Biopics on politicians fail at box-office: What does the audience want?

Despite the poor performances of these biopics, filmmakers are still hopeful that their audience will be receptive.
Biopics on politicians fail at box-office: What does the audience want?
Biopics on politicians fail at box-office: What does the audience want?

Helming a biopic of a political figure or a political film based on true events is no mean task. Unlike films based on real life sports, cinema, theatre and music idols, these projects pose a unique challenge, given much of the politician's life remains in the public domain. The scope for a surprise/unexplored element, as a result, is very less.

And more often than not, recent films based on political figures have turned out to be excuses to whitewash their image and speak little of their follies. The reason and the timing behind these films too have been very questionable, coming as they do ahead of the legislative assembly and Lok Sabha elections. And we've had films aplenty in 2019 as proof.

Be it The Accidental Prime Minister (based on Sanjay Baru's book by the name), NTR: Mahanayakudu (based on NT Rama Rao), Thackeray (based on Bal Thackeray's life) or Yatra (based on former AP chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy), they have come with a certain agenda in place or have had filmmakers who clearly don't have a case for objectivity. Unsurprisingly, the audiences too, with their responses to these films, have shown that they aren't here to accept sanitised versions of the much known politicians.

So, what explains the indifferent box-office results to these films? Filmmaker and critic Mahesh Kathi, says, “If the film is not engaging, no matter how tall a leader might be, you can't make the people sit in the theatres. The NTR biopic was about the greatest leader that the Telugu land has ever seen but it failed to impress people because the content itself was not convincing. From the intentions behind the film to its marketing, everything about it went wrong. Thackeray was a leader who justified extremism and portraying it in cinema needs a lot of conviction, that the filmmaker never had. There's enough information available on YouTube about every politician. So if you still want to portray him/her with a diffused sense of ideology and fool a spectator, a film is bound to not work.”

Of all the above mentioned films, it was Mahi V Raghav's Yatra that received critical praise for its filmmaking apart from a commanding performance by its lead actor Mammooty. Mahi was largely helped by the choice of making an event-based film and not the entire life of a politician.

Yatra spoke of YSR's career-defining journey as a politician and there were definitely a lot of people who benefited out of his populist schemes that he'd announced after the padayatra. Mahi took a balanced approach as a director and most importantly, the party (YSCRP) didn't use it as a promotional tool. Even though it wasn't a great success, it wasn't a failure either,” says writer, director Venkat Siddareddy.

However, the dull box-office responses haven't deterred filmmakers from making more projects based on the lives of popular politicians. While producers Raj Kandukuri and Madhura Sreedhar Reddy are to collaborate for a much-delayed biopic on Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao, another biopic on KCR titled Telangana Devudu starring veteran actor Srikanth in the lead role is up for release soon.

There are two biopics based on actor-politician Jayalalithaa alone, Thalaivi (directed by AL Vijay) and The Iron Lady (directed by A Priyadharshini, starring Nithya Menen in the lead). Director Barathiraja has also said he will be making a film on Jayalalithaa but there have been no updates since then. Besides Lakshmi's NTR (NTR's life through the eyes of Lakshmi Parvathi) by Ramgopal Verma, biopics on Modi and Rahul Gandhi have been announced too.

The situation is not quite tilted in favour of these films, yet we can't ignore the fact every Friday could spring a surprise. Director of The Iron Lady, A Priyadharshini feels the dull responses to these films could prove to be a learning curve for her.

“I see these as opportunities to learn from. To write a biopic is a very difficult process, it is very important that the casting, journey of the characters, the perspectives of the biopic come through. Filmmakers need to remind themselves to not take audiences lightly in terms of intelligence,” she adds.

Ask her if the political films were undone by the over-glorification of the politician, Priyadharshini begs to differ.

“These are people who stood tall among our 10 crore population and those who had a special quality in them. It's natural that these aspects need to be highlighted. Perhaps, Mani Ratnam's Iruvar is a beautiful example of great drama marrying terrific cinematic standards. The advantage Mani Ratnam sir probably had was the creative freedom because it was not announced as a biopic. When it's officially becoming a biopic, the challenges are bigger,” she points out.

Harish Vadityal, the director of Telangana Devudu says, “You still merely say that people are not interested in political biopics. Filmmakers went on to make a few films based on a politician's journey and they didn't work at the box-office. You can't be sure that the impact will show in the future biopics too. Each film stands on its own merit.”

Among all the upcoming releases, if at all there's an outside advantage to a film, it must be for the Jayalalithaa biopic(s), Venkat Siddareddy feels.

“There's so much enigma to her character. Despite fame, she had managed to keep her personal life a secret. Like Mahanati, people will certainly be interested to know about aspects that completed her life. Unlike NTR whose dramatic moments in his political career only comprised the Nadendla Bhaskar Rao episode and the year preceding his death, every phase of Jayalalithaa's life had some controversy to it, be it her equation with Sasikala, MGR, Karunanidhi or the cases against her.”

As we speak, filmmakers are also expressing interest to make a biopic on Puchalapalli Sundarayya, one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India. Story writers are reportedly excited to explore the arc of a man who didn't have children because of his interest to dedicate his life for the people and the party. Belonging to a rich family, Sundarayya was believed to have left his property for public service.

The road ahead doesn't seem a certain one for filmmakers behind these projects, however, the hopes of a box-office success run high. Fortune should hopefully favour the brave, indeed!

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