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Make way, Dhoni; Captain Gopinath has landed

Latha Srinivasan | Updated on November 26, 2020 Published on November 26, 2020

On arrival: One of the most anticipated releases this year in the Tamil film industry, Soorarai Pottru is based on Air Deccan founder Captain Gopinath’s autobiography, Simply Fly

The new heroes in town are businesspeople, at least in a new crop of biopics emerging from the Indian film industry

* Touted as a biopic, Soorarai Pottru opened to rave reviews on Amazon Prime Video on November 12. Accolades are still pouring in for director Sudha Kongara and Suriya. And among those applauding is Captain Gopinath himself

* Indian film-makers had largely stayed away from the lives of businesspeople, despite the fact that in Hollywood some of the most talked about films are biopics of successful entrepreneurs and businessmen

* Indian business tycoons typically maintain a low profile. A film-maker would rather zero in on a subject such as a cricketer with a fan following to gather eyeballs

* The success of Scam 1992, though, has shown how the stock market and shares — a subject not that familiar to many — can be made relatable to the viewer

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Take a dreamer-entrepreneur and a hugely popular star. Put them together, and what do you get? A soaring hit called Soorarai Pottru (Praise the brave).

One of the most anticipated releases this year in the Tamil film industry, Soorarai Pottru stars Suriya and is based on Air Deccan founder Captain Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar Gopinath’s autobiography, Simply Fly. Touted as a biopic, it opened to rave reviews on Amazon Prime Video on November 12. Accolades are still pouring in for director Sudha Kongara and Suriya. And among those applauding is Gopinath himself.

“Couldn’t help laughing and crying on many family scenes that brought memories,” he recently tweeted.

Biopics — biographical pictures — have hit Indian theatres at a regular pace in recent years, and to varying degrees of appreciation. A movie such as Soorarai Pottru, however, is part of a newly emerging sub-sect in this genre — namely, biopics about business tycoons.

Many of the other biopics have largely centred on sport stars. Among them are the 2013 Bollywood film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (on the Olympian Milkha Singh), MS Dhoni (the cricketer) and Mary Kom (the boxer). Paan Singh Tomar was about an athlete who was an outlaw and Dangal followed the fortunes of a wrestling family. There have been films on historical figures, too (Tanhaji and Manikarnika), as also political figures — Balasaheb Thackeray, Narendra Modi, MG Ramachandran, among a host of others.

But Indian film-makers had largely stayed away from the lives of businesspeople, despite the fact that in Hollywood some of the most talked about films are biopics of successful entrepreneurs and businessmen. Steve Jobs is on the founder of the tech giant Apple, The Pursuit of Happyness is based on Wall Street legend Chris Gardner, The Social Network on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and The Aviator on Howard Hughes, a business magnate who was also a pilot, engineer and film director among other things.

In India, on the other hand, we’ve had only a handful of biopics on businesspeople. The 2007 Hindi film Guru, directed by Mani Ratnam, was loosely based on the founder of the multibillion-dollar Reliance Industries, Dhirubhai Ambani; and R Balki’s 2018 film Padman was on the social activist-entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham. Hansal Mehta’s 2020 web series Scam 1992 (on Sony LIV) is based on the late disgraced stockbroker Harshad Mehta. And now you have Soorarai Pottru.

Hat tip: R Balki’s 2018 film Padman was on social activist-entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham (right)   -  KAMAL NARANG

Which begs the question: Why do Indian film-makers shy away from making biopics on business entrepreneurs, even though we have no shortage of rags-to-riches stories?

“(I am) not sure why more biopics are not done on successful businessmen,” says Shibashish Sarkar, Group CEO, Reliance Entertainment, the producers of Guru and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. “There are a lot of industrialists who have had a fascinating journey as a part of their growth or fall... and I am sure those will be interesting to bring up in front of an audience.”

Film directors, however, stress that while there are many stories that lend themselves for filming, such projects come with their fair share of obstacles.

For one, of course, Indian business tycoons typically maintain a low profile. A film-maker would rather zero in on a subject such as a cricketer with a fan following to gather eyeballs.

“A sports star’s life, most of the time, is public knowledge. Audiences are already aware of their successes or failures, of the nitty-gritty of a sports star’s life ... relatively more than that of a businessman probably,” Sarkar says.

“Then, you need the consent of the person whom you are making the movie on. They (the subjects) often dictate as to what can be shown on screen, especially when it comes to personal relationships, opponents and negative aspects of the person’s life,” a film-maker says on the condition of anonymity.

“In India, biopics really cannot show the actual life story of the person — it can only be an inspired dramatisation.”

There can be legal issues, as well. “Sometimes, even before you start the film, you can end up with litigation problems which will drag on for years, and eventually the film won’t get made,” the film-maker points out.

These issues can, and do crop up in the case of any biopic, but the stakes are seemingly higher when the subject is a businessperson. “No business leader, I’m sure, in any country can have a very idealistic journey — it’s impossible,” says Kannada film-maker Pawan Kumar. “The system around you doesn’t allow you to do that — every businessperson has their ups and downs and have had to do things to take a step forward, and you can’t talk about those in public.”

That would mean filtering out aspects of the subject’s life. “We have to be politically right in the public domain. Given the way things work in the government and so on, I’m sure there are many things that businessmen can’t own up to,” he says.

