When I was in school, I remember watching the Telugu film Mayuri (1985). It confused me a little bit. Firstly, as Sudha Chandran plays herself in the film, I had a difficult time in separating facts from fiction. It also wowed me, because here was a woman dancing with one leg.

If you don’t know Sudha and haven’t watched Mayuri, here’s a brief: Sudha is a classical dancer who lost her leg in an accident; however, when she learned about the benefits of the Jaipur leg, she wastes no time in getting one and sprints back to her career. Her story left a lasting impression on my mind.

To this day, I’m in awe of Sudha’s conviction and director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s silent determination to bring her inspiring story to the screen. I have watched numerous biopics since then, and, yet, I invariably crawl back into the body of a six-year-old to see if those stories move me, like Sudha’s did.

Bollywood has many biopics to its credit — just in 2018, Padmaavat, Gold, Soorma, Padman, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, and Raazi hit screens. There’s a common thread of nationalism that runs through the veins of these movies. They tell us that we should be proud to have such people in our midst. South Indian cinema, through the ages, has been no different — think Alluri Seetarama Raju (1974), a Telugu film based on an Indian revolutionary of the same name; the Malayalam-language epic historical drama of Hindu king Pazhassi Raja titled Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja (2009); and the Kannada film Attahasa (2013), about forest brigand Veerappan.

The Whitewash Treatment
While it is wonderful to see the lives of some stars brought alive on screen — which a common man might not be aware of unless presented to him with such visual grandeur — many biopics aren’t overtly critical of the lives of the stars they choose to portray. After all, the subjects of the biopics are the stars of the show. So they are sometimes given a pass for poor choices, and their vices are often blamed on circumstances, or the company they keep.

For example, in Mahanati, the 2018 film which depicted the life of yesteryear film star Savitri (played by Keerthy Suresh), the actress falls prey to alcohol addiction when she learns that her husband (Dulquer Salmaan as Gemini Ganesan) has cheated on her. Until then, she takes her successes and failures with a pinch of salt; not with a swig of whiskey. However, in a scene that appears as a turning point, she’s seen caressing a liquor bottle in the middle of a room that’s going up in flames — here, director Nag Ashwin wants us to feel her pain by allowing us to see her through the window of agony. We see her emotional turbulence as one which kick-started a vice and eventually engulfed her entire life in flames. This story is similar in strain to the one about Silk Smitha, portrayed by Vidya Balan, in the 2011 film The Dirty Picture.

Towards the climax of Mahanati, we’re informed that Savitri was planning to open a de-addiction centre in her hometown. She even goes on to call alcohol addiction a disease in a conversation with her friend. As such, the star of the narrative is shown to have suffered and eventually changed. So in the eyes of the audience, she stood redeemed. However, Smitha, who was eulogised by her lover, still took her own life because of her failures.

In an interview with The Hindu, Nag Aswhin, while talking about the final years of Savitri, stated: “there are several urban legends about her last years. We spoke to several people, including her children. Perspectives and stories change over 40 years. It’s tough to know what exactly happened in her life, between her and Gemini.” Now, take instances from the Bollywood film Sanju — Sanjay Dutt (played by Ranbir Kapoor) becomes a drug addict, and, as his addiction escalates, he can’t differentiate between the real and the imaginary. In a Hindustan Times article, Rajkumar Hirani was quoted as saying, “During the shoot I felt, ‘What am I doing, I’m going wrong.’ In fact, when the first edit was ready and we screened it for people, they hated him. They said we don’t like this man; we don’t want to watch him. Because I wanted to do a true story, I didn’t create any empathy towards him. But later I understood that he is our hero, we need some empathy for him. The scene where he tries to kill himself after the verdict is out; which he had mentioned to me but we didn’t put in the film, I shot it later. It was not in the original script. I thought, through this some empathy will come. The initial test reactions were like, ‘Naah… we don’t like this guy.’ Every film is a journey. Some things work and some don’t.”

If Hirani hadn’t added that scene where Sanju contemplated suicide, we would have looked at the real Sanjay Dutt in a poorer light. Similarly, Savitri’s resolution to open a de-addiction facility — according to Ashwin — shows us that she’s given up drinking for good, and, she’s also large-hearted enough to help people who are suffering like her. As such, the makers of these narratives decide which strands of their life will be in the spotlight in a two-hour film.

Why Make Biopics?
Biopics, whether based on heroes or anteheroes, inspire us to become better people, by learning from their successes and failures. Though many of these movies colour their protagonists in broad white strokes, they teach us a lot about our past. After all, the chances of us stumbling upon the legacy of Rudhramadevi (2015) or Gautamiputra Satakarni (2017), on our own, are rare.
Let me give you another example. Most of us would have studied about the great mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in our school days, but we’d still struggle to discuss his unusual intelligence without making an internet search; so when a film like Ramanujan (2014) gets made, it becomes easier for us to understand his early years along with his body of work.

In the south, unlike Bollywood, the trend of making a dozen biopics every year in each film industry, hasn’t begun yet. Here are some of the South Indian biopics that have made a splash in the twenty first century: Sri Ramadasu (2006) and Mahanati (2018) in Telugu; Bharathi (2000) and Periyar (2007) in Tamil; Deadly Soma (2005), Abhinetri (2015), and Killing Veerappan (2016) in Kannada; Makaramanju (2011), Celluloid (2013), and Ennu Ninte Moideen (2015) in Malayalam.

2019, however, promises a possible rise in the count of biopics as Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy and Yatra (Telugu), The Iron Lady and Seerum Puli (Tamil) are already in the making. The year has also already witnessed the release of the first part in the two-part series based on Telugu film actor and politician NT Rama Rao, titled N.T.R. Kathanayakudu.

I hope the collective thirst for knowing and understanding interesting figures from our past opens a door in South Indian cinema, for there are innumerable extraordinary people on whom films can be made. And, of course, I’ll keep an eye on movies, like Mayuri, to whisk me away.

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