beyond all this, the one thing that unites most Indian biopics is how the makers shamelessly attempt to emotionally manipulate the audience. Thackeray will two days after the 93rd birth anniversary of its titular character, practically ensuring that it will reel in money hand-over-fist, as thousands of Shiv Sena loyalists head to the theatre to pay tribute to their late leader. Meanwhile, Kangana Ranaut smartly positioned herself on the right (geddit?) side of the political spectrum last year, and will use the fact that she is playing a freedom fighter to extract maximum nationalistic mileage. She’s not only the film’s star and co-director, she’s also the person who seems to be talking about it the most online, having called out her fellow actresses for not supporting her (just like she didn’t support Deepika Padukone when the Rajput Karni Sena wanted to chop off her nose for playing Rani Padmavati), critics (for being critical of her, which is their job, I think?) and even the Karni Sena (the Maharashtra wing, not the nose-job surgeons from Rajasthan).

Out of all three of Kangana’s targets, only the Karni Sena had the poor sense to offer a statement of their own, stating they wish to review the film for historical accuracy themselves, the Central Board for Film Certification be damned. Come on guys, we’ve gone over this last year! None of these “historical epics” that Bollywood produces are either epic, or historical. At this point, it’s fair to say that Bollywood has yet to prove that it’s an industry capable of producing a nuanced, unflinching biopic on a complicated central figure, in the vein of Wolf of Wall Street or Montage of Heck. So until we find proof otherwise, let’s take these films for what they are – masala entertainers. We might find we save ourselves a lot of grief that way.