And, unlike in a sports biopic, where audiences lap up the story of victory in a game, it is not always easy for a layperson to understand the nuances of a business triumph.

“The issues and journey which an industrialist needs to go through in his/her career... probably need to be penned down very carefully to make it relatable for a normal audience, (who)... may or may not be able to relate to the challenges, ups and downs that an industrialist probably goes through,” Sarkar adds.

The success of Scam 1992, though, has shown how the stock market and shares — a subject not that familiar to many — can be made relatable to the viewer. The screenplay of the drama was played out like a thriller, centred on a jouralistic mission to expose the rot in the financial system.

“(But) biopics related to businessmen usually involve financial details of companies, stocks, shares and few people understand the knowhow of these subjects,” Pawan Kumar says. “If the writer can effectively find such parallels — which were seen in Scam 1992 — then the audience will find it easily relatable. It’s difficult to make people understand these aspects when you write a screenplay or dialogue, and few films have achieved that like Wolf of Wall Street has,” he says.

A sports biopic, on the other hand, also works well because there is victory and competition in the script. “A good biopic of a businessman should give you the same adrenaline rush that a sports film can give you,” Kumar contends.

Perhaps the story of Infosys co-founder N Narayana Murthy and his wife, Sudha Murty can draw the interest of the common viewer for most middle class Indians are aware of the tech company’s modest start and meteoric rise. Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, of Nil Battey Sannata (2016) and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) fame, is currently working on a biopic on the duo, tentatively titled Murthy.

“We are still writing it. We want to focus on getting it correct at the writing level. A biopic cannot be just written like a biopic [a biography]; there has to be a good graph; there has to be a character sketch... It is challenging,” she had told the media in April.

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Screen shot: The 2007 Hindi film Guru, directed by Mani Ratnam, was loosely based on the life of businessman Dhirubhai Ambani   -  BL

 

How successful are biopics on tycoons? Guru was a hit — it was made on a budget of ₹22 crore and ended up with almost ₹85 crore. There are no figures for OTT viewership, but Soorarai Pottru is being touted as the first certified hit among the 100-odd direct-to-digital projects released during the lockdown. Media reports said the budget of the film, produced by Suriya’s production house 2D Entertainment in association with Guneet Monga’s Sikhya Entertainment, was ₹15 crore, excluding the actor’s fee.

At this point, there are many other biopics on the floors — including 83, starring Ranveer Singh and based on the life of cricketer Kapil Dev; Sardar Udham Singh, on the freedom fighter; Bhuj, starring Ajay Devgn, about IAF squadron leader Vijay Karnik; and Thalaivi, based on the life of former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, starring Kangana Ranaut.

As for Murthy, the cast is yet to be finalised. According to reports, the real-life Murthys just had one request: No kissing scenes, please.

Captain Gopinath, meanwhile, has no complaints. The man who made the middle-class Indian’s dream of flying a reality, stresses that Soorarai Pottru was “heavily fictionalised” but captured the true essence of the story of his book. It was, he tweeted, a “real roller coaster” — quite like the lives of tycoons.

Latha Srinivasan is a journalist based in Chennai

Amma’s screen time

 

Reel up: A biopic of Jayalalithaa — titled The Iron Lady, with Nithya Menen as lead — is likely to go on floors in 2021   -  K MURALI KUMAR

 

She started her career in the Tamil film world in 1961 and went on to become a top star. J Jayalalithaa also emerged as one of the most dynamic women political leaders of India and served as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu a record six times.

Numerous biopics have been planned since her death on December 6, 2016, but the one hitting the headlines now is Kangana Ranaut’s Thalaivi, being directed by AL Vijay. There is curiosity about the film, leaving everyone guessing as to which aspects of her life will be portrayed on screen. And, more important, will Ranaut be able to pull off the role convincingly? Recent pictures of Ranaut as Jayalalithaa led to some heated discussions on social media on whether the actor, despite donning a cloak of the kind the chief minister was known to wear, looked at all like the politician.

Sources state that the film will take a viewer through five decades of Amma’s life, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s, when she first became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Though Jayalalithaa was a political stalwart and her journey from films to becoming the chief minister is most fascinating, she also found herself in the midst of many controversies and had corruption charges levelled against her. But portraying these aspects of her life may lead to an outcry not just from her party workers but also her legion of fans.

When director Mani Ratnam made Iruvar (1997), which was widely believed to be based on the lives of former chief ministers MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi, a controversy erupted over the plot-line, and political parties tried to prevent theatres from screening the film. Director Gautham Menon’s Queen (MX Player) has been facing trouble, too. The web series, said to be based loosely on Jayalalithaa’s life (though denied by Menon), was dragged to court when Jayalalithaa’s niece Deepa Jayakumar filed a case in November 2019 to prevent its release, stating that the family’s privacy had been violated.

A biopic of Jayalalithaa — titled The Iron Lady, to be directed by A Priyadharshini and with Nithya Menen as Jayalalithaa — is likely to go on floors in 2021. The director has undertaken extensive research into the former chief minister’s life to keep it as authentic as possible, a source says.

A film on Jayalalithaa will certainly be a compelling watch. Viewers will just have to wait and watch.

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Published on November 26, 2020
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