The Wikipedia defines a ‘Biopic’ as ‘a film that dramatizes the life of an actual person or people. They differ from films “based on a true story” or “historical films” in that they attempt to comprehensively tell a person’s life story or at least the most historically important years of their lives.’

To me a biopic is a fascinating journey through the lives of people who have existed in books and tales. Historical figures, actors, politicians, painters and sculptors….a look at the person beneath the public figure. And sometimes, it is the discovery of a person that I did not know existed! Biopics are tricky because the success of the film rests entirely on the shoulders of the lead actor/actress. Moreover, a lot of time and effort and years of  research is essential before the actual making of these films. Some of my all time favourite Hollywood movies are biopics; their fascinating tales (sometimes embellished) rendered even more fascinating by stunning performances by fantastic actors. Raging Bull, Erin Brokovich, Capote, The Last King of Scotland, Ray, The Aviator, Gandhi, Braveheart……I could go on some more!

The Hindi film industry has been a bit wary of biopics and even the best have somehow not set the cash registers ringing. Whether it is ‘Bandit Queen’ or ‘Mangal Pandey’ or ‘Once Upon A Time in Mumbai’ or ‘Rang Rasiya’, the films have gained some critical acclaim and audience appreciation but failed to make it to the super hit category. The notable exception to this is the ‘The Dirty Picture‘ whose unprecendented success will hopefully open doors for more biopics. 

I watched 3 biopics in the past week, namely ‘My Week With Marilyn’, ‘Iron Lady’ and ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ – three completely different films about characters that could not be more different from one another. But all three unique and brilliant in craft and content.

Michelle Williams probably had the toughest job of them all when she was cast as Marilyn Monroe. While America has had more ‘Marilyn Look Alike’ contests than some of us have had breakfast, acting the part in a major motion picture is a different ball game altogether. Marilyn Monroe was part sex symbol, part sweet girl next door, part frightened child, part glamorous diva…..and you get to see all this and more in Michelle William’s flawless performance! The stage fright, the need for reassurance, the craving to be adored and the childlike innocence all come through beautifully on screen. Michelle Williams manages to hold her own with veterans like Dame Judy Dench (whose performance is amazing as usual!) and Kenneth Branagh (who plays Sir Laurence Olivier with aplomb) and that takes a lot of talent. Simon Curtis, the director has done a wonderful job in giving us a glimpse into week in Monroe’s life through the eyes of a young man who becomes hopelessly infatuated with her. 

Meryl Streep……what do I say about her? Arguably the greatest living film actress, she is a dream on celluloid. I watched Kramer vs Kramer when I did not know who Meryl Streep was and hated her character for weeks for making me cry. That is the power she still wields on screen – of making each character more believable than you thought possible. I loved her in each character she essayed – the confused Jane in ‘It’s Complicated’, the irrepressible Donna in ‘Mamma Mia’, the woman who eats young girls for breakfast Miranda Priestly in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and so many more. As Margaret Thatcher, her role takes us on a roller coaster ride through years of steadfast ambition, ruthlessness and loneliness with flashes of tenderness and fear. The exchanges between Dennis (Jim Braodbent in a delightful role) and Margaret are filmed so beautifully that you would be forgiven for thinking you are sitting in their house hearing them speak. And if you pay attention, you will be able to read Streep’s emotions in her eyes even when she has not uttered a word.

Honest confession – I did not know who Paan Singh Tomar was before I saw promos of the film by Tigmanshu Dhulia. I had enjoyed his first film ‘Haasil’; heard great things about ‘Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster’ and was quite confident he would make a good film. And I am delighted to say he did not disappoint. Based on the life of a medal winning runner from the Indian army who becomes a notorious bandit as a result of his circumstances, this film is a triumphant announcement that fantastic cinema can be created without flashy costumes and trendy locales. Real people, real locations and no item numbers……it does not get much better than this! Irrfan Khan is truly splendid as the protagonist in the film, ably supported by Mahie Gill and the rest of the cast. I agree with The New York Times review that praised the film and especially Khan’s performance, saying “Without romanticizing Paan Singh Tomar, he shows his basic honesty and gives him real depth. As an actor Mr. Khan rarely does the expected. You can’t take your eyes off him.” A simple narrative that meanders in and out of flashback sequences (much like Iron Lady), the film is a delight from start to finish. The screenplay and dialogues are fantastic and it would be a crime if they fail to win awards this year. The only thing that jarred was Mahie’s ageless looks through 20 odd years covered in the film. While Irrfan gets a bit of grey at his temples and wrinkles on his face, his wife manages to look as young as she did at first glance even when she has an army going son.

While the first 2 films may not be playing in theatres any longer, Paan Singh Tomar is still going strong! I strongly recommend you buy your tickets NOW!


Copyright © Tara Verma March 2012

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